More beguiling in conception? Taking his lead from housing peojects blocks away, David Adjaye referennces structures that tower outside of the historic Sugar Hill neighborhood, but which are not, and never have been, a part of it
What makes one so denounce David Adjaye's new "Sugar Hill Apartments"? Unmistakably the Anglo-African-rock-star-architect has created a stand-out structure, taller and larger than any of its neighbors. Cleverly, it's articulated by seemingly random square and rectangular windows, which imbue what might have been an otherwise utterly ponderous mass, with considerable redemptive vitality.
A white friend of mine who moved uptown, has in the vicinity, the most marvelous Victorian house. Her tenants, in a ground floor and cellar duplex apartment, pay a rent for their loft-like unit, that's generous enough to cover my friend's taxes, utilities and mortgage. Yet she objects to all new affordable housing. She contends that there's enough already, that Harlem is saturated with poor residents perpetuating a cycle of failure and despair. Vainly, I have attempted to convince her otherwise, to explain how the displacement of ten families and 30 people her house alone, as a former rooming house, represents, was a great disservice to long-term former Harlemites. 'The security of decent housing can help to stabilize and uplift poor people!' I tell her. I have also noted the arrival of $3,000.00-per-month studio apartments for rent and $1-million-plus penthouses condominiums in Harlem. 'So, as long as people as well-off as you, are willing to pay $3-million or more for a row house, the supply of affordable housing will never meet the demand.' I assure her.
She is not persuaded, but she is not me, and happily, she is even an exception. Very few oppose the worthy and elusive goal of housing people at a rate within reach. It's because apart from caring for others, most of us have had a difficult time finding somewhere nice to live for a reasonable outlay.
So, most significantly, in a rapidly gentrifying community, where the demographic is ever increasingly more and more affluent, David Adjaye's new "Sugar Hill Apartments" boast 124 units meant to house low-income and formerly homeless residents. So far, so good! What's not to like?
Looming 13 stories on the rocky precipice of Coogan’s Bluff, at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, Adjaye's building is clad in pre-cast gun-metal colored concrete. This material is so dark that it appears black, completely obscuring reliefs of stylized roses, said to relate to historic buildings nearby. Worse, the building looks rather like three gigantic and teetering stairs that might with the slightest breeze, topple away. This is meant to be a nod at the current vogue in architecture for what is billed as a 'playful' and 'provocative' dialogue: between buildings and people. Neo-Baroque, gravity-defying gestures like "Sugar Hill's" dramatically cantilevered overhangs, are intended to impress us as brilliantly unexpected, counter intuitive examples of the designer's daring, as well as his engineer's skill. Instead they strike timid me, as a needlessly nihilist in-joke between people who will, and would never, live in such a place. Offensively, they make me and others afraid and uneasy, merely for the fun of it!
Topping off all these other things, Mr. Adjaye's "Sugar Hill Apartments are disrespectful of the very Sugar Hill Historic District it occupies. It's not a matter of local critics not appreciating modernism, as he contended with slurring defensiveness in a recent New Yorker article. The Tudor Revival tapestry brick and glazed terra cotta commercial garage raised for his building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Completed in the 1920's, it was designed by Springsteen & Goldhammer as an amenity to accommodate area residents with cars as well as Giant's fans attending the Polo Grounds. This was not a building that was meant to call attention to itself. Constructed with all the care and attention to detail exhibited by Sugar Hill apartment houses, it succeeded as contextural architecture that fit in.
Its replacement does the exact opposite. Instead of harmoniously blending in, it is that spoiled child amongst the tolerant elderly, jumping up and down, screaming, "Look at me! Look at me!" It is not a great work. But, depending on the future of design, things could turn out alright: It may well become for St. Nicholas Avenue, what the Guggenheim is to Fifth Avenue, or what the Church of the Crucifixion, to Convent Avenue, an iconoclastic landmark of the future. One gathers that was Mr.Adjaye's egotistical intent. Instead, for now, it is only an overpowering, over-scaled aesthetic affront, utterly unrelated to an otherwise highly intact historic precinct hallowed as an historic district of cohesive architectural distinction and black accomplishment.
Some neighbors say Adjaye's building looks like a prison. An “arty fortress,” was New York Magazine’s phrase.
On October 6, Michael Kimmelman of the Times, by contrast, was full of praise. From the headline, Building Hope and Nurturing Into Housing: Sugar Hill Housing Will Have a School and a Museum, to an effusive close, he championed all the architect maintains he has attempted:
It has been conceived to serve some of the very poorest New Yorkers, who will move into anything but a run-of-the-mill building. Designed by a marquee architect, with no concessions to timid taste, the project aspires to must-see status...measuring its success, now or ever, anything but simple... I like the building’s exterior. Most people I’ve quizzed on the street during a half-dozen visits to the area turn out to like it, too.
