Tuesday, March 31, 2009

☞ SEE: Faison Firehouse Theater

In 2000, after coming upon a Beaux-Arts style firehouse in Harlem, Tony Award-winning Broadway choreographer George Faison saw an opportunity to use his professional success as a way to bring classic culture back into in Harlem. Built over 100 years ago, the limestone firehouse was unusual for its lack of red brick, and Faison would imagine a more peculiar proposal for its future. He purchased the building immediately and since then has started his own namesake theater providing independent theater and a community performance space. Contact by phone to inquire on schedules or bookings. 6 Hancock Place between Manhattan and Morningside Avenue. Subway stop 125th street A,B,C,D. Tel.(212) 531-3185

Monday, March 30, 2009

☞ PROTECT: Sylvan Court Mews

What is more enigmatic than the history of the mews on Sylvan Court (top photo) is that the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission does not see their value in relationship to other historic mews districts in the city. Mews are typically former 19th century stable yards that end abruptly in an alley-like layout. The carriage houses are only two levels or so and have historically been converted to cottage-like living quarters for the lower middle classes. In the New York City area, there remains the Sniffen Mews (lower photo) in Murray Hill, the Washington Mews by Washington Square Park, Sylvan Terrace in upper Harlem and the Brooklyn Heights Mews. All of the four have been landmarked and restored.

One of the East Harlem community sites mentioned its desire to have Sylvan Court landmark designated but expressed that there is not much left to protect that is original. We disagree. From the looks of it, only windows have to be replaced and the dirt road needs some paver stones or cobblestones for these charming houses to be complete. There are also government subsidies for this type of restoration if the property is part of a historic district in a low income area. Sylvan Terrace (see previous post) forty blocks north was in worse condition by the time it was landmarked a couple of decades ago, so there should be no problem restoring this rare bit of 19th century history in East Harlem to its former glory. The Sylvan Court Mews is on the street north of the landmarked Harlem Courthouse on 121st Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Take the 4,5,6 to 125th Street or the 6 train to 116th Street.

☞ READ: It's Officially a Renter's Market

The New York Times has kicked off what landlords and developers have been dreading: Rents are going down. Apparently many could afford $2,500 per month rent for a small one bedroom downtown but now the deal is that rate has gone to $1,700 per month. For that amount, one can get a two bedroom in a historic Harlem location and you do not have to leave the island of Manhattan to boot. The more adventuresome can try East Harlem for even better possibilities. Those seeking doorman buildings and luxury condos with cheap rents are probably still not realizing that "cheap rent" is incongruous to why those types of constructions were built (maybe try New Jersey?). Although Harlem is not specifically discussed, the article provides a great insight on the reality of the rental market: LINK

Sunday, March 29, 2009

☞ EAT: Chez Lucienne

Chez Lucienne keeps on surprising folks all over. The French restaurant is the new wonder on Malcom X (Lenox Avenue) between 125th and 126th street. Check out the New York Daily News article from last week: LINK . 308 Lenox Avenue (Malcom X), between 125th and 126th street. Tel.(212) 289-5555

☞ ARCHITECTURE: The Harlem Courthouse

This 1893 landmark, designed by the architectural firm Thom & Willson, provides East Harlem with much-needed historic grace and is reminiscent of the Jefferson Market Courthouse in the West Village. With all of the moderate condo buildings and low-income house stock that populate East Harlem, historical buildings are beloved by longtime locals. Walking past the building this weekend and admiring the Romanesque Gothic architecture, a cheerful woman from the neighboring church expounded on the courthouse's beauty and encouraged us to go in. The courthouse is still in use today and sits at 170 E. 121st Street at Sylvan Place, between Lexington and Third Avenues. Take the 4, 5, 6 trains to 125th Street and walk south.

☞ SHOP: Atmos

Bespoke sneakers. These purveyors of technicolor Nikes originate from Tokyo's street-trendy Harajuku district. Sneakers are made in exclusive runs with Nike and designers or design labels. Locals, Japanese tourists and hipsters from greater New York City take the train up north to get their fix of "trainers" and graphic tee-shirts. Click on center sneaker wall photo for a better look. 203 W. 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) & Frederick Douglass Boulevards (8th Ave). Tel. (212) 666-2242

☞ WALK: Harlem's Little Flatirons

Strolling down West Harlem into Central Harlem, one will notice many angled corners on the streetscape with buildings that fit their off-the-grid angles. Following an old postal road and once known as Harlem Lane, St. Nicholas Avenue breaks Manhattan's severe grid system and crosses southwest Harlem sharply. Because of this intersecting avenue, many buildings constructed at the turn of the century have the familiar Flatiron architectural profile that one finds off Madison Square downtown. Although the St. Nicholas structures are relatively small at an average of only six stories high, they still provide all of the charms of their bigger, more famous brother. See the previous post on Harlem Trotters for more on Harlem Lane in the mid-19th century.

