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On a quiet residential street in Germantown, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over a beloved twin home.
For nearly a decade, the three-story Victorian on Newhall Street has maintained two intertwined identities: a personal residence and an intimate art museum celebrating the lives of ordinary Black women.
The Colored Girls Museum on Newhall Street in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
The Colored Girls Museum, believed to be the first and only one of its kind, has attracted national and international attention since opening. But it appears it only recently landed on the city’s radar, a fact that now threatens to derail the museum.
“Moving the museum would be, no pun intended, an enormous lift. And I don’t know that we have decided with any real degree of certainty how we might do that,” said Brooke Whitaker-Royster, the museum’s managing director.
Painting by Nastassja Swift in the mudroom of the Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
The trouble started with a complaint filed with Philly311, the city’s customer service center for non-emergency inquiries.
It’s unclear who notified 311, but the move resulted in a pair of code violations that now sit at the center of an appeal before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the independent panel empowered to make legally binding decisions about what proposed developments get built, and what property owners are permitted to do to their homes.
Under the city’s zoning code, a museum can’t be housed in a building that’s a twin without a variance, an approved deviation from the law. A museum that’s also a residence would require the same consent.
With help from pro bono attorneys, the museum submitted a zoning permit application with the city, but it was rejected, setting up a virtual hearing on Wednesday with the zoning board.
To co-founder and executive director Vashti DuBois, who has called the twin home for more than 20 years, the museum’s value should be clear to the board.
“There’s nothing else like this anywhere. That seems pretty good for Philadelphia,” said DuBois.