The architect is David Adjaye, the gifted British star. Along with getting the commission for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, he has produced expensive private houses with dark, fashionably textured exteriors. “Why is it that this is ‘cool’ for rich people but ‘tough’ for poor people?” he is right to ask, albeit houses and apartment blocks are different in scale.
"NO!!!!" posted Mary Marshall a local resident on Facebook.
It has shortcomings, but "high density housing project" isn't one of them...This design does not fit in with my neighborhood. This neighborhood is not the "poor" neighborhood that the NYT depicts. Yes, poor people live here; but it is also the neighborhood that Caucasians are moving in so fast I can hardly blink. And, it isn't because there are so many vacancies. It's because as apartments become available, landlords raise the rents so high others in the area can't afford them. It's because Columbia University has decided to rent apartments for students. Once that started to happen, landlords simply wouldn't rent to "us JUST folk." Students move in and out as students do. That means those "just" folk in that building who are subject to rent increase, when such increases are approved, will have higher than expected rents and be forced to move. No housing project I know of in NYC has what this one will have or had the millions put into it. No housing project I know had art exhibits going on so that artists from SOHO and international cities could exhibit BEFORE the building was finished. I thought I might like to live there when I first learned of it. As the months passed and I watched its growth, read about it and listened to community objections as well as did my own investigation, I changed my mind. Yes, I'm happy for those who will get an apartment, especially those who have been in shelters and homeless or both. Supposedly a few homeless artist will also live there. We will see. This building does not honor the history of Sugar Hill if that's the ruse under which it was builtThose selected to live there are being selected through lottery. However, in my sleuth style investigation, it appears that even the lottery was selective within the lottery contrary to what several articles written Bout this building indicated. With shelters over flooded and so many people homeless, the lottery should have been just that: a lottery with whomever chosen given the opportunity to say yes or no, whether artist, homeless, in shelter or whatever their circumstances. This site used to be a garage. Whenever there was a Yankee game, you'd better get your car in so that your PAID MONTHLY space wasn't taken. An apartment building may be a better use of the space, as Michael Henry Adams and so many from the community have said and continue to say, it looks like a prison. Even the NYT had to admit one has to get right up on the brick face to see the ROSE pattern. And, I do mean RIGHT UP ON IT. 100 spaces for pre-K is good. Now, did they come from this district alone? Ok, I'll stop I need to get to Harlem more often. I assumed that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
In response, Michael Benn, an attorney from downtown and an Adjaye defender wrote:
Quality, functional and affordable housing for those who need it is most important to me. I agree that it should not come at the expense of this neighborhood's cultural/historic integrity. The discussion around aesthetics is obviously important/necessary and should take place, in this case, especially because of the historical significance of the neighborhood. I’m a fan of Adjaye’s work …and don’t necessarily have a problem with a new building having a very different architectural style than its neighbors….. IF IT WORKS. Can be interesting if it engages a conversation between styles that WORKS. Sounds like a lot of locals don’t think it does.
Despite Mr. Kimmel's contention, this seems abundantly true, particularly among Facebook respondents:
"Looks like the sort of thing we'd be taking down, not putting up." said Don Matheson
Christopher Leonard said: Looks like Soviet era hospital.
Tod Roulette asked: Bauhaus--maybe it should be another color? or glass?
While Ms.Rene Gatling observed: They do a lot of this kind of buildings inEurope. Very depressing to see it here.
Onan Delorbe: It looks like the love child of Rikers Island's OBCC, and an aboveground BART Station .
Ellyn Shannon: Yup I thought it was Soviet Union too- before I read. Is the Community Board supporting this?
A.d. Minter, a Communiy Board menber, was the most adamant in his disdain, insisting that Adjaye's new "Sugar Hill Apartments" were but the latest example of the sport of the Illusion of Inclusion of Harlem Residents: This building was to provide a number of units under the NY Affordable Housing Agreement and the 60/40 clause but it also had over 40,000 applications most of which were/are willing to pay TOP DOLLAR to live there. I watched it being built from ground break to completion (took photos) and there were practically NO MINORITIES working on the construction site. When I addressed the issue, the next week the Developers hired a (Black) woman and a young Latino guy to sit doing security and a few day (Black and Latino) laborers holding signs to direct traffic.
