Howard, now 60, has vivid memories of his boyhood years, when, instead of housing college students, the three-story building at 1517 W. Girard Ave. was home to the Pyramid Club, a social and cultural haven for African-American professionals in a segregated rowhouse city.
"All I saw was the beauty," Howard recalled of the clubhouse, where his father, the prominent artist Humbert L. Howard, served as head of the committee of fine arts and his mother, Beatrice, was the club's secretary.
During the Pyramid Club's heyday, its membership rolls were a Who's Who of Philadelphia, and its guests included scores of nationally known names like Duke Ellington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb.
The all-male club was founded in 1937, in the ashes of the Great Depression, by Walter F. Jerrick, a physician who practiced at his South Philadelphia home. He and a handful of African-American doctors, lawyers and businessmen met for two years in the basement of the Christian Street YMCA.
Their mission, according to one newspaper, was to foster the "cultural, civic, and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia." The membership fee was $120, and monthly dues were $2.40.
In 1940, membership having swelled to 200, the club moved to 1517 Girard Ave. and soon thereafter bought the gracious building outright.
Its interior was lavish: pale walls, white molding, gilt trim. A handsome hostess greeted members at the door, and an attendant checked their coats and hats.
The elegant dining room (better than any four-star restaurant, David Howard swears) was illuminated by a chandelier, and featured white tablecloths, fine china and a decorative fireplace.
In the basement, men crowded around the radio, cocktails in hand, to catch a Joe Louis fight or Phillies game. On the fourth floor, around the pool table, they socialized, networked and brokered deals.
Pyramidians ranged in occupation from school principals to judges, including Raymond Pace Alexander, a civil-rights activist and the first black judge on the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia.
Wealthy cosmetics manufacturer W.C Wingate was an officer; master printmaker Dox Thrash served as the sergeant-at-arms.
"You had to be the best at what you did," Howard said of the club's foremost membership requirement.
The club supported the community service of black fraternities and sororities, and the civil-rights efforts of the NAACP and the Urban League. The Pyramid Wives auxiliary held events that included the popular Palm Sunday fashion revue. There were poetry readings, pinochle tournaments, formal dances, leadership conferences and, most prominently, Humbert Howard's annual art exhibitions, which drew widespread attention to black artists in Philadelphia and beyond.
"The Pyramid Club represented the independence of the black community," said George Coverdale, whose father owned a garage-door business and was chairman of the cultural relations committee, proof "that it could survive on its own."
Moreover, said David Howard, a retired Vare Middle School teacher who lives in University City, "it was the Underground Railroad of the '40s. It really brought black politics, black artists and black businesses into the mainstream, when laws prevented them from going there."
In the early days of the club, about one in eight of the city's 1.9 million residents was African-American, mostly concentrated in large pockets of North and West Philadelphia.
Howard remembered riding in the back seat of his uncle's Pontiac from their West Philadelphia home to 1517 Girard Ave., passing neat stretches of redbrick North Philly rowhouses; watching women, their hair wrapped in scarves, scrubbing white marble steps; and eyeing the black-owned doctors' offices, law offices and barbershops that anchored the community.
"The neighborhood was unbelievable with professionals," said Janet Powell Bailey, 67, in the office of her family's funeral home near 28th and York streets in Strawberry Mansion. Nearby was a portrait of her grandfather, Thomas L. Powell, a founding member of the Pyramid Club, who opened the funeral home in 1929, on arriving from Reidsville, N.C.
Midcentury black life in Philadelphia was Jack and Jill clubs and cotillions; youth responding to elders with "Yes, sir," and "Yes, ma'am"; and church every Sunday - but it also involved de facto segregation. In movie theaters, blacks often were relegated to balconies or back rows; and in restaurants, to side take-out-windows.
"The Pyramid Club satisfied all the social needs of the professional of those days," Bailey said. "And the members supported each other's businesses. Where else were they going to go?"
