5 historic brownstones and the Harlem Renaissance

These uptown homes are classic reminders of the neighborhood’s rich history

New York Select Spaces /
Sep.September 17, 2021 01:57 PM
11 West 121st Street

11 West 121st Street

In his poem “Harlem,” acclaimed writer of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

It gets sold, for millions of dollars, by Neil Patrick Harris.

The brownstone neighborhood that birthed a literary movement also has a tumultuous history and controversial present. Completely inarguable, however, is the regal beauty of its buildings.

The star actor’s home is just one of the classic townhouses on the market in a neighborhood that still pulsates with art and culture. Here is more on that listing and four others, chosen by our Select Spaces team.

A dream deferred
2036 Fifth Avenue | 5 BR | $7.3 million

Like many poets, Langston Hughes had day jobs that ran the gamut — personal assistant, launderer, line cook and busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel among them.

Hughes’ work tells the stories of working-class Black Americans in New York City, no doubt informed by his own experiences. He moved around a bit, but for 20 years and until the end of his life, home was on the corner of 127th Street and Fifth Avenue, just one block north of 2036 Fifth Avenue.

“Harlem,” the poem, is a response to the traumas of everyday life in the then-segregated neighborhood. This Fifth Avenue townhouse, however, offers a life of peace, leisure and luxury. A restoration introduced streamlined, modern design in the form of a smooth kitchen island, glass-paneled shower and a delightfully minimalist outdoor hot tub. These complement the original wooden staircase, door frames and floor-to-ceiling bookcases — the weakness of any poet.

 

For the uncaged bird
154 West 120th Street | 4 BR | $3.5 million

Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was no stranger to gig work either. The recipient of dozens of honorary awards and accolades, the prolific Angelou struggled for years as a fry cook, professional dancer, sex worker, stage actress and musician. And people wonder why the caged bird sings.

Angelou’s own Harlem apartment sold in 2016, but just one block away is 154 West 120th Street. With a spacious patio surrounded by trees, an uncaged bird’s only struggle would be deciding where to nest. Angelou herself loved to throw parties and, after seeing this listing, the image of a backyard Harlem summer cookout at Maya’s place won’t soon leave your mind.

At the end of a long staircase leading up from the garden is another outdoor amenity: an elevated patio that seems to float in mid-air. Nowhere in the laundry list of Angelou’s talents is the ability to fly, but she could perch aloft and gaze at a Harlem Sunset — and she definitely could sing.

The jaw-dropper
12 Mount Morris Park West | 10 BR | $7.8 million

This one may not be a townhouse, but just look at that foyer and then check the floor for your jaw. You don’t usually hear “Harlem” and “mansion” in the same sentence, but you do at 12 Mount Morris Park West.

The 25-foot entryway is decked with expertly crafted wooden details that practically mandate a Maya Angelou dinner soirée. The 10 bedrooms offer ample space for guests and plus-ones who may have gone too hard and need to crash for the night. This manse sprawls out for 8,000 majestic square feet, each more luxurious than the last.

Forget Paris
162 West 128th Street | 4 BR | $2.9 million

No one immortalized Harlem in literature quite like James Baldwin, though he left for Greenwich Village in his early 20s and never moved back. Until then, however, Harlem was home. Throughout his teens he preached at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly on West 136th Street, borrowed hundreds of books from the New York Public Library on West 135th Street and nurtured a passion for literature at P.S. 24 on West 128th Street.

Just two avenues over is 162 West 128th Street. Passers-by might gloss over the quintessential stoop and wrought-iron railing, but inside this traditional Harlem townhouse is a different, modern world like the one Baldwin imagined for himself when he left the neighborhood. The open, airy space is punctuated by floating staircases and a lofted hallway that would give the artist or poet room to stretch out and imagine.

In 1948, following the tradition of many writers, Baldwin moved to Paris. Still, no quaint European cafe could compare to the garden of this Harlem sanctuary. The brick pathway leads to the perfect spot for composing lush, florid prose. And if Baldwin had grown up with this skylight and these south-facing windows, one can’t help but think he never would have left.

 

Giovanni’s Room
11 West 121st Street | 7 BR | $5.2 million

Baldwin’s time in Paris inspired his most underrated work, “Giovanni’s Room.” The novel explores the experience of an American in Paris engaged to a woman and the emotional whirlwind that ensued between the narrator, David, and a charming Italian bartender.

The titular room was dark, cramped and uncomfortable — some might say like a closet. Consider, then, 11 West 121st Street, an ornate masterpiece that, had they lived today, David and Giovanni could have made their home.

“Domestic opulence” comes to mind when thinking of Giovanni fixing David a cocktail at one of the home’s two wet bars; or an unemployed David gazing out at the garden, cooking dinner and wondering what to tell his fiancée.

Renovations by two of Harlem’s finest architects preserved the home’s original woodwork. The window panes and wainscoting of mahogany and oak have lined the walls since 1889, but wouldn’t prevent the inevitable bickering over wallpaper. Still, this authentic, true-to-its-roots space would have been an idyllic location for Baldwin’s characters to lead authentic lives.





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