Growing up in the wilds of Houston, Texas, 'Harlem was a dream,' says my exceedingly young and beautiful friend, the author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Reared in Akron, Ohio, it was the same for me. For either one of us the prospect that we might write about my fabled home, seemed unlikely. But we did!
In celebration of Black History Month, the chic boutique at Harlem Flo will host an old fashioned 'tea party', featuring Sharifa's award-winning meditation, Harlem Is Nowhere, and my award-winning history, Harlem: Lost and Found, An Architectural and Social History 1765-1915. There will be music and tea and Ms. Rhodes-Pitts and I will be inscribing books with dedications.
The date is Saturday, February 18, 2012, from four until half past six o'clock. For additional information one can contact Stefan Handl, the proprietor of the Harlem Flo Enterprises, by phone or email. To pre-purchase books, ensuring a more personalized inscription, one may call (212) 316-1525, or email harlemflo.com.
The address is 2276 Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Ave). at 122nd Street. The most convenient subway trains are the A, C, B or D to 125th Street.
While Sharifa's highly acclaimed Harlem Is Nowhere, is less than a year old, my book has already been around the block. It was ten full years ago that Harlem: Lost and Found was published by the Monnacelli Press. It was auspiciously launched with a party on Lenox Avenue, a progressive supper offering a different course at four different businesses. A highly diverse young and old, gay and straight, black and white, rich and not-rich crowd of 120 well-wishers assembled, wandering over three blocks. Defying the oppresive memory of September 11th, spirits were optimistically bright on that unlikely warm late November night. This is the spirit we intend to recreate on the 18th.
Thanks to Ellyn Shannon's generosity, the entree, a decade ago, a choice of salmon or Moroccan fried chicken, was provided at Brian Washington Palmer's Native Restaurant.
My friend Leah Abraham hosted dessert at Settepani. This was the mild evening's highlight. As my friends quaffed a case of both Moet Champagne and Martell Cognac, courtesy of Schieffelin & Somerset, while sampling Leah's wonderful rum-flavored chocolate cake, I obediently signed books. Some of my best friends were guests: Alma Rangel, Lou Willard, Dorothea Towells Church, Claudette Law, Josephine Jones, Christabel Gough and Carolyn Kent. New Landmark's Commission chair Robert Tierney came with Stanley Michaels. My Mom, resplendent in yellow, my oldest sister Deborah and her daughter Tiffany, had driven in from Ohio, too. But the presence that most delighted everyone was Eartha Mae's! Indeed, when Eartha Kitt honored my request and sang Santa Baby, acappella, we were, all of us, over-the-moon!
Top: Eartha with Deborah and our Mom.
Mom and me, Eartha, me with Tiffany.
Ann Dobson, Tina Smith, Mom, Eartha, Tiffany and Bertha Robinson, with Claudette Law standing.
Eartha with MHA.
As Sharifa would agree, one of the great unavoidable disappointments connected with writing about Harlem is the cache of information sure to come too late, after your book has already gone to press. I had first learned of my ancestral Harlem homeland in the Akron Public Library, via the Met's Harlem on My Mind exhibition catalogue, and the James Van der Zee monographs. Here blacks had made great art, worn jewels, carried waking sticks and amazed the world. Isolated in a wilderness where black boys were supposed to be sports heros and to scorn the white man's cultural snares, Harlem had so much to teach me.
If arresting architecture here first caught my attention, it's class and racial politics that are of ever increasing interest. In recent years it has not required genius to be made aware of how the racial and social transformation James Wheldon Johnson warned about, is well underway.
By 1920 accelerated black migration from the South and the Caribbean during the First World War made Harlem into the African American cultural capital. Adopting the white ethnic model, wherein disciplined party politics equaled political wallop, black leaders were able to secure street name changes and affordable housing in thoroughly red-lined Harlem of the 1960's through the 1990's.
Today, 'affordable' housing is the exception. The 'change' elected bureaucrats assiduously helped foster will surely spell their demise. But this was hardly the goal.
