Remembering the Great Lady: Marian Anderson

By Peak Johnson 

Marian Anderson is an Artistic and Humanitarian world figure, endearingly known as the great lady from Philadelphia, according to the National Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society CEO, Jillian Patricia Pirtle.

Anderson purchased her home in 1924 and lived there most of her life, transforming the basement into an entertainment center. The area included a portable bar stocked with Anderson’s favorite drinks, champagne and water, a few pieces of furniture, and her treasured Steinway piano. 

It was here that Anderson would entertain friends such as Sir Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Bassie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Leonard Bernsteine, Maria Callas, and more while resting up from world tours.

The museum and historical society is the focal point for the celebrated life and legacy of Anderson.

“The humble beginnings, denials, hardships, hard work, and triumph are the epitome of the Philadelphia Story,” Patricia Pirtle said. “And despite the horrible things that Anderson had to endure she decided to continue to make Philadelphia her home and the hub for her music and charitable efforts for the next generation of talented emerging artists.”

Blacks during this time were denied access to most venues, so homeowners would enhance their basements to entertain friends, Patricia Pirtle added. 

The understated exterior of the 19th century, three-story house and museum is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and bears a plaque from the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The Marian Anderson Residence Museum is also recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The historical society was founded by Blanche Burton-Lyles and has existed for the past 23 years. Beyond the house itself, the surrounding area has since been named the Marian Anderson Village, which proudly hangs identifying flags throughout the neighborhood. In addition to the residence, the village contains Anderson’s former church, elementary school, and a recreational center dedicated in her name.

In addition to promoting Anderson’s legacy locally, the society seeks to spread Anderson’s music throughout the world. 

“You can find in any given Thematic Exhibit that we have at the National Marian Anderson Museum on display Marian Anderson’s performance gowns, vast photos, sheet music, letters, awards, recordings, family bibles, and more,” Patricia Pirtle said. “My favorite exhibit item which is permanent in the building is Marian Andersons treasured Steinway Piano.” 

Like many other historical landmarks and museums, the museum and historical society has been closed to the general public for in-person touring and live concert performances since COVID restrictions have been put in place.

The museum has been unable to secure any government grants or financial assistance to support and sustain its operations. To make matters worse, the museum was damaged last year by a flood caused by aging pipes. 

A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help the Society pay for the much-needed repairs as well as sustaining programming and preservation. The fundraising started by the community association in Rittenhouse Square Center City South Association last July.

For anyone interested in supporting and donating they can Kindly visit the GoFundMe campaign mentioned above, but also make a donation by visiting the National Marian Anderson Museum’s website.