Sun Ra, the trailblazing jazz musician, poet, and pioneer of the Afrofuturism movement, was also a utopian—both in outer space and here on earth.
Known for a persona that mixed cosmic references, mysticism, and ancient Egyptian iconography, Ra named himself after the Egyptian god of the sun and claimed to be from Saturn. In one project, the 1974 film Space is the Place, Ra and his band, the Arkestra, lead a movement to resettle the Black race on a utopian colony in space. Part social criticism and part psychedelic music video, the film solidified Ra’s stature as a far-out artist pushing the limits of Black culture in America.
That space colony may or may not actually exist, but Ra and his band mates did create a real-world version of this utopia. It’s a simple row house located at 5626 Morton Street in Philadelphia that was home to the band for decades. It has just been named the city’s newest historic landmark.
Jonathan E. Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, writes via email that the home’s listing is an effort to recognizing the ordinary places in the city where extraordinary things have happened.
Born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, the self-styled extraterrestrial Sun Ra and some of his band’s many members lived, rehearsed, and performed in this communal house between 1968 and his death in 1993 at age 79. The band has released more than 100 full-length albums since the mid-1950s and continues to perform today. Bandleader and saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 97, still lives in the home, known as the Arkestral Institute of Sun Ra.
“The house was more than just his residence,” says Farnham. “The community that thrived in the house and persists to this day was fundamental to Sun Ra’s music and philosophy.”
A three-story row house in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, the home is a modest building, with little to distinguish it from its neighbors. Built in the 1870s, the home is clad in schist rock, with a bay window and a small porch shared with the home next door. The nomination document prepared by the historical commission notes that the front door is painted in an Afrofuturist style, with several pyramids, ancient Egyptian figures, and overlapping images of the cosmos. Inside, the walls are covered with paintings of Egyptian iconography and celestial bodies. A first floor rehearsal room is crammed with instruments, including a wooden drum hand-carved from a tree near the house that was struck by lightning. Ra named it the Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum, and it was featured in the Arkestra’s performances for years.
In 2021, the house was nearly destroyed from within. A long-deteriorating floor gave way, crashing the boiler into its subbasement, where decades of junk had accrued. Rain damage and leaks had significantly weakened the structure, and some feared the entire building would collapse. Before that could happen, several local organizations stepped in to help. Efforts to secure and rebuild the house snowballed, and helped push it to the top of the city’s preservation agenda.
“The Sun Ra House has been on local preservation advocates’ lists for designation for several years,” Farnham says. “Given the interest in and activity around the house, the time was right for designating it as a landmark.”
The house’s designation will ensure that all future work to the property complies with historic preservation standards. Farnham notes that the historical commission will provide technical support and assistance to ensure that the house is maintained and not inappropriately altered. Its local recognition could lead to broader preservation efforts.
“The Sun Ra House is certainly eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,” Farnham says. Being listed in that register creates more opportunities for grants and other assistance that can aid its preservation. But Farnham notes that even without making that national list, the house will benefit from its local historic status. The Philadelphia Historical Commission, he says, “has considerable power to protect the property from neglect, alteration, and demolition.”
Though just a modest row house in a city with many similar buildings, the legacy of Sun Ra and the impact of his band make the building an important part of Philadelphia’s history, and the history of experimental artistic expression, according to Farnham. “The site is a means of remembering Sun Ra and a way of reminding residents of their shared cultural heritage, and that great achievements often occur in humble places.”