In Central Harlem, St. Nicholas Avenue starts its diagonal at 124th Street and Manhattan Avenue at its northwest end and finishes at Central Park North and Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X at the southeast portion.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

☞ CULTURE: Harlem Rowing Part Deux

The New York Times has posted some paintings from Brooklyn's current show on 19th century impressionists that reminded us of our past post on Harlem Rowing. Albeit from Europe, many of the pieces in the exhibit, like the one above, not only illustrate the fashion of rowing at the time, but also provide a rare sense of color not available in period photographs. The Times article reminded of internationally-known, Harlem-based designer Rod Keenan (see previous post). The hats that he creates (such as the lower photo) are modeled after historic styles but updated with color and materials. They are sold at Barney's, but he does take custom orders. Truly bespoke.  Link to Keenan site.   New York Times Arts link.

Friday, March 27, 2009

☞ EAT: Il Caffe Latte

Freshly opened this month, Il Caffe Latte has brought some competition to Settepani on Lenox Avenue/Malcom X. The atmosphere is actually much warmer than Settepani with exposed brick on one side, the incredible original tin ceiling up top and a garden view in the back. The rest is updated with bright modern chairs and a mosaic tile wall on the opposite end. The weekends are packed and even the lunch crowd on a Thursday was substantial. Coffee, sandwiches and pastries for the most part but some nods to local specialties such as red velvet cake. This part of Lenox Avenue is by the Mount Morris Historic District so the buildings are amazing and many storefronts are being refinished for lease. If a couple of more great restaurants open, this will be the restaurant row to look out for. 189 Malcolm X Blvd / Lenox Avenue between 119th and 120th Street. Phone:212.222.2241 or 347.528.8101

☞ CULTURE: Harlem Bicycling

The above photos is of far West Harlem at Grant's Tomb in the early century. Bicycles were new and heavily manufactured to the middle class and Riverside Park was a popular destination. The city is promoting a greener culture so maybe Harem's wide boulevards can be converted to scenic pedestrian and bike lanes like in midtown. The Harlem Piers have opened nearby also and it connects to the Riverside Park bike lanes so maybe this summer, the under utilized park will have a revival of the crowds of 1907. Love the bowler hats for bicycling. Location at West 123rd Street and Riverside Drive.

☞ MEET: Cameron Mathison in Harlem

Since 2005, the daytime actor and dance competitor has established his family in a restored Central Harlem brownstone. The link is a video of daily life with the Mathisons in their brownstone and provides a glimpse of the updated classic interior renovations (since we are always curious to see what the neighbors are up to).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

☞ SHOP: Mike's Newsstand & Candy Land

The stand that is currently operated by Michael Chappell has been a neighborhood fixture for reportedly over 75 years, built originally in 1932 as a celebration gesture by a gentleman who just was inducted into the black carpenter's union. As with many in Harlem, the stand's fortunes did falter by mid-century until a street vendor noticed it one day ten years ago. Tired of pushing his cart up and down Lenox Avenue, Michael Chappell sought out the building's owner and soon started business. Customized with Jazz music playing all day and cartoon characters adorning the front, Mr. Chappell is a neighborhood establishment that is threatened by all the city's efforts to make all newsstands completely uniform with new modern structures. Mike's Newsstand and Candy Land is on West 122nd and Lenox Avenue.

☞ WALK: Harlem Newsstands

Way old school but way cool in Hamilton Heights. This newsstand has been neglected for some time but is still charming in a mysterious way. Is it the old mint green paint, or the French door windowpanes on the front, or how there is not a straight line in its structure? It's a kind of landmark because people take pictures of it all the time as they past by. Maybe the owner will lease it out one day, since there actually aren't any newsstands on this corner of 148th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