Knowing many blacks lack resources, movers and shakers merely turn to people who do have cash. It's a logical calculation that's helped expand campaign coffers and spurred condominium development, in addition. Changes wrought by this alliance of expediency have hardly been inevitable, organic, fair or right. Neither might nor means, makes right.
What of a century ago, when white residents greeted tentative black settlement near 135th Street, as they might have met the invasion of foreign marauders? 'The Negros have infiltrated yet another block on 130th Street, where they had previously been repelled', screamed one typically hysterical headline.
Langston Hughes outside his 1869 Italianate rowhouse, by Alexander Wilson, at 20 East 127th Street.
Writing Harlem: Lost and Found, An Architectural and Social History 1765-1915, was a labor of of love, a gift to myself and to the community associated with the place Sharifa characterizes as 'The world's Black Mecca' . Experiencing editors who insisted, "I don't believe you will find very many people willing to pay $50.00, for a book about such a gritty and depressing place as Harlem..." I'm happy that my book, filled with exquisite photographs, sells for $65.00. With a royalty agreement of a little less than $2.00 per book, I never expected to get rich, and I haven't, either. But I think that Harlem has benefited, with people who found it hard to imagine the possibilities of Harlem, getting a good glimpse of what was and what can be, by seeing Harlem through my eyes. In his New Yorker profile Adam Gopnick was certainly bemused by my enthusisam, "Michael Henry Adams not only sees the glass as half full; he sees a glass, where others see only a puddle of stagnate water, spilled long, long ago..."
Like a fire ranger's lookout in a national park, Julius B. Kroel's Mount Morris Park fire tower, from 1855, is the only survivor among several which offered fire prevention before the advent of the telegraph.
For 150 years it's been the prospect of well-designed, commodious and affordable housing that most contributed to Harlem's appeal. In the 1870's this was true for Irish immigrants, including most of the city's senior elected leadership. By the 1890's, Jews, moving up from the over-crowding and deprivations of the Lower East Side, eager to become prosperous 'Uptown Jews', responded to Harlem's allure. Facing restrictive deed covenants, bigoted agreements whereby owners refused to sell their property to 'Hebrews', they employed New York State's Civil Rights Law, and won. The legal successes won by Jews moving into Harlem were not lost on blacks who encountered simular hostility once we sought improved housing here.
Cleverdon & Putzel's 13-17 West 122nd Street were completed in 1888.
Henry Roth's magnificent depiction of the mostly white Harlem of a short century ago, where blacks, Jews and gentiles each had their place, was a revelation.
Edward I. Shire's Temple Ansche Chesed at 1883 Seventh Avenue, was erected in 1909. It was designed to resemble a neo-Classical early 18th-century London church. Reflecting demographic shifts, it was sold in the 1920's. As Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church, it served Puerto Rican immigrants. Today it is the African American Mount Neboh Baptist Church.
The vaulted stained-glass skylight.
Ca. 1935: Numbers 191 through 199 Lenox Avenue, at West 120th Street. Erected in 1888, this Romanesque group was designed by Charles Lindsey.
Numbers 133-143 West 122nd Street, designed by Francis Hatch Kimball and completed in 1887, exhibit superb detailing, inside and out, including...
Handsome cast iron railings...
Exceptionally inventive carving, contrasted with vermilion brickwork and terra cotta ornament...
Intricate stained-glass transoms...
Mahogany mantelpieces with Minton tiles...
Dresser-designed fire boxes...
And amazing American art tiles!
Some Harlem houses retain original coal ranges.
Back yards, used for drying clothes also had grass and flowers.
Ca. 1900: Numbers 11 through 14 Mount Morris Park West, designed by accomplished architect James E. Ware, were built in 1889.
Abundant historic houses of worship are yet another proud legacy of Harlem. The region's first Christan church moved west to 267 Lenox Avenue in 1885 with its fashionable members. Clad in golden Ohio sandstone, the most conspicuous feature of the new gargoyle-embellished Collegiate Low Dutch Reformed Church of Harlem, was a soaring, slender spire, 'the finger of God,' old-timers said. It was the work of prolific architect John R. Thompson. Transformed into the home of an African American congregation in 1939, the Dutch Reformed Church became the Ephesus Seventh-Day Adventist Church, with a thousand members and a mortgage paid-in-full, by 1945.
