Melon Street house, 142, gets a 'funeral'

The Mount Olive Baptist Church Choir sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" at the "funeral" for 3711 Melon Street in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia.
The Mount Olive Baptist Church Choir sings "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" at the "funeral" for 3711 Melon Street in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 02, 2014

It was a grand and glorious funeral, one that drew hundreds of people onto the streets to honor not a person but a house.

There were tears, more than a couple. But also joy, and music and memories, all in celebration of 3711 Melon Street in West Philadelphia.

The house began life 142 years ago as a stack of bricks and lumber, and was set to end it on Saturday as a dusty pile of the same, after a ritual demolition.

The empty, abandoned home, its roof failing and back wall bulging, was the centerpiece of "Funeral for a Home," an arts project that paid tribute to one home as a way to recognize them all - in a city where demolitions have become commonplace.

The funeral, led by Temple Contemporary, the Mount Olive Baptist Church, local artists, historians, civic leaders, and community members, was also a way to herald the Mantua neighborhood's potential rebirth as part of a new federal Promise Zone.

"It's very surreal," said Cheryl Dyson, who grew up nearby and now lives in Mount Airy. "I was moved to come down here. . . . What happened to the people who lived here and the memories they had?"

For decades, the house belonged to a strong, determined, and independent woman, Leona Richardson, who lived there with her son, Roger Richardson. She died in 2002 at age 80, he in 2009 at 63.

On Saturday, friends and family came from as far as California to honor them and their home.

"It's a bit overwhelming," said Annie Hunt, Richardson's niece, gazing at the crowd that packed Melon Street. "I'm surprised how many people are here."

Hunt traveled from Newark, Ohio, and her sister, Julia LeBlanc, from San Diego.

"It's a happy day," LeBlanc said. "It's a day that brings a new life to the neighborhood and the people."

An affordable-housing developer, WPRE Inventory, was willing to let the house be torn down because it plans to rebuild much of the 3700 block.

The house, its front door and windows boarded, was draped in funeral flowers and black bunting. Nearby, waiting to accept the remains, was a wreathed, gold-and-black Dumpster.

Ushers wore black armbands as they distributed programs. People pinned on carnations. Men came in coats and ties, or jeans and baseball caps. Older people attended in wheelchairs while babies watched from strollers.

A drum corps and drill team led a loud procession onto 37th Street. Marchers passed wreaths mounted at empty lots, a tribute to the homes that once stood there.

The procession moved past plastic bottles and wrappers on curbs, a broken TV set dumped on a sidewalk, and a thriving community garden where fresh vegetables grow.

The tone was by turns somber and happy, the soundtrack a church organ or the angelic voices of the Mount Olive Church choir, which sang the gospel favorite "There's a Leak in This Old Building."

"This is a start," Mount Olive pastor Harry Moore Sr. told the crowd. "This is a start of affordable housing coming to the community."

He paused. "If this was a church, I'd get an 'Amen.' "

"Amen!" people shouted.

The house is surrounded by vacant lots - and local leaders want to change that, with help from the federal government.

In January, the Obama administration named a swath of West Philadelphia as one of five Promise Zones nationwide. All will get extra attention - but no money - in a bid to end decades of decline.

Mantua lies in the heart of the Philadelphia zone, which has a poverty rate of 51 percent. Houses are disappearing through neglect and demolition.

On Saturday, one home and one family were remembered.

Leona Richardson was ahead of her time. As a teenager in the late 1930s, she left the segregated South of small-town Louisiana, making her way to Baltimore. When World War II broke out, she got a job in a defense plant as a welder.

After the war, by then the single parent of a baby boy, Richardson moved to Philadelphia and bought the two-bedroom rowhouse.

The house fell to ruin after her death.

"When I think of 3711 Melon Street," Hunt told the crowd from a pulpit set up on the block, "I think of Aunt Leona and Roger, growing up in this house in the big city of Philadelphia."

Her sister, LeBlanc, told the people: "You are in control of your neighborhood. . . . You let this house, this whole thing, be a way to join people together. If you can come here to a funeral for a house, there can be a resurrection."

When the speakers finished, a big yellow excavator - its single arm wrapped in mourning black - tore at the roof with its claw, sending down a cascade of debris. The mourners, separated by a chain-link fence, couldn't take their eyes from the sight.

Demolition was to be completed late Saturday, after the crowd left.

"So long, 3711 Melon," said Mantua resident Ardie Stuart Brown, an artist and educator. "We'll never forget you."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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