In a moving ceremony yesterday (Oct. 9) in Dix Hills, N.Y., the National Trust for Historic Preservation officially designated the building that was home to the family of John and Alice Coltrane between 1964 and 1973 as a National Treasure. This means that the Trust, through its National African American Cultural Heritage Fund, will join with the nonprofit Friends of the Coltrane Home to help preserve the suburban Long Island house—which narrowly avoided the wrecking ball 14 years ago—with the aim of eventually opening it to the public.
“The Coltrane Home is a physical manifestation of jazz history,” said Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Fund, as he stood outside the house’s front door. “We are committed to creating a new kind of historic site here: one that will inspire both music and social justice, a cultural center where the humanitarian spirit of John and Alice Coltrane is written on the very walls.”
Built on a 3.5-acre property that is now owned by the Town of Huntington and called Coltrane Park, the two-story Dix Hills house was John Coltrane’s residence when he was arguably at the peak of his powers as a saxophonist and composer. Shortly after moving there in 1964, he sequestered himself for days in the guest bedroom upstairs and penned his masterpiece, the four-part suite A Love Supreme. The family continued to live there for six years after John’s death from liver cancer at age 40 in 1967. During this period, Alice Coltrane set up a studio in the basement, where she recorded five albums for Impulse! Records—including her 1968 solo debut, A Monastic Trio—and explored playing harp as well as keyboards. She also spent a great deal of time in the house’s “meditation room” off the main living area, distinguished by its high ceiling and circular stained-glass window.
Alice sold the Dix Hills house in 1973; its subsequent owners rented it out to a series of college students over the next two decades, and it gradually fell into disrepair. By the turn of the 21st century, it had essentially been abandoned. In 2004, local resident and Coltrane fan Steve Fulgoni learned by chance that a real estate developer was buying the property, with plans to demolish the house and subdivide the lot for new homes. “I went over to the house and walked in—honestly, I was trespassing,” Fulgoni said after yesterday’s ceremony, “and I could tell right away that this place was a time capsule. I could feel a spirit inside it. And I knew I had to do something to try and save it.”
With help from other residents and supporters around the world—including such jazz legends as Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and Michael Brecker—Fulgoni convinced the Town of Huntington to purchase the property and transfer the title of the house to the newly formed Friends of the Coltrane Home in 2005. That organization, led by the Coltranes’ son Ravi and his wife Kathleen Hennessy, encouraged by Alice (who passed away in 2007), and staffed entirely by volunteers, slowly began working to rid the structure of mold, which in the end required a near-total gutting of the interior. Seven years ago, the National Trust named the Coltrane Home one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States. This week, it earned a much more positive designation.
Make no mistake, the work on the house is far from done; although it’s now mold-free, a quick walk around the property reveals myriad problems, from broken windows to crumbling exterior bricks. But a $75,000 grant from the National Trust should be a major help, allowing the Friends of the Coltrane Home to hire a project manager for the continuing restoration efforts. And a Kickstarter campaign is being launched with the goal of raising another $250,000, which would qualify the Friends for a partial matching grant from New York State. Ron Stein, president of the Friends of the Coltrane Home, estimated that the total cost for the next stage of the project should be between $1 million and $1.5 million.
These funds, the Friends hope, will be enough to bring the public spaces within the Coltrane home back to the way they appeared in the ’60s and early ’70s. Alice’s basement recording studio will be restored, and the stained-glass window in her meditation room (which, miraculously, still survives intact in the possession of an anonymous former resident of the house) will return to its rightful location. A room for research and listening will be created, along with a multimedia space for presentations. And Yasuhiro Fujioka, perhaps the world’s foremost collector of Coltrane-related memorabilia, who featured prominently in the recent documentary Chasing Trane, has agreed to donate a substantial portion of his collection to the Home.
Fujioka was one of several notable attendees at yesterday’s event in Dix Hills. Another was 96-year-old Pat DeRosa, a big-band tenor saxophonist who taught music in the Huntington public schools for decades. One day 54 years ago, he walked into a local music store and heard that there was a new sax player in town looking for a duet partner. That new guy in town, of course, was John Coltrane. For the next three years, DeRosa and Coltrane regularly jammed together at each other’s homes. “He was scary on the saxophone, but I kept up with him,” DeRosa said with pride. To see the house he played in all those years ago being honored in this way was “a beautiful story, because they were a beautiful family.”
One member of that family, Michelle Coltrane—Alice’s daughter, John’s stepdaughter, a fine singer herself, and an honorary board member of the Friends of the Coltrane Home—spoke from the heart as she stood directly across from the window of what had once been her childhood bedroom. “This was the place where the family was whole,” she said. “Both parents were alive, all the children were alive [John Coltrane Jr. died in a car accident in 1982]. To all the people who have shared their time and their knowledge to be part of something great, thank you for preserving memories that are very personal and very dear to me.”
To learn more about the John and Alice Coltrane Home and the ongoing efforts to preserve it, visit thecoltranehome.org.