To travel into the home and hearth of one of the most prolific musicians in the world, you must travel to the heart of Queens in an assuming neighborhood.
Despite biting temperature, Corona Plaza, Queens thrives with pedestrian energy on a Saturday afternoon in January. Each step further from Roosevelt Avenue, that tightly bundled bustle dwindles. Leftover Christmas decorations guard sleepy porches and a single stream of pungent smoke drifts from a halal cart beside Our Lady of Sorrows church.
A yellow deli with graffiti tagged gates occupies the corner lot of 107th Street, marking a public art display so quintessentially New York. As I hold my cell phone up to snap a photo, a young man, enthusiastically waves hello.
The area is quiet. Residential. Welcoming. A vibe resonating with my impression of a man who shown exceptional love, humility, and generosity, as an American icon and an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
On this block, an immutable musical legend, Louis Armstrong, happily spent the last 28 years of his life with his fourth wife, Lucille. Upon her death in 1983, Lucille donated 34-56 107th Street to the city to commemorate her husband. Since 2003, it’s doors have been open as the Louis Armstrong House Museum (LAHM). Administered by Queens College, the full Armstrong archives reside on campus.
Their residence now houses a museum exhibiting a wide range of artifacts and materials largely collected by Armstrong who died before his wife in 1971.
“We don’t think that we could be more relaxed and have better neighbors anyplace else. So we stay put,” wrote Louis Armstrong in a penciled manuscript titled Our Neighborhood that greets guests at the museum’s entryway.
Only a handwritten, A-frame board marks the entrance to a home largely concealed by high brick walls. Despite its casually mysterious appearance, “lurking behind here is the world’s largest archives for any single jazz musician,” explains the Director of Research Collections, Ricky Riccardi over the phone.
“Beyonce and Jay Z should come here to say thank you,” asserts museum docent, Michael Shore.
David W. Niven Collection of Jazz History, a cassette recording from the Jazz artist Louis Armstrong, from the era of 1962-1965. Tape 31
Louis Armstrong is one of the foremost musicians in contemporary history. Born in New Orleans on July 4th in 1901, he grew up at the same time the southern city birthed jazz, an American classical music. Armstrong’s contributions in music and his dealings with being one of the first African-Americans to travel the world extensively with his big bands also played a role in promulgating the Black aesthetic and dealing with race on a global scale.
A time capsule to a national treasure
I step into the cozy garage-turned-gift-shop to find Adriana Filstrup behind the desk. Filstrup is the visitor services manager of LAHM. Ushering me past the crowded memorabilia and glass cases of black and white photographs, she assures me, “The tour started a few minutes ago, but don’t worry. We can sneak you in.”
Filstrup and I climb a dark staircase to the door that may as well be a portal into the past. We enter into Louis Armstrong’s front hallway to step into a home that looks like it is still an inviting 1970s digs. Despite being meticulously maintained, a wet umbrella or scuffed pair of loafers would not seem out of place.
I slip into a small group, gathered around the upright piano in Louis and Lucille’s monochromatic cream-colored living room. Our guide, Michael Shore, gesticulates over its choir of cubist statues, one of many artifacts brought home from Armstrong’s extensive international travels.
Friends and foreign dignitaries alike gathered here in reverence to savor jazz, scat, and swing music from the man who perfected it. Shore comments on the controversy of a black man at that time achieving such a degree of renown for, “race music considered to be degenerate trash. They were correct to be scared, because this music was revolutionary. Just ten short years later, he’s getting a trumpet from the King of England.”
Armstrong was making half a million dollars a year by the late 1940’s. Riccardi points out, “As rich and famous as he was, he could have lived anywhere.”
One by one, we peer into the pristine powder room that Shore terms, “the Liberace room. Everything that could be gold plated is gold plated. Who else would air lift a piece of Vegas into Queens?”
After all, we have a very lovely home. The house may not be the nicest looking front. But when one visit[s] the interior of the Armstrong’s home, they see a whole lot of comfort[,] happiness + the nicest things. Such as that wall to wall bed-R bath room with mirrors everywhere, since we are d[is]ciples to Laxatives.
The amenities of the Queens abode were luxurious for the neighborhood, at the time the Armstrongs lived there. Even so, when Louis first moved in, he and his wife slept on two single mattresses pushed together in the kitchen breakfast nook, waking up to the smell of bacon frying.
“He chose this working class neighborhood which says a lot about him as a person,” continues Riccardi. Shore refers to this as the, “essential humility of the Armstrongs.”