Extensive rebuilding by a determined congregation has already cost several million dollars since 1978. These heroic efforts culminated in December of 2006, with restoration of the long-truncated steeple. Overseen by young church member Allen Price, working closely with preservation architect Page Ayers Cowley, this undertaking introduced a replacement pinnacle of lead-coated copper and steel. Like the election of a black president, this recovery was something this Harlem resident never expected to live to see.
Charles B. Atwood's Romanesque style Lenox Avenue Unitarian Church, completed in 1891, from 1919 to 1942 served as Congregation Chebra Ukadisha B'nai Israel. Since the start of the Second World War it has housed the Ebenezer Gospel Tabernacle.
Distinctive commercial buildings also once contributed a great deal to Harlem's eventful streetscapes. Many of the most important, like the Hotel Theressa and the Pabst Harlem Music Hall and Restaurant, where young Hungarian Sigmund Romberg was the regular pianist for $55 per week, between 1910 and 1911, prior to gaining fame as the last great composer of operetta, survived intact until quite recently.
Erected in 1900, Pabst Harlem Concert Hall and Restaurant, at 243-51 West 124th Street, was designed by German-American Otto Strack, who also designed the Pabst Hotel at Times Square and Pabst Grand Central at Columbus Circle. A 'Lobster Palace' of the type popular with Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell and made more familiar to the past generation by Hello, Dolly, Pabst got a daily supply of seafood by train from Maine. Rather than accept black patronage the restaurant closed to become a Kress dime store in 1917. It was here the Harlem Riot of 1935 started. The skylit vaulted Hall was blacked out and divided into two floors only in 2000.
Another of Harlem's noteworthy examples of the Queen Anne style is the present-day Bethelite Community Baptist Church on Lenox Avenue at 123rd Street. This red brick and terra-cotta building with 'Richardsonian Romanesque' and 'Shavian' details, was also designed by Lamb & Rich for a compitition which included McKim, Mead & White, in 1883. Due to difficulties of financing, work was delayed in getting underway. So it was not until 1889 that the Harlem Club was ready to accomodate its membership of influential Protestant gentlemen.
Dissension among the members, both over money and the wisdom of admitting Catholics and Jews, caused the august club to disband and foreclosure followed in 1907. Similarly, the next owners, the Eastman Business College, closed in 1935, rather than forbear black students. Father Divine, operating a Peace Mission Heaven here, welcomed all. The building has been used as a more typical church since 1947.
1895: The Harlem Club, 34 West 123rd Street.
The Entrance Hall.
The Ladies' Parlor.
The Billard Room.
Established in 1901, the African American Mount Moriah Baptist Church had worshipped at 2050 Fifth Avenue since 1935. The building was designed by Henry F. Kilburn, and built in 1887-88 for the Mount Morris Baptist Church, on a site previously owned by the First Baptist Church of Harlem.
1870: The 'Carpenter Gothic' Meeting House of the First Baptist Church of Harlem, completed in ca. 1854, burned down on April 12, 1873. Rodgers & Browne's George Richards' house, from 1866, in 1879 became headquartes for the Irving Club. In 1880 this exclusive group of men became the Harlem Club, which was relocated nine years later.
The First Baptist Church of Harlem's new brick church was razed to make way for a larger, more elaborate edifice.
1888: Henry Kilburn's design called for a lively tower which was never completed.
The Mount Moriah Baptist Church is now due to become a residence and art gallery.
By 1910 the elegant Finnish Worker's Educational Alliance had taken the place of the Richards' house which had been used by the Harlem Club.
Completed in 1871, Gage Inslee's house for Henry W. Genet was never occupied by 'Prince Hal', the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall boss. It was acquired instead by John McLaughlin, the children's book publisher.