☞ SLEEP: Mount Morris House

For those who cannot fathom shacking visiting relatives up in a dingy mid-town hotel, this bed and breakfast housed in an 1888 Romanesque mansion might be a good choice. The Mount Morris House is located right off of Mount Morris Park by the historic district and is one of the nicer places in the city to stay on a budget. Unlike many other boarding houses (that's you, Jane Hotel), this Inn has private bathrooms for each guest room. Rates are a steal (for NYC, at least) at around $200 per night and less on off seasons. Quick walking distance to express trains on 125th Street, so get anywhere in Manhattan in fifteen minutes. www.mountmorrishouse.com
12 Mount Morris Park West between 121st and 122nd Streets. Tel. 917-478-6214

☞ DWELL: Eubie Blake House

The Eubie Blake House is at 236 West 138th Street on Strivers Row. If you can't make it over, New York Magazine has a video clip of the house and tour of its interior. Check it out, for it also just went on sale in February. See yesterday's post on Strivers Row for the history of the neighborhood.

Though not one of the McKim, Mead and White buildings on 139th Street, the house has an interior intact with original details. The other interesting development is that its initial asking price for $2.4 million just got a 400k haircut.

☞ DRINK: Mojo

The owners of the flashy and mysterious Mojo have recently opened Swing, a concept store for home, down the street, but there's still not much news on when Mojo will officially open. There was a soft opening party last February, but word has it the owners had some personal health issues, so the end of March might be the realistic debut. From what one can gather by peeking in the interior, there is sort of a Hollywood Regency style to the place. Drinks and food have yet to be determined, but this spot is definitely one to watch for. Plus, the property is on one of the "mini-Flatiron" building corners of St. Nicholas, so the space should be interesting. 185 Saint Nicholas Avenue Entrance on 119th Street. Tel.(212) 280-1924. Subway 116th St (B, C), 125th St (A, C, B, D), 116th St (2, 3).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

☞ READ: Links

Photo of architectural "Reed and Ribbon" detail on Harlem building.

Columbia selected over NYU as the college to go to: NY Post
Historic New York City: Ephemeral New York
Disappearing New York Culture: Lost City
Blog watch, Harlem Edition:  Curbed
Eubie Blake's Strivers' Row house for sale video: New York Magazine
Proximity to fast food a factor in student obesity: NY Times

☞ ARCHITECTURE: Strivers' Row

Originally touted as the King Model Houses, these 19th century boutique buildings on 138th and 139th Streets soon became the sign of success for the emerging African-American middle class at the turn of the century.  Developer David King hired prominent architectural firm McKim, Mead and White to build the matching row houses on 139th Street from 1883-1884.  The firm was equivalent to today's starchitects such as Frank Gehry, and they had planned to attract wealthy, white new money uptown (developers never change).  What did happen was a collapse in the real estate market so the houses sat empty for years. Finally, in the early 20th century, the neighborhood changed in demographics and the houses sold to up-and-coming African-American "strivers," who finally made the American dream by owning these luxury houses with their own carriage yards and private gardens.  Strivers' Row is in Central Harlem with Hamilton Heights bordering it on the northwest side. 138th and 139th Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues (Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevard).

☞ EAT: Londel's Supper Club

Londel's, which is close to Harlem's elegant Strivers' Row, provides a somewhat formal space for Southern dishes served with a bow-tie. The proprietor, Londel Davis, is a retired New York City police officer who decided to open a Creole and soul food restaurant that was not a greasy spoon diner. Exposed brick decorated with black and white photos of New York politicians, local celebrities and athletes, line the walls along with a great old school neon light. Friday and Saturdays have live jazz with only a $5 cover. 2620 Frederick Douglass Boulevard at 140th Street. Tel(212) 234-6114. Take the B or C train to 135th Street or A, D train to 145th.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

☞ DRINK: Raggs of Harlem

After the previous post on the lack of traditional beer gardens, Raggs of Harlem might fill in for the time being. Under new management, the owners have added pressed-tin ceilings, pendant lights, ceiling fans, and wood paneling to make the interior as casual and familiar as possible.  This place seems like a bar one might find in the East Village when it still had character.  The area with the elevated train tracks nearby also feels somewhat like Williamsburg back in the day. Yes, it's a dive, but that's the charm of it.  Word has it the drink prices are recession worthy and the jukebox is the best in the neighborhood. A new influx of artists seem to appreciate this place for its old school, faded bohemian atmosphere. 101 East 119th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. Tel. 646-596-8258

☞ REVIVE: Harlem Beer Gardens

An interesting trend that seems to have a resurgence downtown and Brooklyn but still slow in coming to Harlem is the Beer Garden.  To the right is a photo of one that is done so well in Williamsburg that one would think it's been there for 100 years (it's only about two years old). This is apropos since these dens of festivity were popular with German immigrants who established neighborhoods from Harlem to Coney Island.  

