Walnut Hill: A Makeover for the Paul Robeson House

Frances Aulston oversees the work at the Robeson house.

In 1984 Frances Aulston was working as a librarian at the Free Public Library of West Philadelphia when Mayor Wilson Goode and other politicians started recognizing the need for cultural institutions within the city. It was expressed that artists needed more support and that is when The West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance was created.

The mission of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is “to cultivate interest and support for the arts in West Philadelphia; to increase visibility of the community’s cultural resources; to encourage the professional development of local artists; and to promote positive social change through the arts.”

In 1994 the old home of actor, singer, athlete and activist Paul Robeson, located at 4951 Walnut St., was abandoned. Aulston said, “It was completely vacant. Squatters came in. It was almost a shell.”

The home was designed in 1907 by a Philadelphia architect named E. Allen Wilson and was built in 1911. Wilson was one of the first architects to design affordable homes with luxury amenities like a back stairwell to the kitchen, indoor plumbing and hardwood floors. Paul Robeson’s sister, Marian R. Forsythe, bought the home in 1959 and Robeson lived with her for 10 years until his death in 1976.

Through a partnership with graduate students at the University Pennsylvania the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance was able to conduct marketing surveys and see that the community would enjoy a historical restoration of Robeson’s former home.

“These studies gave us a foundation of knowledge to build upon. Not only would the area residents, but people from throughout Philadelphia and suburban areas would honor this place and would use it for whatever purposes they had,” Aulston said.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was pivotal in getting The Paul Robeson House its initial funding. The first federal grant received by The Paul Robeson house was through the Save America’s Treasures initiative, which was started by Hillary Clinton.

“With the Save America’s Treasure grant we were able to do some strategic planning, make a master plan, make some schematic designs and hire researchers and architects to lay the groundwork with this planning process, so we are forever grateful to Congressman Chaka Fattah,” said Aulston.

Aulston described the process for applying for national funding as difficult but said she felt lucky because the Paul Robeson House was already listed on the National Registry of Historical Sites.

“Because it is a historic house you have to adhere to restrictions and compliance with historic structures, for example, it must be done in its original form, someone is coming by from the Fairmount Park Association is coming to take pictures of the original wallpaper and we are trying to get funding to see if we can replicate that or find a restoration wallpaper company that may still have that pattern. If not, we have to research for a designer to recreate the pattern so that the house will have the original wallpaper,” she said.

The group found a remnant of the original wallpaper.

There was a mirror hanging on the wall in the house that Forsythe hung when the house was hers. The mirror hung for decades and it was not until Aulston and her team removed it that they discovered a square of original wallpaper beneath it.

Until new funds come in volunteers have been sprucing up and weatherizing the house to keep it from further deteriorating.

Darrell Gresham, who works at The Robeson House, has been gardening and doing structural cosmetic repairs, which he described as rather difficult.

“The house was in pretty good shape besides the cosmetic restoration aspect of it, but even so it was quite a task, you got to cut, you got to sheetrock, there are a lot of steps involved just to get it to looking clean, that is all we have been really doing now,” said Gresham.

On display currently in the Paul Robeson House are a collection of folding photos, en titled “From These Roots,” from the personal collection of Charles Blockson, who works as a curator at Temple University.

Once the restoration is complete the Paul Robeson House should look exactly as it did when he lived there with his sister. The Paul Robeson House’s mission is to above all keep the community enlightened about the historical landmark in the neighborhood and to remember the legacy of Paul Robeson.

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