If you want to make an issue (which is pretty much after the fact) you need to address your grievance to the following people who signed off on the deal, gave no oversight, no accountability for follow through or construction as well as a hands-off on their continued management of this building:
Sharon Johnson-Mitchell : Why doesn't the bastard that design it live there with his family? Wouldn't let's my dog live there, or they can rent it to the exodus of White's coming to HARLEM. OH, THE NEW EUROPEANS.....
Jelena Pasic: I was wondering for a while why is this depresivne thing going Up. i drive by daily while going to NJ to pick up my kids to school. It is just ugly.
Estill Curtis Pennington: Oppressive brutalists!
Becky Baldwin : BLEAK HOUSE
Jonathan Robinson: This is hideous building is bloodless abstraction made to please Architects with Hollywood egos . Architects want to "F" us in the eye with their version of modernism. I just wish they'd get out of our face
Eliza Simmonds: This is an ugly building. Looks like a prison. Who wants to live in that? Truly sad....
Diane Zoetemelk : Oh Dear..yes this looks like a prison...so let me get this straight,do they envision family happiness living in this..or just house them ...?
Lauren Flanigan : Michael Henry Adams plus someone should look into how long the affordability clause will be in effect. I was a part of a project to buld affordable housing over a church on the upper west side until I learned that the plan was ponly affordable for twenty years and then all the apartments went up to fair market value. It's a little know thing developers do to reap the benefits of HUGE tax breaks and garner public favor unfortunately the "affordable" part usually has an expiration date. Oh yeah - And why do we insist on making lower and middle income people and the homeless live in ugly bunkers? It's super weird.
Indeed the usual plan for Broadway Housing, "Sugar "Hill's" developers, is for units’ income and price restrictions to generally expire after only 15 or 30 years, all the while generating a 10 percent return for the partners. As Broadway Housing's Director Ellen Baxter put it, "permanent affordability is not really accurate. It’s our intention, … but it is legally impossible to write into the documents because that would control the market."
This seems not to overly concern Michael Kimmelman:
Broadway Housing Communities is pushing the envelope, admirably. Mr. Adjaye has squeezed a lot into the building. But subsidized housing always involves trade-offs.
The housing shouldn’t be one of them.
Of course, even convinced that "Sugar Hill " was inappropriate for any historic district, too ungainly and stridently dissimilar to all around it, much as if it were the state of Israel, one was unprepared to oppose it. Greater injustices, a shortage of non-luxury housing and gentrification, would make one heartless to oppose almost any relief.
Neither difficulty, persecution or hardship, always engender empathy. Those who have suffered, yet meet out suffering, like those who profess that their hurt or good works makes them superior, can be insufferable. David Adjaye is unquestionably a darling of the intellectual elite. So to community residents who suggested that his building might be more acceptable in a more sympathetic color, Mr. Adjaye contended that such a compromise of his integrity, would be unconscionable.
Ellen Baxter is a quite different matter. Broadway Housing is a not-for-profit developer with an exceptional record. Yet Broadway Housing Communities' founder and executive director, having driven away her able and restraining African American assistant, is more reckless than ever. Presiding over what has evolved into an all-but-exclusively white-run organization, her suggestion that anything she might do, is both imperative and fair, as she works so hard and does so much, to help the poor, ignorant, down-trodden Coloured folks, has become more arrogantly emphatic than ever.
Indicative of Ms. Baxter's being a victim of "starcatecture', was her emphasis of seeking out "fresh perspectives" by an emerging architect to create an "icon". Such 'branding' she deemed, "Should be celebrated, and the result should be evaluated in the context of the financial and regulatory constraints BHC faced in developing the building."
Wonderfully light-filled, Adjaye's interiors are enlivened by both square and rectangular windows. Unfortunately, his small square casements open only a fraction, inhibiting cross ventilation or escape in case of fire
So lame a rational was why Broadway Housing choose Adjaye Associates, a prestige firm totally inexperienced in multifamily housing, but renowned for cool urban chic, to design its first ground-up project. Just what might such a building contribute, architecturally, to how affordable housing is furthered in Harlem?
As Mr. Benn suggests, the heart of the troubles pitting housing, jobs, a museum and pre-school against Harlem's heritage, are politicians. Most view culture as expendable while people who lived here making an abandoned neighborhood viable, vanish. It comes as no surprise then to learn that while three quarters of Greenwich Village is protected by landmarking and on the upper-West side half of the buildings are official landmarks, in Harlem, only five percent are protected.
