The Philadelphia Historical Commission has added the home of the late jazz musician and composer Sun Ra to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Historical Commission cast the unanimous vote last Friday, May 13th, just before noon during their monthly public Zoom meeting.
Work on the nomination for The Sun Ra House, also The Arkestral Institute of Sun Ra, started in 2020 and finished in late 2021. Sun Ra, who “returned to Saturn” (passed away) in 1993, is one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century. According to research biographer of Space Is The Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, John Szwed, Sun Ra has recorded more than 1,000 songs and 100 full-length albums. Ra was the leader of the experimental jazz band, the Arkestra, which began operating as The Sun Ra Arkestra after his death.
Short for Le Sony’r Ra, Sun Ra is known as the archetype for Afrofuturism, though the term was not coined until 1993. He wore Egyptian-inspired eccentric attire, used illuminating sounds like the electronic keyboard, and was known for his cosmic philosophy. Afrofuturism blends fantasy, science fiction, and history to examine the Black experience and connects Black people to their forgotten pasts. Black musicians, writers, filmmakers, set and costume designers, and other Black creatives commonly use the style to map out a future where Black people are the tastemakers. Though he didn’t have mainstream success, Sun Ra and the Arkestra are said to have influenced many creatives who came after him.
The commission’s executive director Jon Farnham says, “[Sun Ra is] one of the most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century. He’s also a Philadelphian. He lived [at the property] from 1968 until his death. During the nearly three decades since Sun Ra’s death, the influence and significance of the artist has come into clearer focus.”
Ronda Lancaster, a musician and Germantowner, attended last Friday’s meeting and gave her sentiments on why the home should be designated as a historical landmark. “It is so important that we keep our musical legacy intact in Philadelphia,” she says to the attendees. “For those of you who don’t know, Philadelphia is one of the music meccas of the world. Many musicians throughout many music disciplines have come here to record.” Another meeting attendee and neighbor, Jim Duncan, says that the property adds to the neighborhood’s uniqueness.
Farnham also says it was a priority to propose the living museum for historic designation while musicians associated with Sun Ra are still alive and rehearsing at the house. In 2020, part of the basement of the Arkestral Institute collapsed. Marshall Allen, who leads the Arkestra at almost 98 years old, lives at the property. Repairs have been made with the support of neighbors.
Farnhams says, “[We] will work with the owner to ensure that the house is preserved for future generations as a reminder of the significance of Sun Ra.”