Feb 5, 2018

How to Keep History Alive: Q&A with Preservationist Maya Thomas

by: Laura Kochman

Philadelphia is a rapidly-shifting city, with increasing levels of demolition and development. Among many vacant homes, the one at 2340 Cecil B. Moore Avenue deserves to be saved, says an interdisciplinary team including preservationist Maya Thomas. It’s the former home of mid-20th-century artist Dox Thrash, whose work honored everyday moments in African American life. The building’s condition needs an interior assessment, but the goal is to pursue preservation methods with community members and repurpose the space as an arts-based community center.

Thomas was one of the project managers for Monument Lab, so we’re especially excited to hear about her initiative to celebrate Thrash’s life and work through adaptive re-use. Mural Arts actually commissioned a mural honoring Thrash in 2001, but it was accidentally painted over in 2013, and he is currently one of many unsung Philadelphia heroes.

1. What moves you about Dox Thrash and the Dox Thrash House? 

I was first introduced to Dox Thrash during a studio class—we were looking at how development plans would affect the Sharswood neighborhood, and I read through the original local nomination form for the Thrash house. It was nominated and placed on the local register of historic places in 2015. “Dox Thrash” sounded like a rock star’s name, and his story just got more intriguing from there. He was a soldier during World War I. He attended the Art Institute in Chicago between 1914 and 1923 and became a printmaker and painter, moving to Philly in 1926. He created landscapes and portraits of black life. He depicted the humanity of our lives by choosing neighbors and friends to sit for him—at a time when lynchings were still occurring daily, as a way to resist the terror. These themes from Thrash’s history are still very relevant today.

Another interesting thing about Thrash’s work is that printmaking is easily duplicated and reproduced, making it more accessible to more viewers. The prints he created became part of well-known institutional collections, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art. All of this history is tied to this house in a tangible way, and it’s something people can literally inhabit. The excitement for me has grown from talking with community members about this house and imagining (through a design process) how we can realize and inhabit this property as a community. The impact of these conversations is so much more visceral when there is something to point to and to look at.

2. Can you talk a little bit about the phrase “demolition by neglect”? 

“Demolition by neglect” describes what happens when properties are no longer in use. Properties that sit vacant for long periods don’t have the benefit of constant human care, and become a collection of escalating problems that are so overwhelming that it becomes cheaper to solve the problem by demolishing the property. This plays out frequently in neighborhoods under development pressure, and is a difficult situation to mitigate in preservation terms for many reasons.

This issue becomes more exasperating when looking at within the broader context of neighborhoods that have also been neglected—which leads into the still more complex conversation around systemic issues of poverty, class, and race in this country and how they intersect with architecture, design, and planning as tools of oppression. I’m interested in that conversation and how it affects African American historic sites. Madame C.J. Walker‘s original house in Harlem was demolished under similar circumstances. How do we get a different outcome? I want to look for answers with the Dox Thrash House.

3. How do you see issues of race and preservation intersecting, especially in Philadelphia? 

The Dox Thrash House has been vacant for a long time, but it’s located next to a public library on a commercial corridor in a neighborhood under major development pressure. Development means an influx of cash and investments that the Dox Thrash House should benefit from. Instead, Thrash’s legacy is still obscure enough that this house could become a casualty of development, which is a much more typical scenario. The choice between the two options is a decision, and that decision, to me, is a litmus test. Historically, the field of preservation has been elitist, a means to promulgate a certain history in public spaces, and I want to subvert that.

4. Are there any models that you’re thinking of when it comes to this kind of adaptive re-use project? Who’s doing this well? 

In Chicago, Theaster Gates’ work with the Black Cinema House. In the Leimert Park section of South Los Angeles, institutions like KAOS Network led by Ben Caldwell; PAPILLION, a gallery led by Michelle Papillion; and The World Stage, led by Billy Higgins, Kamau Daáood, and Dwight Trible. In Detroit, Tyree Guyton’s The Heidelberg Project. Here in Philly, the North Philly Peace Park, co-founded by Pili X and Tommy Joshua. And again on the West Coast, Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in California.


Get involved: follow the project on Instagram or Facebook.

Last updated: Feb 5, 2018

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