It was hardly a mistake when this arresting photograph was selected for the cover of Harlem Lost and Found all those years ago. Paul Rocheleau's image depicts the very heart of Sugar Hill, where aristocracy have always lived. From far below this lofty elevation, whether Irish immigrants, or African American participants in the 'Great Migration', many have gazed upward with wistful admiration, imagining that here, in fine houses, life must be sweetly trouble-free. This was supposed to be so, because folks who lived on the hill, had plenty of 'doe, ray, me', the sweetness that makes the world go around.
Constant with narratives of the American Dream, are unlikely luck, unexpected misfortune and outstanding outcomes, Harlem's Sugar Hill has always been a destination of aspiration, if in doubt, just take a listen to Billy Strayhorne's and Duke Ellington's Take the A-Train.
The Westminster, a turreted bastion-like apartment marked the entrance to the fashionable section of St. Nicholas Avenue at West 145th Street. Designed by Theodore E. Thompson and completed in 1893, it was ajoined by a contemporary 5 house row to the north, on St. Niholas Avenue and backed by a group of 10 houses on Edgecombe Avenue. In 1915, on Edgecombe, Judge and Mrs. John P. Cohalan resided at number 706. At 263 lived Mr. and Mrs. Maximillian D. Berlitz of the Berlitz School of Languages fame .
In 1956 all these buildings gave way to the Bowery Savings Bank Apartments, a 13-storey structure designed by York & Sawyer. Long home to song stylist Miss Dinah Washington and home for a short span for singer Sarah Vaghan, according to the New York Times, the Bowery Building was Harlem's first "unsubsidised housing since 1938 with the first new bank here in fotyy-eight years..."
Stamped sheet metal cornices and parapets were originally painted stone-color to be indistinguishable from masonry. Today frequently black or green, they detract from rather than enhance architectural compositions.
The Albertina, from 1896, a drugstore and flats has lost its impressive stamped tin parapet. To the north stands Schwartz & Gross' neo-Georgian Harvard Court built in 1906.
1909: Retained by mason-builder Hugh Reynolds, in 1891, architects Thayer & Robinson designed a row of five houses, numbers 713 to 721 at the southwest corner of 146th Street. Here they devised a prominent corner tower like no other ever built. Buff-colored brick trimmed with agitated courses of red brick, they almost reach an A-B-A-B-A symmetry, until the corner house, which is, as historian Christopher Gray describes it, " a hot-air balloon of masonry."
First adapted into the exclusive Heights Club, by 1897, and converted within two years into the respected Barnard School for Boys by William Livingston Hazen, as Thaddeus Wilkerson's photograph from 1909 shows, number 721 apparently never did have a conical, or any other conventional kind of roof. From about 1920 through 1964 it was occupied by one of the area's first speakeasies, the Silver Dollar Cafe.
Ca. 1885: Koch's New Mount St. Vincents Hotel, originally Dr. Samuel Bradhurst estate called Pinehurst.
Ca, 1887: Rudimentary stables at Koch's New Mount St. Vincents Hotel are indicative of its role as a roadhouse catering to sports who raced their Thoroughbred steeds from Central Park along St. Nicholas Avenue.
Ca. 1845: Elizabeth Bradhurst Field and her husband Hickson Field, Esq.
The New York Tennis Club courts behind Theodore Minot Clark's remarkable houses at 727-731 St. Nicholas Avenue.
Built for merchant Nathan Hobart’s occupancy, the impressive four-story northwest corner house was demolished by 1906, to be replaced by 723-727 St. Nicholas Avenue, a six-story Colonial Revival style apartment building, designed by Lorenz F. J. Weiher. Before it was unceremoniously swept away, the grand former 729 St. Nicholas Avenue was not after all ever inhabited by Mr. and Mrs. Hobart their two sons and four daughters. Instead, they lived next door, at 731, while their intended residence, boasting one of only two elevators private Harlem house, became a private club. First it served as the New York Tennis Club, and then as the elegant Heights Club.
Late in the 1890's the astonishing Hobart houses on St. Nicholas Avenue became even more extraordinary with the addition of a sensuously graceful new bronze railed stoop at number 331.
Frederick P. Dinkelberg's houses with iron s-scrolled bracketed parapets at numbers 401-409 West 147th Street.
Paul Franklyn Higgs' Italian Renaissance style for wealthy William Haigh built in 1890 at 412 West 147th Street.
Completed in 1893, architect Arthur Bates Jennings' seven-house row including numbers 718-730 St. Nicholas Avenue combine all of the elaboration and swager he habitualy displayed on the fifty-foot frontages of tycoon's mansions, on these twenty-foot houses built on speculation.
