Historian fights for Harlem's treasures

Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2003

NEW YORK Michael Henry Adams strolls along Lenox Avenue in the middle of Harlem. He stops to watch a worker from a nearby renovation scrape patches of cheap color from a mahogany hall mirror to reveal the brilliant red wood underneath. Once restored, the old mirror could fetch $400 or more.

''There are all kinds of entrepreneurial people trying to make a buck off the heritage and history of Harlem,'' Adams says with a shake of his head before he walks away.

Adams, an architectural historian, sees Harlem's houses, apartment buildings, churches and libraries as memories of the neighborhood's defining role in American history as home of Revolutionary War battles, the Harlem Renaissance, poet Langston Hughes and singer Ella Fitzgerald. To him, every stripped-out hall mirror, knocked-down chimney or gutted building heralds the demise of an American treasure.

His concerns have rarely been more relevant, as Harlem emerges from a half century of urban blight. Developers are knocking down crumbling office buildings, replacing them with modern constructions. National chains such as Marshalls and Starbucks are popping up along Harlem's boulevards. Young professionals looking for cheaper rents and good housing buys have moved from downtown, pushing up property values, while thousands of poorer Harlem residents have trouble keeping their homes from falling into neglect.

Caught in the middle, Adams says, are the architectural marvels that tell Harlem's story how it began as a Dutch colony called Nieuw Haarlem in the 17th century, came to house the country estates of aristocrats, gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and was a center for jazz and night life in the 1930s and 1940s and suffered an urban decay that lasted into the 1960s and 1970s.

Adams has laid out his image of what Harlem was and the template of what he thinks it should be in an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, ''Harlem, Lost and Found.'' The show, which runs through Jan. 4, 2004, details the history and architecture of Harlem, from 1765 to today, with scale-model homes, clothing, sculptures and lush photographs by Paul Rocheleau.

Among the most evocative displays are items Adams has scooped up from trash heaps: rusted pieces of wrought iron fence, chipped balusters, a gold-painted chunk of plaster garland from the Audubon Theater, where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

Adams' passion with Harlem dates to his childhood in Akron, Ohio. He remembers reading the catalog for the 1969 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ''Harlem on My Mind,'' marveling that the neighborhood's stately buildings were populated by blacks.

He recalls such Harlem success stories as Striver's Row, nine acres on 138th and 139th Streets, an oasis of intricately preserved row houses. They were was commissioned in 1891 Roman-inspired, cream-colored brick in the middle block with brick and brownstone homes surrounding them, shrouded by elm and other trees whose leaves hang low over the streets in summer.

A house on 136th Street once belonged to Madam C.J. Walker, one of America's first self-made women millionaires who made a fortune from hair-care products. The limestone and brick building with a small, decorative balcony on the top floor was designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first black architect licensed in the state of New York. Adams calls Walker's home Harlem's last mansion; it was demolished in 1942 to make way for a public library.

Such losses make Adams bristle and push him to fight even harder to preserve Harlem's past. He fights to keep entire buildings from being razed, and he fights to make sure that cornices on brownstones are painted the same color as the houses themselves.

He is angry that chimneys have been knocked off the Marion Apartments. Except for its roofing six gables topped with finials that resemble the neck of a violin it's an otherwise uninspired building on St. Nicholas Avenue.

He is angry about Graham Court, a landmark building on Seventh Avenue.

Regarded as Harlem's most beautiful apartment building, it is eight stories of wrought-iron balconies and an intricate curling design on stately light gray stone. But the building was desecrated, Adams says, because most of its distinctive green, wooden window frames were replaced by gray plastic.

There are many who care just as deeply about Harlem as Adams, and several other architectural historians have charted its beauty. But few are as charismatic. Known for his bowler hats, immaculate sense of style and tortoise-shell glasses, he's been called a ''freelance preservationist'' and an ''uptown landmarks gadfly''; a colleague calls him ''the Lone Ranger.''

''These advocates all have a certain persistence in common they are the irritant that causes the oyster to make a pearl,'' said Roger Lang, head of the nonprofit preservation group called the New York Landmarks Conservancy. ''But as a result of that characteristic they are not always people who see practical realities or political restraints.''

The restraints are huge. Some of Adams' fiercest opponents care just as passionately about the neighborhood but believe that many of Harlem's old buildings should make way for new ones. They see the past as something from which to recover, not celebrate.

Harlem was the site of massive real-estate speculation in the late 19th century, and witnessed a marked collapse just after 1900. Developers desperate to recoup their losses began courting blacks, many had fled racial terrorism and economic hardship in the South and migrated North. A flowering of culture in dance, in poetry, in song soon followed.

But vast stretches of Harlem declined in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, bringing the Renaissance to an end. Owners abandoned their buildings and much of Harlem hit bottom in the '70s; brownstones were shuttered, cemented up, left to decay.

''I think you have to significantly move things out but you have to save the gems,'' said architect Jack Travis. ''I think that Michael has to fight to preserve everything he can because if he only fights for the gems, then he's going to lose some of the gems.''

Landmarking buildings, and neighborhoods, is one answer like the Apollo Theater, on 125th Street. Now hidden behind plywood and scaffolding, it's undergoing a $10 million renovation that will restore its terra-cotta walls to their 1942 look and bring back its famous blade sign but with LED lights that can change in text and color.

There are also historic districts such as the five-block section of Mount Morris Park, dotted with townhouses and churches, Striver's Row and the Jumel Terrace Historic District home to the yellow and brown row houses on Sylvan Terrace and the Morris Jumel Mansion between 160th and 162nd streets, where George Washington set up his headquarters after losing the Battle of Long Island in 1776.

These pockets of beautiful neighborhoods sometimes just a couple of blocks, sometimes a solitary building have been key to Harlem's resurgence. They make it one of the city's top five tourist destinations, according to the city's main tourism agency, NYC & Company.

''On any Wednesday night, we can have 200 people from Japan visit 'Amateur night,' because ... they want to go to Harlem and they want to go to the Apollo,'' said David Rodriguez, the theater's executive director.

Adams moved to Harlem in 1985. As tourism grew and the neighborhood began lifting itself out of its decline, he began to feel the early rumblings of gentrification: affluent whites and blacks looking for a cheap place to live and willing to pay for well-preserved buildings that retained their high ceilings and large windows.

But some see preserving those old buildings as a poor use of space.

''It's adaptive reuses that we need to do instead of just the strict preservation,'' said Karen Phillips, who helped found the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which seeks economic development in Harlem.

Phillips and Adams have squared off over the fate of Small's Paradise, one of New York's most famous jazz clubs. It closed in the early 1980s and is being turned into an International House of Pancakes. Above it rises Thurgood Marshall Academy, six stories of brick and steel, Harlem's first new high school in 40 years.

For Phillips, the school is real progress in Harlem, and IHOP was a last choice after six years of trying to find a new tenant to preserve the interior. Adams disagrees. He calls destroying the club ''cultural genocide.''

He wants more landmarking and has even sought to get all of Harlem on the National Register of Historic Places. But the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission has thousands of buildings to consider and Robert Tierney, who heads the commission, says he wants to focus on New York's other boroughs.

Meanwhile, Adams says, he just wants those who shape Harlem's future to tread carefully.

On the Net:

Museum of the City of New York: www.mcny.org

NYC and Company: www.nycvisit.com



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