Coltrane house to get historic marker this week
HIGH POINT — Last September, Phyllis Bridges feared what might happen to one of the city’s most significant cultural and historical structures — the house where legendary jazz icon John Coltrane grew up.
Only a year later, the High Point historian is preparing for a celebration. This week, a marker will be publicly unveiled at the Coltrane house, recognizing the 91-year-old residence on Underhill Street as a historic landmark and earmarking the structure for future preservation.
“This is another piece of important history that’s going to be marked, and it’s long overdue,” said Bridges, who spearheaded the campaign to secure the market. “There’s still a lot more we need to do to preserve our African-American history, but this is one marker that should’ve been done a long time ago, so I’m excited that we’re finally getting it done.”
The marker will be unveiled Friday during a public celebration at the house. The house will also be open for tours, and an exhibit about the history of the house will be on display.
Bridges said the house will also be open next weekend when the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival is taking place in High Point.
“It’s perfect timing,” she said. “We want people who are visiting for the festival to be able to have the experience of seeing the house, too. And hopefully even the musicians who are here performing will want to see it while they’re in town.”
Although Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, his family moved to High Point when he was only 3 months old. He grew up here, attending Leonard Street School and William Penn High School. He lived in the compact, two-story house on Underhill Street from 1928, when it was built, until 1943, when he graduated from William Penn. It was during those years that Coltrane developed his love for music and began to blossom as a performer, first playing the clarinet and later the saxophone.
“His entire family was passionate about music, so there was always music in the household,” Coltrane scholar David Tegnell told The Enterprise for a story last year. “…John’s cousin, who also lived in that house and was like a sister to him, said he sat at the kitchen table day and night and practiced all the time.”
The house stands empty now, but it’s hard not to speculate about the layout and decor of the house when Coltrane lived there.
“I would love to know which room he was in, but we just don’t know,” Bridges said as she walked through the house one afternoon this past week. “And I would love to know where the piano was.”
Presumably, Coltrane slept in one of the four small bedrooms upstairs, and the family piano would’ve been in one of two downstairs rooms — the living room or the dining room. Coltrane moved the piano to Philadelphia in 1952, and now it’s owned by the High Point Museum and is on display there.
While the historic marker being unveiled this week will honor Coltrane, it will also pay homage to the man who built the house — Coltrane’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. W.W. Blair, an ex-slave and outspoken activist from Chowan County who was elected a county commissioner there and later became a presiding elder of the AME Zion Church.
“In High Point,” the marker will read, “he led citizen groups that lobbied successfully for additional schools for African-American children. John Coltrane owed his stable upbringing and early musical education to his grandfather’s efforts.”
The Coltrane house was built in the Dutch Colonial style, according to Benjamin Briggs, who wrote a book about architecture in High Point and who serves on a committee working to preserve the house.
“It was a fine home for High Point at that period,” Briggs said. “The neighborhood at that time was full of white-collar and professional African-American citizens, and the housing styles were comparable to neighborhoods such as Johnson Street and to a degree even Parkway (Avenue). It was built in the 1920s, which was a very popular period for Dutch Colonial houses.”
According to Briggs, the house is in good shape structurally, largely because it was so well-built.
“Some of the original architecture features on the inside date back to its construction,” he said. “The original windows are there. A lot of what we call the original fabric of the interior is still there. What we would not want to see is that the house had been gutted, and we did not find that here, so that gives the house a high level of integrity.”
One of the challenges now, he said, is interpreting the interior of the house, or figuring out how to make it look authentic.
“We’re hoping family members will have old photographs with details that might help us understand what it looked like on the inside,” Briggs said. “You can’t help but wonder what rugs were on the floor, what pictures were on the walls, and what curtains were on the windows.”
In the meantime, Bridges and other volunteers have been busy getting the house ready for its public debut on Friday.
“It’s been awesome,” Bridges said. “There’s a lot of excitement in the air about all of this.”
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Want to go?
An event celebrating the unveiling of the historic marker at John Coltrane’s childhood home will be held Friday, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at 118 Underhill St.
The marker will be unveiled at noon.
The event will also include a food truck, live music by SonDown, tours of the house and an exhibit about Coltrane, the history of the house, and the man who built it — the Rev. W.W. Blair, Coltrane’s maternal grandfather.
Admission is free.