1909: St. Nicholas Avenue and Place looking north from West 148th Street showing Frederick P. Dinkelberg's numbers 757-775 St. Nicholas Avenue from 1896. The round tower at the center of Thaddeus Wilkerson's photograph anounces houses designed by Frank Wennemer, including 819-814 St. Nicholas Avenue and 11-19 St. Nicholas Place. The three houses on the east side of St.Nicholas Avenue are part of Paul Higgs' row comprising numbers 760-766 from 1895. Further north stands John P. Leo's dormered Purling Apartments at 768-770 from 1902 and Henri Fouchaux's Arundel Court at 772-778 from 1905.
Brick and brownstone tenements by W. H. Boylan from 1899, 783-789 were the most humble type of housing provided in this swell neighborhood. Yet 789 is significant as the home of Norman Rockwell and his family, from 1900 through 1902.
The engaged tower and bow window of Clarance True's 842 and 844 St. Nicholas Avenue, from 1894, correspond to the gifted designer's singular group of eight individualy treated speculative houses on St. Nicholas Place. Skillfully they reflect the ensemble to the north, built the same year from designs by John C. Bunre. More conventional, this swelled front brownstone group cost $25,000 each. African American engineer Leroy Frederick Florant, who studied at Howard and Columbia Universities, lived at 848 while working on the Manhattan Project from 1944-1946.
Clarance True's 842 and 844 St. Nicholas Avenue.
Frederick P. Dinkelberg's rythmic row, streching from 148th to 149th Streets, 757-775 St. Nicolas Avenue, unified by robust bowed fronts is subtly differentiated through contrasted materials and finely crafted detailing, including stone carving by Nugent & Doxey. The ten imposing five storey houses were built by local developer William Broadbelt, who like the family of Norman Rockwell was a parishioner of St. Luke'sEpiscopal Church where he led the vestry and Norman sang in the boy choir.
Splendidly detailed with bronze capitaled granite Ionic columns, 400 West 149th Street was home from the late 1920's onward, to Caribbean native and dentist, Dr. Charles Ford. A founder of the United Mutual Life Insurance Co. Ford became a wealthy property owner.
A remarkable entrepreneurial success Rose Morgan, though lesbian, married boxing great Joe Louis. Early in the 1940's she opened Rose Meta's House of Beauty, a pioneering day-spa-beauty salon catering to black women, on three floors of 401 West 148th Street, which was also known as 757 St. Nicholas Avenue. Late in the 1940's it caused a scandal when Miss Morgan was discoverd with singer Marion Bruce here in a situation of compromising intimatey
In 1943, famed stride pianist Charles Luckeyth Roberts, seen above, hat in hand, seated next to Willie 'The Lion' Smith, acquired number 753 St. Nicholas Avenue which had earlier been the Moonlight Bar and Grill. He opperated a nightclub here until 1947, before moving on to the ground floor of 773, which from 1935 to 1940 had served as the Poosenpahtuck Night Club. Robert's "Lucky's Renddezvous" was a gay-friendly club with a stellar clientelle. Clifton Webb, Lena Hornr, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorne and Billie Holliday all came here. One attraction was the waiters, classically trained artist who sang arias and ballads while delivering drinks. Evolving into the Pink Angel and the St. Nicks Pub, Harlem's oldest continuous jazz venue only recently closed.
Looking south at the towered row houses designed by Frank Wennemer, including 819-814 St. Nicholas Avenue and 11-19 St. Nicholas Place and W. H. Boylan's tenements from 1899, including 783 -789 St. Nicholas Avenue Number 789 is significant as the home of Norman Rockwell and his family, from 1900 through 1902.
Neville & Bagge's 828-834 St. Nicholas Avenue, also known as 31-37 St. Nicholas Place, were built in 1896. Written late in life, in his memoir Norman Rockwell recalls his family living here with his coal dealer grand father John William Rockwell from 1902 to 1903.
Number 464 St. Nicholas Avenue extends all the way through the blook to Edgecombe Avenue, incoperating numbers 313-317. Completed in 1901 the St. Nicholas Court Apartments were designed by prolific Henri Fouchaux boasting the areas most flamboyant cornice above an Ionic colonnade. Origionally this sheet metal projection would have been painted to match this stonwork. The entire complex cost $230,000. Durring the 1920's St. Nicholas Court was home to writer Arna Bontemps.