John Dwight's $100,000 house at 1 West 123rd Street was a rare example of yet another corner house with a prominent bowed front. Finished in 1890 for the Arm & Hammer baking soda magnate, it is a remarkable survival with fine interiors. The architect was Frank H. Smith of Boston.
On the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue at 127th Street, once stood an apartment house with a bow-fronted
Designed by Cleverdon & Putzel, this exuberant townhouse has a sweeping stoop.
Buying out her brothers, Marie Mott McLean attempted to maintain their father's house at 2122 Fifth Avenue as a shrine. Jordan L. Mott, had established at Mott Haven in the Bronx an extensive iron works. Starting out making stoves, in time this foundry manufactured facades, railings and plumbing fixtures. Both because the house was in black Harlem and stylistically, what in the 1930's would have been termed a 'Victorian horror', Mrs. McLean was unsuccessful in her campaig to save it. In 1938 it was demolished by Robert Moses to make way for a play ground. The repository of Mott's equally no-longer-fashionable art collection, the house had origionally been intended as a home for Richard B. Connolly, the scandalous 'Slippery Dick', allied with Boss Tweed.
A Mott Factory mantelpiece.
The walnut staircase.
Rosa Bonheurs adorned the Library.
The Mott Drawing Room.
The Dining Room.
The mansion of merchant Michael Sampter occupied the other half of the Mott's block front at 131st Street. It, too, was swept away for the playground.
High Victorian, muscular-Gothic St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, the first Episcopal parish in Harlem, was organized in 1829. Land for the building was given by local estate owner and Harlem booster, Charles Henry Hall. The first church building, erected between 1829-30, was on East 127th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues. A refined early Greek Revival structure, the clapboard edifice was destroyed by fire in the 1870s. A new church was built on the same site in 1873, to the designs of Henry M. Congdon, who was a church specialist. Congdon was again retained by the congregation in 1889, this time to dismantle and move the church to a new site located two and a half blocks west, to 2067 Fifth Avenue. The imposing result was a reoriented and enlarged church with a heightened tower and an added clock. The church of some of Harlem's oldest and most prominent families, such as the Wattses, a century ago it was led by the Rev. Dr. George Roe Van De Water. Not surprisingly, Saint Andrew's was reluctant to admit black members and supported area missions hoping to forestall integration. By 1942, as most white members had moved away, the church discontinued its practice of renting pews, thus opening the church to black parishioners, many of whom are of Caribbean descent.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
The Altar with Joseph Laubar's mural
A window by Charles Eamer Kempe
Located at 47 East 129th Street at Madison Avenue, the ornate Gothic building for All Saints Church was designed by James Renwick, Jr. Architect for St. Patrick's Cathedral, Grace Episcopal Church, and the Smithsonian Institution, All Saint's, dedicated in 1893, was Renwick's last realized project. Often referred to as the "St. Patrick's of Harlem", it represents the designer's turning away, under the influence of Ruskin, from French Gothic models, in favor of Italian Gothic precedent. Hence All Saints is noted for its patterned brickwork, terra cottadetails, wheel windows at the clerestory level, and a distended bell tower. The vaulted interior, originally stenciled, is also rich in details, including oaken pews, hand-carved with flamboyant fish bladder tracery.
All Saints Church was built as a parish for Harlem's teeming settlement of Irish immigrants, who included most of the city's elected leadership. Today, All Saints' congregation is predominantly African-America, Caribbean and African.
1903: Madison Avenue and East 129th Street.
1935: Left unprotected by landmark designation in 1971 creating a Mount Morris Park Historic District, the eastside of Mount Morris Park, along Madison Avenue, had as many worthy examples of Victorian architecture as the westside. Today, not one historic structure survives here.
1907: On Madison Avenue at 121st Street, Pilgrim Congregational Church, of 1882, was designed by Lawrance Valk. Its pulpit was embedded with a piece of Plymouth Rock.
By 1917 Pilgrim Congregational Church had become the Russian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour. Before its demolition in the 1970's it was the scene of several weddings and funerals of Czarist nobles and royalty.
With an improved economy and expanded zoning limits, will Harlem's unique character long endure?