Growing up, Howard was often showed a picture of his paternal grandfather, David, a Virginia native, holding a piece of paper. "My father said those were his free papers," Howard said.
For years, Howard's grandfather worked as a "George" - a railroad porter on the Pullman sleeping cars named for George Pullman, whose company produced them. Then he settled in Philadelphia as a waiter in a restaurant at the Broad Street train station.
Howard's grandmother, Ethel, a fair-skinned woman from Delaware, waited tables in the Crystal Tearoom at John Wanamaker department store in Center City.
"We were told, 'If you see Granny out, don't say nothing,' " Howard remembered his parents telling him and his older brother. "She could lose her job if her boss found out she wasn't white."
For Pyramidians, the club offered a refuge from such racism.
Howard's fondest memory is of hanging paintings with his father, who used the club's annual invitational exhibition to open doors for many black artists, but whose integrationist philosophy also led him to include white artists who painted black subject matter as well. In 1944, Humbert Howard billed the exhibition as an "Art friendship gesture between Negro and white."
Each floor held a gallery - the Nile, the Sahara and the Pharoah - and the club would overflow with more than 150 works of arts.
Humbert Howard's choices included works by African-Americans from the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, paintings by such out-of-town notables as Romare Bearden and Julius Bloch, as well as such rising Philadelphians as Paul Keene, Samuel Brown, Walter Smith, sculptor Selma Burke, and printmaker Dox Thrash, during an era when black artists generally were shut out of mainstream galleries.
For a quarter-century, the club hosted and honored such big names as poet Langston Hughes, contralto Marian Anderson and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. (David Howard's second-fondest memory is the day boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson strolled into the club's restaurant, dancing, wearing a "baaad" white suit, his hair slicked back, his pretty wife on his arm. "He was a real showman," Howard said.)
In 1945, a newspaper wrote about Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes' visit to the club. Ickes was there to receive the club's "providential personality" award. In his acceptance speech, the cabinet member called the full-employment bill before Congress a "must," addressing the institutional racism of the times.
When World War II ended, the Pyramid Club's membership roster stood at 350, and there was a waiting list.
But by the end of the 1950s - a decade that saw 14-year-old Emmitt Till brutally murdered, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Little Rock Nine walk to school under armed guard, and blacks, up north and down south, organize against social and economic inequality - the organization was in turmoil.
Tensions flared between the old guard and younger members, who felt the club had become elitist, stodgy and out of touch with the black community. The new guard inaugurated monthly movie nights, held panel discussions on key issues in the black community, and pushed to reduce membership dues to attract working- and middle-class blacks.
In 1957, Humbert Howard organized his last art exhibition; there was no show in 1958 - and in 1959, in a clear break with Howard's integrationist stance, the annual exhibition focused exclusively on the work of black artist William H. Tasker.
The old leadership fought back by refusing to pay dues; some dropped from the rolls. At the same time, moneyed members were moving from Philadelphia to the suburbs.
"It was losing its appeal," David Howard said of the club. "Integration had made it possible for people to go other places, so it faded."
In 1963, the Internal Revenue Service padlocked the club for nonpayment of payroll taxes totaling $472. Two years later, the property was sold to the Columbia Avenue branch of the Young Women's Christian Association. In 1995, after a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan for reorganization, the deed was transferred to a creditor, and in 2003 the stately building was sold to 1517 West Girard Avenue Associates, L.L.C. It is now a small apartment building.
When David Howard returned home from his nostalgic visit to the former clubhouse a few weeks ago, he asked his Realtor to find out what he could about the building. Within a day or two, the man called back.
He asked Howard if he was sitting down: The old Pyramid Club was going for $1.2 million.
"I can't believe it," said Howard, stunned, as he sat down.
Several weeks later, though, he was still thinking about the future of 1517 W. Girard and about the club it once held. As he put it, "All I can do is hope. And I've always been hopeful that something will fall into play.
"Maybe I'll win the lottery," he chuckled. "I'm still hoping for it, or to continue it somewhere."
Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or email@example.com.