Henri Fouchaux's Arundel Court at 772-778 St. Nicholas Avenue, from 1905, by masking the newly mandated light-court with an arch and recessing fire escapes in subordinate archways, assumes a far more monumental presence than it might have otherwise. Operatic impresario Oscar Hammerstein was an early resident.
Featuring a canted square corner tower, 881-887 St. Nicholas Avenue and 411-425 West 154th Street, were designed as rental houses by James Stroud for retired City Comptroller 'Honest John' Kelly. Completed in 1885, this group with fanciful porches and roof tops was among the most semi-suburban in the area. By 1920, the towered corner house was replaced by a restrained neo-Classical six-storey brick apartment house by Rosario Candella, who was to gain fame devising luxury housing for the rich quite unlike this modest structure.
Community Hospital at 8 St. Nicholas Place.
Built originally as two imposing residences for prosperous merchants, the picturesque Queen Anne style John W. Fink house, on the left, started as number 8. Jacob P. Baiter’s residence next door, on the right, was number 6. Designed by Richard S. Rosenstock, the Fink house was completed in 1885. Despite an abundance of vacant lots still available in 1892 when Baiter commisioned Theodore G. Stein to design his house, it was optomistacally given the form of a conventional townhouse. A yeast manufacturer, Baiter had an elevator, employed eight live-in servants and had patronized the Linspar Decorating Company. In his great novel The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington's anti-hero George A. Minafer puzzles over the quandary that faced many as to the proper way to build in the absence of zoning codes,
"Well, for instance, that house----well, it was built like a townhouse. It was like a housemeant for a street in the city, What kind of a house was that for people of any taste to build out here in the country?"
Minifer's love interest trys to explain how her father and others feel that soon houses being built in the city towards this very allotment, will merge it with the teaming metropolis only further confuse him. On St. Nicholas Place, the two magnate's houses were joined together in 1912, by Dr. Henry Lloyd as a private clinic. By 1927 Dr. Lloyd's Sanitorium was re-established as the interracial Peoples Hospital. Langston Hughes’ mother was a paitent here, as was local photographer Thaddeus Wilkerson, who died at People's Hospital in 1943.
1890: St. Nicholas Place.
The picturesque Queen Anne style John W. Fink house built in 1885 to designs by Richard S. Rosenstock incoperates a terra-cotta griffin on the crest of the roof's jerkin headed gable.
1885: The John W. Fink house from Edgecombe Avenue where stacked slate slabs await being set as sidewalk pavements.
The circus showman famed as James A. Bailey lived here in a magnificent house he built in 1888.
he is said to have chosen what by now was being called Washington Heights because St. Nicholas Avenue was a traditional route for racing and due to the proximity of the newly projected ‘speedway’, a public highway built by taxpayers along the Harlem River, given over as a place where the elite could drag race .
Ca. 1903: The Harlem River Speedway
An example of how strong ties linked Harlem’s German-speaking residents, Nicholas C. and Agnes Benziger’s house at 345 Edgecombe Avenue was devised in 1890-91, by William Schickel. A Swiss native, Mr. Benziger’s family supplied missals, candles, and other ecclesiastical goods for Roman Catholic Churches. All-but astylar externally, replete with stained glass portraits of their children and Swiss-Gothic style furniture, the dining room was also custom designed by Schickel. From around 1914-1940, the Benziger house functioned as the psychiatric ward of Dr. Lloyd's Sanatorium. During the 1940's it was a daycare center attended by Sylvia Waters. The view from St. Nicholas Place illustrates why residents of the Harlem Valley long imagined that people on 'the hill' lived the 'sweet life'.
Like the Disney Castle, integrating iconic elements of the Chateauesque style with aspects of the Romanesque, constructed between 1886-1888, according to plans drawn by architect Samuel Burrage Reed, showman James A. Bailey’s stone mansion occupied five building lots and cost $80,000.
Ca. 1888: Number 10 St. Nicholas Place from West 150th Street.
Ca. 1890: Mrs. James Anthony Bailey on her front porch at 10 St. Nicholas Place.
A stylized sunrise.
In the tower a ship's lantern is suspended from a sunburst
As a 16-year-old, Marguerite Marshall, who loved the movies, inexplicably, dreamed of helping make people beautiful. Her talented mother danced at the Cotton Club, but she wanted to become a plastic surgeon. Imagine a woman, an African-American woman, becoming a plastic surgeon in the late 1930s!
