Philadelphia Home of Henry Ossawa Tanner Imperiled
The North Philadelphia childhood home of painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), one of the first African American artists to gain international acclaim, is at risk of being destroyed. Tanner lived at the three-story brick rowhouse at 2908 West Diamond Street from 1872, when he was thirteen, to 1888, when he departed as a man of nearly thirty, eventually settling in Paris to escape America’s oppressive racism. The house passed out of the Tanner family’s hands sometime in the twentieth century and was much altered. Despite having been awarded National Landmark Status in 1976, the building has fallen into disrepair and is now the subject of a campaign by local Black preservationist groups who are working to raise money to save it.
The Friends of the Henry O. Tanner House (FHOTH) to date have raised $30,000 toward restoration of the home, but aver that $300,000 is needed to stave off destruction, in accordance with an engineer’s report on the property. FHOTH is led by local historian and retired teacher Jackie Wiggins and Deborah Gary, president of the Society to Preserve Philadelphia African American Assets. The organization has gained the support of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which owns several works by Tanner, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Tanner was a student.
Apart from being home to Tanner—who brought his realistic and luminous style to bear in paintings such as the ca. 1885 Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, which now hangs in the White House, and the 1898 The Annunciation, held by the PMA—the house was what the Philadelphia Inquirer characterized as a “nexus of Black achievement.” Residents at various times included Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, one of Tanner’s sisters, who became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Alabama, and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Tanner’s niece. The first African American to earn a PhD in economics, Alexander in 1927 became the first Black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.