Warm and traditional in front and usually with open air gardens in the back, the beer garden's charms lasted until Prohibition quelled the thirst for such venues.  

What is interesting to see about many businesses in Harlem is that having modern, corporate brands such as Starbucks was a sign of success.  Therefore many new higher end businesses that open have this almost sterile corporate aesthetic to them that feels very 1990's.
Traditional businesses such as Chez Lucienne are now showing Harlem that tradition might not be a bad idea.   Another benefit is that these types of businesses are contextual to Harlem's historic housing stock. Let's bring on the beer gardens (and not the frat house fiasco that is the Village Pour House which recently opened in Morningside Heights).  See previous post on how the fabled Claremont Inn was converted to a beer garden by the City of New York.

Monday, March 23, 2009

☞ REMEMBER: The Claremont Inn

The Claremont Inn, located just a block north of Grant's Tomb, was a legendary, riverside respite for the well-to-do in its day but soon faded in the memories of New Yorkers after its physical demise. Originally built around 1775, it was said to be named after Lord Clives's Palladian-style estate in Surrey, England (last photo, which looks more like the Morris Jumel Mansion).

By the end of the 19th century, the City of New York had acquired the estate as part of the development of Riverside Park. Leased to a hotelier, the Inn prospered as the place to stay if one were to visit the newly constructed Grant's Tomb, and its grand garden became the place to dine for weary downtowners travelling northward by carriage. As Prohibition slowed the Inn's bar-based profits and then the Depression prevented any return to its former glory, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses eventually tried to convert the inn to a moderate beer garden. Complaints of late night revelry and the questionable morality of the government running a drinking establishment soon signaled the beginning of the end. By the 1940's a fire had damaged a good portion of the building, and there was even a plan to move the Hamilton Grange to the site on which the Claremont sat in 1950. But all was lost when a mysterious final fire destroyed what was left of the Claremont in 1951. A playground, overlooking the West Side Highway and the Riverside Drive Viaduct at 125th Street, now stands in its place. Archival photo courtesy NYPL

☞ EAT: Rao's in East Harlem

This historical East Harlem Italian restaurant, established 1896, is the original Waverly Inn, where regular folks cannot get a reservation. Apparently, the ten tables are held for a long list of locals who have regular meals there. Madonna was politely turned away, and Bill Clinton had to "borrow" a patron's table to get in. Like the Waverly Inn, one may be able to sneak a meal at the bar area if you arrive early enough. As displayed in the second photo, classic photos and posters line the walls alluding to early century Greenwich Village restaurants (once again, old school charm works every time in historic neighborhoods). Call for a reservations, but they seem to be booked a year in advance. For those who can't wait, there is an exact copy of the restaurant in Las Vegas that is easier to book, but dining at Rao's is distinctly New York when you are actually in Manhattan. Rao's is located at 455 E 114th St and Pleasant Avenue. Tel.(212) 722-6709

☞ LISTEN: The Harlem Quartet

Playing at the Gatehouse Theatre tomorrow night. Ticket are free, but an RSVP is needed. This classically trained group of four are first place laureates of the Sphinx Award, which recognizes talented African-American and Latino string instrument players. Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 7:00 pm Harlem Stage Gatehouse, 150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street (Across from Aaron Davis Hall). To RSVP, call 212-281-9240, ext. 19 or 20

Sunday, March 22, 2009

☞ REVIVE: Harlem Wallpaper

Mrs. Suzie Porter in her Harlem home. Bespoke wallpaper is an art that has disappeared from most of the regal brownstones in New York City.  To the right is a Van Der Zee photo of a Harlem interior with its fantastic wallpaper.  In the turn of the century most of the paper would have been made to order and still hand printed by artisans.  More commonly preserved in British homes, New York taste seem to shift towards fad too quickly to keep any good example of this art around. Since many are eschewing severe glass condos for brownstones, maybe it is time to look at more historic methods to refinish walls.