Marge also used to walk past the extraordinary, 30-room limestone house at 10 St. Nicholas Place, at the corner of 150th Street, built by circus showman James Anthony Bailey. With her Wadleigh High School friends, Nellie and Edith, she'd dream about what it would be like to live there. One day, she impulsively rang the bell and asked the owner, Dr. Franz Koempel, and his wife Bertha, if she could have the right of first refusal if the house was ever sold. Koempel, the third person to own the house, was famous internationally as a pioneering X-ray specialist. A founder of the Steuben Society, he and his wife spent each summer at their villa in Bavaria.
Several years later a ''For Sale'' sign appeared on the Koempel's lawn, and Marge rang the bell again, reminding the owner of her promise. The widowed Bertha Koempel happily conceded that an understanding existed, but she insisted that any acquisition must also include two shingled houses north of hers, which had been acquired years earlier to protect the house's light and air. The asking price was $86,000, just $6,000 more than number 10 had cost to erect in 1888. It was an astonishing amount for most blacks of the period.
Marge, her husband Warren, an early black police officer, and her parents, pooled their resources. ''There was a lot of scraping around and getting it together, but I got the house,'' she later recalled.
Marguerite Marshall Blake lived there from 1951 until 2007, operating a funeral home on the ground floor since 1955.
This was how one of New York's most extraordinary landmarks was saved from total destruction. Subsequently the Blakes were inundated by offers to buy their house, inevitably from whites. Warren felt that these prospective buyers were often motivated, at least in part, by a feeling that their house was "too good, too special for blacks to own."
This magnificent structure, then, is his and Marge's enduring monument. Thanks to them, generations not yet born will be able to enjoy this gift from our past to the future, and the true hero of this story, of course, is the beautiful, kind and ingenious lady, Marguerite Marshall Blake. All of us who knew her were blessed, and, through her foresight, she blesses everyone, forever!
The view from Sugar Hill.
Affordability and insight were what Jie and Martin Spollen brought to the table acquiring number 10. Placing their $1,500,000 bid, they won an ill-treated, but they well realized, salvageable treasure, one unable to be replicated at any cost, but capable with careful planing of restoration. With painstaking devotion they are investing a fortune in time and money to restore what was with the utmost authentic fidelity.
A pair of attached houses, designed to be read as a single imposing villa, number 14 and 16 St. Nicholas Place, built between 1883-83, were designed by William Milne Grinnell
Costing $10,000 each they were erected for developer James Montieth who promptly died. Number 14 was acquired in 1893 by educator and publisher A. Thomas Alexander. For many years number 16 was occupied by spinster Emmeline Reiner, a woman of independent means with property worth $250,000
Starting in 1938, with her husband, educator James Egbert Allen, Dr. Alma Mary Haskins, who was one of only two woman, and the only African-American woman, practicing podiatry in New York City in the mid-twentieth century, lived at number 16. A native of Greenwood, South Carolina, James Allen, who had received degrees from Smith University, City College, and New York University taught in New York City public schools and was a tireless advocate for establishing Black History Week to celebrate African American attainment.
Part of the Koempel estate bought by Marguerite Marshall Blake in 1950, today both houses at 14 and 16 St. Nicholas Place again have a single owner. Much as the deterioration of number 10 helped make it affordable, following a widespread fire at number 14, through the heroic efforts of local historian Lana Turner, longtime resident Francis Redhead was able to affordably purchase 14 and 16 together. It’s no exaggeration to say Mr. Redhead's ongoing restoration efforts have been as extensive and admirable as the Spollen’s.
The Rev. Dr. Maunsell van Rensselaer and Maunsell van Rensselaer , Jr., residences, numbers 22-24 St. Nicholas Place.
Ca. 1895: the Rev. Dr. Maunsell van Rensselaer.
The Rev. Dr. Maunsell van Rensselaer and Maunsell van Rensselaer , Jr., residences, numbers 22-24 St. Nicholas Place. Before their untimely demolition in 1906 , the houses served for six years as a private girls school
Number 401 West 153rd Street was built in the mid 1880's for Frederick Nelson Dubois, principle of a leading wholesale plumbing supplier. The last free-standing private house to survive on the north end of St. Nicholas Place, it was demolished in 1930 to make way for the neo-Gothic style apartment house designed by architect Horace Ginsberg at 66-74 St. Nicholas Place. The notable author, poet, and writer, Langston Hughes would lease a studio apartment hide-away here from 1937 to 1941.
Built in 1894, Clarence True’s houses at 43-57 St. Nicholas Place and 842- 844 St. Nicholas Avenue, are exemplary of the American basement plan, where one enters near the ground level. In place of a straight flight inside to upper floors, a U-shaped stair is placed in the center of the building. This expedient allowed reception rooms, at the front and the back, to extend the full width of the house. Referencing Flemish and Northern European Renaissance sources, with stepped gables, light colored materials and large round corner bays, in plan as well as design these houses are among the most sophisticated ever produced in 19th-century Harlem.
