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Legal battle looms over historic Coltrane House as Coltrane’s sons seek ownership

Community activists, history advocates and jazz fans have pondered for years what the future might hold for the historic, but deteriorating, John Coltrane House in Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

Coltrane, one of the world’s most acclaimed jazz saxophonists, purchased the house at 1511 N. 33rd St. across from Fairmount Park in 1952.

He bought the house, now a National Historic Landmark, as a home for himself, his mother, aunt, and cousin, and lived there between about 1952 and 1958.

For nearly 20 years now, advocates seeking to preserve the house, possibly as a museum or arts center, have described how Norman Gadson, a jazz lover who worked in real estate, bought the house at the Coltrane’s cousin, Mary L. Alexander in 2004.

Coltrane’s cousin, formerly known as Mary Lyerly King—before she began using her married name Mary L. Alexander—was the cousin Coltrane referred to in his composition “Cousin Mary” on the Giant step album.

Gadson died in 2007, three years after acquiring the house and before he could realize his dream of turning it into a jazz venue, Gadson’s widow, Lenora Early, told The Inquirer in 2013.

In a recent lawsuit, John Coltrane’s two sons, Ravi and Oran, argue that they are the rightful owners, rather than members of Gadson’s family.

Their lawsuit argues that Gadson “would have paid a third party for a false act at the Coltrane House”. They alleged Mary Alexander (cousin Mary) was barred from selling the property because she only held a ‘lifetime interest’ in the house, meaning she had the legal right to live. in the house until his death, but not to sell. that, says the complaint.

“At worst, Norman Gadson was complicit in a fraudulent real estate sale that infringed plaintiffs’ property rights,” the lawsuit said. “At best, Norman Gadson was indefensibly oblivious…and therefore [Mary Alexander] tricked him into paying $100,000 to buy his life estate.

The document also points out that the 2004 deed filed by Norman Gadson contains misspellings of the name Coltrane.

“Lending to the conclusion that it was fraudulent, the 2004 transfer refers to Alice Gertrude Coltrane, John William Coltrane Jr., Ravi Coltrane and Oran Coltrane as ‘Alice Gertrude Cultrate’, ‘John William Cultrate Jr.’, ‘Ravi Cultrate”. and “Oran Cultrate”, respectively,” the complaint states.

Oderah C. Nwaeze, attorney at legal giant Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, is representing the two Coltrane brothers.

Nwaeze said in an email that his clients preferred he declined to comment.

Drinker Biddle, which dates from 1849 in Philadelphia, was named “Central” company by Law360.

In 2020, Drinker Biddle merged with Indianapolis-based Faegre Baker Daniels. The combined firm has more than 1,300 lawyers and is ranked among the 50 largest and most profitable law firms in the country.

Edward A. Fox, the attorney representing the Gadson daughters, has an independent law firm in Erdenheim.

“While I believe Ravi Coltrane and Oran Coltrane have a legitimate claim to the property, the case will finally unravel the ‘tangled title’.”

faye anderson

Through a spokesperson, Fox released a statement: “The Early-Gadson family was extremely surprised and saddened to learn of the litigation brought by the sons of John Coltrane, given the 18-year history ownership, preservation and deep family commitment to this national historic landmark. , with the full knowledge of the Coltrane family.

“The family has opened the John Coltrane House to the entire community of Philadelphia and beyond – welcoming music fans from around the world – so that everyone can enjoy this important milestone in jazz history.”

Court documents reveal a Coltrane House drama as complex as a Shakespearean tragedy.

The battle features two rival families, where the story was set in motion by characters, as in Hamletwho remain at the center of the plot, long after their death.

The complaint was filed against Aminta [Gadson] Weldon and Hathor Gadson, the two daughters of Norman Gadson. Their father’s wife, Lenora Early, died in 2015. In response to the lawsuit, the Gadson sisters asked the court to declare that they were the legal owners, under a law called “opposing possession”. Adverse possession is a legal means by which a person can claim rights to property that they have owned for some time.

The Gadsons’ counterclaims also requested that if the Coltranes received title to the house, then the Coltrane sons would have to reimburse the Gadson sisters for the $100,000 purchase price along with other expenses. The sisters said their family maintained the home, made repairs and paid taxes.

“At worst, Norman Gadson was complicit in a fraudulent real estate sale which infringed the plaintiffs’ property rights.”

Ravi Coltrane and Oran Coltrane in their recent trial

The Coltranes filed a response to the Gadsons’ case to claim that the Gadson girls did not hold the property for the 21 years required to keep the house in “adverse possession”.

While the law was revised in 2019 to provide for an adverse possession claim after holding property for just 10 years in certain circumstances, the Coltranes said the Gadsons also failed to meet that requirement. The family said the Coltranes only obtained the rights to the house after Mary Alexander died in 2019. This meant their rights were only established three years ago.

