The places Toni Morrison called home

For the Nobel Laureate, who died Monday, home and “a sense of place” were central to her greatest works

Aug.August 06, 2019 05:29 PM
Toni Morrison (Credit: Getty Images)

Toni Morrison (Credit: Getty Images)

“I live in places that I love. And I’d hate to lose them,” Toni Morrison told a reporter for The Telegraph in 2012. At the time, she was doing press for her latest book, “Home,” and its title generated countless inquiries into what the word meant to Morrison personally. At the same time, interest about the places the Nobel laureate lived throughout her life dates back decades – helped along by the strong role that “place” plays in her novels as well as the details of her personal residential history.

Morrison died on August 5, 2019, from complications due to pneumonia at a hospital in the Bronx. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a town that would figure into the setting of her breakout debut, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. While Morrison left the Midwest for Howard University in her teen years, her sister, Lois, continued living in Lorain throughout her life. At some point, many of the homes on the street where the sisters grew up were demolished.

“Now that was an erasure of place that was very disturbing to me,” Morrison said during the same Telegraph interview. “It’s absence. Not just one house. But where all those memories were. It’s death, in a sense.”

Morrison briefly returned to her hometown after her marriage ended. From there, the newly single mother of two young sons relocated to Syracuse, New York, to attend Cornell University, later taking a job as an editor with Random House. When she was transferred to the publisher’s scholastic division, she moved her family of three to Queens. “I never lived in Manhattan,” she told The New Yorker. “I always wanted a garden.”

In the late 1970s, she acquired a property that would become part of her legacy: a converted boathouse on the banks of the Hudson River in the community of Grand View-on-Hudson, purchased for $120,000. In late December of 1993, the same year Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a cinder jumped from the fireplace and the historic house began to burn. Firefighters arrived at the scene to find flames shooting through the roof, and it was so cold water they sprayed to put it out miraculously managed to preserve several manuscripts. Ultimately, she rebuilt, with upgrades: bookcases, a patio, a private dock, and continued to live there, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan.

There were other homes, too. One in Princeton, where she taught; an apartment building upstate, owned with her sons and intended to house artists; a building across the street that functioned as a performance center. In 2015, journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghanah visited Morrison at her home in Tribeca, “one of the biggest apartments” Kaadzi Ghanah had ever seen in the city, filled with built-in bookcases, plush sofas and armchairs, a long dining room table, and antiques, overlooking Lower Manhattan.

But, as the site of pilgrimages, memories, and many pages of Morrison’s history, it was the Grand View-on-Hudson house–the one that was nearly destroyed and then resurrected, that stands out among the rest as the home Toni Morrison built.

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