In Walnut Hill, The Paul Robeson House at the corner of 50th & Walnut stands as a living monument to neighborhood revitalization through remembering its history. It’s to rebuilding in Walnut Hill as Mural Arts is to beautifying blank building walls in neighborhoods across the city.
Today, the house stands as monument to the life of Paul Robeson, a political activist in the Civil Rights movement who was also an actor, an athlete, a singer, and an acclaimed scholar. As recently as the early 1990s, Robeson’s home, located at 4951 Walnut St., was an abandoned shell that played home to squatters, according to a Philadelphia Neighborhoods piece. Robeson lived at the home, owned by his sister, during the last ten years of his life until his death in 1976.
In 1994, the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance purchased the property, determined to find its best use. Through a partnership with a group of Penn grad students, the organization conducted market research and found that the neighborhood would benefit from a restoration of Robeson’s home. A few years prior, in 1991, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission declared The Paul Robeson House a historical landmark. In 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated it an Official Project of Save America’s Treasures. The property is also designated a National Historical Site in the National Register and is eligible for National Landmark status. As a result of all of these designations, the renovations of the property have been deliberate and expensive, but much progress has been made.
The house is one of three identical twin homes designed in 1907 by by nationally renowned Philadelphia architect E. Allen Wilson and constructed in 1911. You may recall, just the other day we profiled the twin next door, which is part of that trio of Wilson homes. The restoration of this home, historic both architecturally and because of who once lived there, is a treasure to the community. Not only does the home provide a window into the neighborhood’s past, but it also brings an arts and social center to a neighborhood. Hopefully, the endangered John Coltrane house, also designed by E. Allen Wilson, will likewise continue to play a similar role in its neighborhood for many years to come.