The Coltranes also said they had no obligation to repay the $100,000 purchase price of the home in a fraudulent case.

Their attorney’s filing said the Gadsons were seeking to “re-victimize” the Coltranes by making them pay for title to a house that should be theirs. Even if there was a legal basis, it would be Mary Alexander, or her estate, who would be responsible, according to the lawsuit.

Furthermore, the Coltranes have cited news reports about the “at-risk” state of the Coltrane House to dispute whether the Early-Gadson family had in fact spent a lot of money maintaining the house.

The house is a National Historic Site because of its connection to Coltrane, which has been called a genius. His album, supreme loveis considered a masterpiece.

He wrote his Giant step album, had a spiritual awakening and beat a heroin addiction while living at home in Philadelphia, say jazz experts.

But Coltrane’s home has fallen into such disrepair that in 2020 a state preservation organization listed it as “at risk.”

“The plaintiffs took no action in 2004, even though they believed at the time that the ownership should remain in Coltrane’s name.”

The Gadson sisters

The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp. applied for renovation grants and announced plans create a John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Center on the site.

In May 2021, the Strawberry Mansion CDC said he wanted to “restore the house as a museum, preserve the architectural character of the row, create a gateway to Strawberry Mansion, and develop a world-class venue where jazz can be heard, studied, and enjoyed.”

Coltrane’s sons filed the lawsuit earlier this year, on April 27, but it came to light after public historian and preservationist Faye Anderson announced the filing on social media last Sunday.

Anderson nominated the house for Conservation Pennsylvania “At risk” list of endangered historic properties.

READ MORE: Tangled titles in Philly threaten over $1.1 billion in generational wealth

“As a longtime advocate for the preservation of the John Coltrane House, the lawsuit is a welcome development regardless of the outcome,” Anderson told The Inquirer.

“While I believe Ravi Coltrane and Oran Coltrane have a legitimate claim to the property, the case will finally unravel the ‘tangled title.’ Without clear title, access to government and foundation grants to rehabilitate the National Historic Landmark is limited.

“The seamless workaround using Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp. margin aid. But that doesn’t fundamentally change the reality that lenders are unlikely to invest in a property whose property has been under a cloud for 15 years,” she said.

Anderson said Mary Alexander sounded the alarm about the state of the house decades ago. She published a letter Alexander wrote on February 25, 1987, telling the Philadelphia Historical Commission that the building “appears to be collapsing inside”.

Tonnetta Graham, president and executive director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp., did not return calls seeking comment.

According to court documents, Coltrane and his first wife, Juanita “Naima” Coltrane, gave the house to Coltrane’s mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, in 1958.

When Alice Gertrude Coltrane died on September 4, 1977, her will granted Mary Lyerly King (later Mary L. Alexander) “the right and privilege to live in the premises at 1511 N. 33rd St., … of his lifetime”. claims the lawsuit.

This meant Alexander was only a “lifetime tenant” of the property, the Coltranes said. Mary Alexander died on August 31, 2019, at the age of 92.

Upon Alexander’s death, the will states that the house will belong to Alice’s three grandsons Gertrude Coltrane, John William Coltrane Jr., Ravi J. Coltrane and Oran Coltrane.

Coltrane’s eldest son, John Coltrane Jr., died in a car accident in 1982.

“The family has opened the John Coltrane House to the entire community of Philadelphia and beyond – welcoming music fans from around the world – so that everyone can enjoy this important milestone in jazz history.”

The Early Gadson Family

Another complication in this story is that there were two Alice Coltranes in John Coltrane’s life.

The first Alice was her mother. Then, in 1965, Coltrane married his second wife, Alice McLeod Coltrane, the famous pianist and harpist.

Norman Gadson’s deed named him trustee of the house, held in trust for his daughter Hathor Gadson, who has Down’s syndrome.

After the death of Gadson’s wife, Lenora Early, his daughter Aminta Weldon was appointed guardian to her sister Hathor and her estate.

In their response to the lawsuit, the Gadsons said the Coltrane brothers were fully aware Alexander sold the house in 2004 but never contested the sale.

“The plaintiffs took no action in 2004, even though they believed at the time that ownership should remain in Coltrane’s name,” the Gadsons said. “They haven’t checked with the will registers where their grandmother’s will was recorded since April 27, 1978.”

READ MORE: Time is running out to save John Coltrane’s Strawberry Mansion

The document states that Aminta Weldon and Ravi Coltrane spoke about Weldon’s efforts to turn the house into a museum during a phone call on March 18, 2021, and that Ravi Coltrane encouraged her to continue working on the museum project. :

“Since March 18, 2021, through the efforts of Weldon and others, the project has secured grants from The Blight Remediation Project, The Andrew Mellon Foundation, and The Philadelphia Fund Black Community Leaders totaling $855,00.00 with five more grant applications pending.”

Acknowledgement

Work produced by The Inquirer’s Communities and Engagement office is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of project donors.