The Tanner House in North Philadelphia, a row house that once belonged to Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), who is credited with being one of the first African-American artists to achieve international renown, is threatened with demolition due to its deteriorating condition, despite the fact that the Nationality was granted historic landmark status in 1976. Local black preservationists have launched a multi-pronged fundraising campaign to save the building, citing its historical significance, its relevance to the local community and its importance as a testament to black excellence, cultural dynamism and resilience in the face indicate oppression.
Jackie Wiggins, a retired teacher and local historian, and Deborah Gary, President of the Society to Preserve African American Assets, led attempts to combat the Tanner House’s decay for the past year and founded the Friends of the Henry O. Tanner House (FHOTH) group to raise funds for their rejuvenation. So far, their efforts have raised nearly $30,000 and received support from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the latter of which owns several Tanner works – including one of his most famous paintings. The announcement (1898) – and has pledged to donate to the campaign.
The FHOTH Group is holding on that a full restoration will require interventions of up to $300,000. The group’s project also caught the attention of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), which Tanner attended in 1880 at the age of 21 Philadelphia investigatorsEric Pryor, the institution’s president, commented that “the strength of the Tanner House…is that the Tanner family was exceptional,” and stated that the institution wanted to participate in the “collective effort” of architectural stabilization.
The Tanner House not only represents the legacy of a unique black artistic visionary, but has long served as a hub for black professional and artistic success in Philadelphia. Tanner’s niece was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics and the first black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. One of his sisters, Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, was the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Alabama. Although the house has not been owned by a member of the Tanner family since the early 1990s, the current owner, Michael Thornton, is supporting the current renovation project.
Rae Alexander-Minter, Tanner’s great-niece, has expressed a desire to turn the home into a “cultural center,” serving as a living reminder of black history for the neighborhood and beyond.