In the early 21st century, many still can not distinguish proper period wall paper from the floral 1980's manufactured design offenses.  The second image displays a William Morris wallpaper reproduced by Bradbury & Bradbury from an original 1860's pattern.  As one can see, the handsome print is graphic, bold and almost geometric but with an organic, botanical  repeat.  The company, based in California, is considered one of the major suppliers of wallpapers hand printed in the the traditional methods.  Another popular early 20th century paper was lincrusta, which was solid, heavily embossed paper that looks like plaster work but more durable.  This is actually seen more in old buildings in the New York City area.  Bradbury & Bradbury link for website and blog at side bar for more information.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

☞ REMEMBER: The Savoy Ballroom

The Savoy was the "home of happy feet" and the house where the Lindy Hop was founded. From 1926 to its closing in 1958, dances were discovered alongside battling big bands. Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Webb with a young Ella Fitzgerald (second to last photo) played night after night in this two-floor, block-long complex on Lenox Avenue at 141st Street. As fate would have it, because of urban renewal's penchant for destroying pre-war buildings in the 1950's, this cultural institution was demolished so that a super block of moderate income projects could take over. One might imagine that today the city of New York would never consider destroying such institutions for real estate purposes, but it is happening to the only remaining ballroom in Harlem. See previous Renaissance Ballroom post for an update. Photo via  Life Magazine

☞ PROTECT: The Renaissance Ballroom

Unlike most of the pre-war buildings that populate Harlem, the Renaissance Ballroom was built by African American entrepreneurs. Constructed in 1921, the combination ballroom, casino and movie theatre was touted as the first non-segregated institution of its kind. This Harlem gem declined during the Great Depression and has been closed since the 1970's. The Abyssinian Baptist Church, a powerful property owner in Harlem, had originally planned to raise nine million for its restoration in the 1990s, and the community had a landmark designation date finally set in 2007. Surprisingly, the Church had changed its mind, for they saw a condo development for the site and even had Mayor Dinkins speak against designating the building (the site of his own wedding) as a landmark. The Landmarks Preservation Committee voted 6-1 against the landmarking of the Renaissance Ballroom. There have not been any designs shown of the 18-floor condo building planned for the space, but some are hopeful that the lower base might incorporate the original facade. The ballroom can be seen at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 138th Street.

☞ SHOP: Swing

Swing, has the title of being one of the only home concept store to arrive in Harlem since it opened a couple of weeks ago on the ever changing corners of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.  Better retail boutiques are often difficult to find this far north so Swing is a welcome addition that feels like a storefront one might find in Brooklyn.  Bright and colorful, the assortment of clothes and accessories are targeted for men and women along with a children's line of clothing.  The clothing and the home furnishing come from around the world with many smaller, European brands.  A definite must see if you are in the area.
FYI the store is only open on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Mondays. Located at 1960 ACP/7th Avenue which is the corner of West 118th Street. Tel.(212) 222-5802‎

☞ EAT: Sherman's BBQ

Rock-and-roll royalty ate here. Sherman's BBQ still has a store on 7th Avenue in Harlem that harkens back to its glory years in the 1950's. In the early days, the restaurant was a franchise and had a branch on Amsterdam Avenue. Legend has it that three local girls gaining fame as "The Ronettes" brought their curiously familiar-looking British boyfriends by to taste some American home cooking. For years after, the owner would call out any one of the sisters by saying, "You're the little girl who brought the Beatles here!" The top photo is the sign of the shop on Amesterdam Avenue, which has long since closed.

The chain's last remaining storefront on 7th Avenue still serves up ribs to locals after all these years. Some have said to just get a new sign and remodel to be up to date. This is Harlem history, so maybe it would be better just to restore the lights and give it a little polish, so it can shine once more. Sherman's is located at 2509 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard/7th Avenue Between 145th and 146th street. Tel.(212) 283-9290. Take the A,C,B,D or 3 train to 145th street. Archival photo via Urban Photo on Flickr

Friday, March 20, 2009

☞ SEE: The Studio Museum in Harlem

Built in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem was the first of its kind. The museum opened to reflect African American art and influence in the 19th and 20th century. Most recently, the Barkley L. Hendricks exhibit brought back the period of the 1970's, while in 2008 there was a major exhibit by his contemporary, Kehinde Wiley (see lower photo). The museum also has an extensive collection of photos from James VanDerZee, who documented Harlem from 1906 until his death in 1983. These photos are in storage since the museum does not have a permanent exhibition space. Maybe one day, if donators come along, the museum can expand into the lower lot next door or add on contextually to its building. Check website for current exhibitions. 144 W 125th Street between Malcolm X/Lenox Avenue and ACP/7th Avenue. Tel(212) 864-4500. Take the 2,3 train to 125th Street.  www.studiomuseum.org