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Sounds of hope for Coltrane house

Forty years after the saxophonist-composer died, volunteers hope to turn his home into a historic showplace.

August 12, 2007|Gene Seymour | Newsday

NEW YORK — Even now, with its walls stripped bare, its chipped basement walls showing the effects of water damage, and its frayed carpeting, it was possible to see John Coltrane's Long Island house for what it had been -- and what it could become.

Steve Fulgoni, who has led the charge to turn the Dix Hills home of the legendary saxophonist-composer into a historic showplace, can see it. As he and other volunteers push for the home's listing in the National Register of Historic Places, the effort to preserve the Coltrane house has entered a hopeful new phase.

For one thing, it's possible now to walk (with Fulgoni) into the formerly boarded-up house to the room Coltrane used for practice. It's easy to imagine Coltrane here, working out the themes for his 1965 masterwork "A Love Supreme," as well as his late-career experiments with sound and form.

This house is where Coltrane wanted to settle down and find peace with his wife, Alice, a formidable composer and musician in her own right, and their children.

Alice Coltrane, who died at 69 in January, told Newsday in 2004 that the house gave her husband "the time and the space to be able to simply give himself totally to composing his music."

Fulgoni, director of the Friends of the Coltrane Home can imagine it being used for classes in both playing and listening to the onetime owner's boundary-breaching music.

Fulgoni's group would like to restore the house, occupied by Coltrane and his family from 1964 until his death at 40 of liver cancer in 1967.

"There are so many basic structural things we need to do right now before we can even think about what it'll be in the future," said Fulgoni, who has made fundraising for the restoration his principal mission.

"I'm into this because this family and its ideals are really important to me. Why? Because John Coltrane did with his music what Martin Luther King Jr. did with his words, sending out a message of equality and universal peace, and those are the things I believe in."

Much has happened in the three years since the Town of Huntington's Historic Preservation Commission voted to declare the vacant house a town landmark, saving it from demolition. The town purchased the building in 2005, and it has been placed on the New York Register of Historic Places.

The next step is the National Register of Historic Places.

"We're hoping to get that nailed down in the next few months," Fulgoni said.

Such a designation would open the door for new funding sources

"The house was vacant for 3 1/2 years before we acquired it," he said. "The basic structure is still very sound, but the condition internally was very poor."

About $40,000 in donations has come in, moving the group closer to its goal of $100,000 to stabilize the house by the end of the year. Local companies have responded with donations, but Fulgoni's outreach is broader than that.

"This is not only a local or a national, but an international effort," said Huntington town historian Robert C. Hughes. "We even got a $250 contribution from someone in Japan."

What many in Huntington envision for the house is a permanent John Coltrane museum much like Louis Armstrong's home in Corona, Queens. (In comparison, it took 13 years to restore and open the Louis Armstrong House & Archives.)

"Rather than use the word 'museum,' I prefer to think of it as a resource center," Fulgoni said. "We want to restore the house to the way it was and also provide educational programs for students. Some of these can take place at the house, but we also want to reach out to local schools and artists from all over to be inspired by John Coltrane."

The house, even in its uninhabitable state, is already attracting visitors from all over the world. "They just want to be near the place where John Coltrane lived," Fulgoni said. "I had someone come by who said he was from Copenhagen. I kept telling him it wasn't in any shape for a visit. He kept saying, 'I don't care. I want to come,' " Fulgoni said with a shrug. "So he did."

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