1909: When the photograph immediately above was made Paul Cadmus and his sister Fidelma,who would latter marry her brother’s onetime lover, art impresario and patron Lincoln Kirstein, had escaped a hateful tenement on Amsterdam Avenue at 103 Street, for the comforts of 849 St. Nicholas Avenue. Designed by Janes & Leo, number 849 with 853 had been completed in 1898. Paired windows below pediments at the top storey give the domestic illusion of dormers in a mansard roof.
An important Sugar Hill watering hole, eating place and place of assignation for over 50 years, Troger's Hotel at 92 St. Nicholas Place, was built on land leased from some of the City's wealthiest real estate operators, Robert and Ogden Goelet. The developers, who spent just seventy-five hundred dollars building this resort, were Henry and Frederick Toger, proprietors of Troger's Brothers Liquors on Columbus Avenue. The success of their operation was assured by convenient proximity to both the Polo Grounds' grandstand and the Harlem Speedway. Many a discriminating sportsman who patronized both facilities could often be found taking refreshment here following a game or race. There were even a limited number of private rooms for dinning and sleeping for more intimate meetings.
Continuing under white management a full decade after the environs had become New York's elite African American neighborhood, in the 1930's Troger's became one of two branches of Bowman's Cafe and Grill. Bowman's, in 1958, in turn gave way to the Bankers' Lounge, featuring jazz trios and organ soloist like Gloria Bell or Kenny Burrell's Trio, well into the mid-1960's.
George Martin Huss’ Hooper Memorial Fountain.
A one-time director of the Iron Steamboat Company, John Hooper also served as president of the Colwell Lead Company and the North River Savings Bank, When Hooper died in 1889, he willed the cities of Brooklyn and New York $10,000 to construct two fountains “whereat man and beast can drink.”
Lassoed by young vandals in the 1981, the toppled column was broken in half. Following designation of the 155th Street Viaduct, so responsible for Sugar Hill development in the late 1890's and early 1900's, the bridge and salvaged fountain elements, were carefully restored.
By what accident did the Georgian-revival style Colonial Parkway Apartments at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, familiarly known as ‘409', come to be Sugar Hill’s most sought after address? Designed by the architectural firm Schwartz & Gross, and built for the Candler Holding Co. in 1917, it didn’t open to African-Americans until the late 1920’s. Moderately elegant, home to Giants’ great Miller Huggins, it attracted numerous outstanding black leaders, both because it had previously barred them and because it was the tallest, most elevated building open to blacks. W.E.B Dubois, Walter White, William Stanley Braithwaite, Aaron Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Jimmie Lunceford, Mercer Ellington, Billie Strayhorne, Jules Bledsoe, Roy Wilkins and journalist Marvel Cook all lived here. It was to Harlem of yesteryear what the Lenox Terrace is today. But in time, as affluent African Americans came to have more options to establish 'suburban Sugar Hills' at places like New Rochelle, Addisleigh Park and Patterson, Sugar Hill declined.
Subject to catastrophic losses in terms of neglect and the careless destruction of an extraordinary built environment, Sugar Hill, slow to be rediscovered and landmarked, ravaged by epidemics of drug abuse and political indifference, endures. Nonetheless, even poised for reinvestment and metamorphosis, terrible, stupid, needless threats persist.
Ellen Baxter, Broadway Housing Communities founder and executive director, calls her new project that destroyed a national landmark, but provides 124 units of affordable housing and a children's museum at 155th Street and Street Nicholas Avenue, "a remarkable development on Sugar Hill," Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the $80.2 million asymmetrical tower designed by British architect David Adjaye offers not only necessary affordable housing but also a, "rich cultural resource that will build on the grand tradition of arts in Sugar Hill."
One cannot possibly argue with either assessment. Certainly in the face of gentrification, more and better affordable housing is needed than ever before. Only, why when presented with some benefit, is Harlem always made to sacrifice some landmark or otherwise to relenquish our cultural legacy? Why is a building so needed that some might happily see it made twice as high, colored black, made to appear unstable and designed in every way to detract from the surrounding city, state and federally designated historic district, rather than imagined in a way that might compliment it? Imposition, dismissal, condescension, and insistence that every choice, be a ‘Sophie’s choice’, or no choice at all, these are all today’s subtler, but no less dire forms of racist, paternalistic, elitism.