Corona, once called West Flushing was composed of descendants of European immigrants who were mostly Irish, German and Italian. After World War II, upwardly mobile African-Americans began to move in such as musicians, athletes and Civil Rights leaders. They were the only families who could afford the neighborhood once desegregation set in.
Black futures in posterity
If any room in the house marks the forward thinking attitude of the Armstrongs, it’s the kitchen. Modeled after the 1939 World’s Fair Futurama exhibit, it features an impressive array of gadgets and a wall of solid turquoise cabinets, Lucille’s favorite color. Shore demonstrates, with particular pride, a hidden tinfoil dispenser which could have belonged to The Jetsons.
The extent of the Armstrong’s modern inclinations become increasingly apparent in Satchmo’s study. The only room undisturbed by raucous wallpaper, dark wood paneling was put up by Lucille to conceal decades of photos pasted onto the wall opposite his desk.
“This was a man cave, his den, his office, his study, his hangout,” describes Shore.
Here, Armstrong recorded on reel-to-reel tape almost every conversation that took place in his home, as well as personal musings. His behaviour indicates a recognition and fascination with the advent of accessible technology and the contemporary habit of self documentation.
When Shore presses play, poignant notes fill the room. The sound of children frolicking outside drifts through the window, and Armstrong pauses his trumpet practice to acknowledge them fondly.
“We get to be a fly on the wall decades later,” Shore posits. He pulls a few of the physical tapes from their shelves; revealing vibrant, collaged covers. “He decorated every audio tape he made. For him, these were like the doodles in the margins of his notebook,” says Shore.
There are 650 of these tapes in total, only a portion of the 72 boxes of photographs, letters, recordings, scrapbooks, documents, and artifacts comprising LAHM’s archives.
A house to feel at home
In the gift shop, Filstrup thumbs through several past issues of the museum generated Dippermouth News. Enthusiastically pointing out photos of ‘Special Visitors’ from around the world, hundreds sojourned to Queens for a stopover with Satchmo. Some knew Armstrong through one meeting, some through a single letter. All were moved to come to Corona.
Armstrong wrote to fans avidly, “answering everything he could,” confirms Shore. Filstrup describes the weight of this correspondence as nothing short of, “family treasures.”
“There aren’t many artists born in 1901 that still get the kind of attention that Armstrong gets,” comments Riccardi. “There’s been a renewal of interest since, I would say, the mid 80’s. I feel like we’re sitting on the edge of an explosion right now.”
This past October, New York City granted an additional $1.9 million in capital funding to LAHM, for the restoration of Selma Heraldo’s home next door. A long-time friend of the Armstrongs, Heraldo donated the property upon her death in 2011.
“She wanted it to stay with the feeling of a house,” explains Filstrup. To accommodate Heraldo’s wishes, restoration plans will focus on repairs which maintain the home’s integrity, including office space for LAHM staff and expanding the kitchen for events catering.
LAHM moving forward
The sum recently acquired by LAHM is only a portion of $23 million that the museum has raised in total. Support from the City and Fund II Foundation primarily has catalyzed a series of long term projects.
In July 2017, LAHM broke ground on a green, state-of-the-art Education Center across the street from the Armstrong compound. The building will house interactive exhibits as well as LAHM’s full archives.
For those able to visit Queens, Riccardi proudly states, “all of [Armstrong’s] stuff will be on that block where he was just so beloved by his neighbors. And if you can’t make it to Queens, well then just log onto our website, make an account, and go to the digital archives.”
LAHM finished digitizing its collection this past fall. Underway since 2016, the project included hiring two, full-time museum fellows. Filstrup attests, “We had hundreds of people creating accounts in the past month.”
As the complete, institutional realization of Armstrong’s legacy comes to fruition, excitement among the staff is palpable.
Our group descends the Armstrong’s front steps, crossing into their Japanese style garden. Beneath the pond’s bubbling surface, koi fish hibernate for the winter. But through Shore’s animation, it’s not hard to imagine a series of summer jazz concerts invigorating the patio — the wet bar doling out red beans, rice, and sweet tea.
At the entrance, an oxidized copper plaque quotes, “I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Riccardi predicts, “I truly believe that seeing where Armstrong’s stature was in the early 70’s and 80’s a clown, entertainer, commercial, happy kind of guy, and seeing where he is now, a civil rights pioneer, a music pioneer. I think 50 years from now when people say, ‘Who are the greats of all time?’ it’s going to be Shakespeare, it’s going to be Mozart, it’s going to be Louis Armstrong.”