Harlem Lost & Found
The Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY. Curator: Michael Henry Adams
May 3, 2003-January 4, 2004
The exhibit Harlem Lost & Found at the Museum of the City of New York is based on a book of the same name by curator Michael Henry Adams.(1) The exhibit traces Harlem's social and urban history through its artifacts and architecture and shows how Harlem developed from an Indian village to an urban cultural capital.
The exhibit is chronological, starting with Native American settlement and featuring stone tools and arrowheads found in the area. The 17th-century Dutch settlement of Nieuw Haarlem, located north of the city, gave the neighborhood its name. When the English took control of New York City, they attempted to rename the settlement New Lancaster, to no avail. Country estates dotted the rural landscape in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most have been demolished but two survive: the Morris Jumel Mansion, built in 1765, and Alexander Hamilton's Grange, built in 1802. Illustrations, paintings, furniture, silver, clothing, and a scale model of Hamilton Grange provide an engaging picture of this country estate.
Harlem's development peaked from the 1880s to World War I. The construction of trolley and subway lines, the pressure of the city's rapidly growing population, and the increasing density of areas farther south triggered the expansion. As defined in the exhibit, Harlem encompasses a large part of northern Manhattan.
The new tenements, row houses, and apartment buildings attracted European immigrants, mostly Germans, Italians, and eastern European Jews. By 1917, Harlem had the second largest Jewish population in the country at 170,000, but by 1930, the Jewish population numbered only 5,000. The synagogues that they built were sold to churches. The show features the former Temple Ansche Chesed, designed by Edward Shire in 1909, now Mount Neboh Baptist Church. The exhibition highlights extraordinary buildings by important architects, such as Strivers' Row by McKim, Mead and White in 1891; the 1909 St. Mary's Church by Carrére and Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library; and early skyscraper architect Francis Kimball's 1887 Queen Anne style row houses on West 122nd Street.
African Americans moved into Harlem at the beginning of the 20th century. They came from other parts of New York City, the South, and the Caribbean. There were many instances of racism and exclusion. The financial panic of 1904-07 left hundreds of apartments vacant, creating opportunities for African Americans who sought better housing. By 1930, more than 200,000 African Americans lived in Harlem.
Two photos of the dining room at 118 West 120th Street are particularly evocative of the ethnic history of Harlem. The first shows the Guttenberg family in 1902. Eight family members are seated formally at a dining table under an elaborate chandelier, celebrating the Guttenberg's golden anniversary. The second shows the artist Grace Williams in the same room, now a studio, with her colorful paintings in front of the same ornate mantel. Ms. Williams is the third generation of her family to live in the house.
One of the most famous Harlem residents featured in the exhibition is Madam C. J. Walker. Born in a log cabin in Louisiana in 1867, she started a beauty products company for African-American women and became a millionaire. Madam Walker was part of the first wave of African Americans who moved to Harlem. In 1915 she hired an African-American architect, Vertner Woodson Tandy, to redesign two rowhouses on West 136th Street and create what was to be the last of the area's mansions. The house was demolished in 1942.
Jazz plays throughout the exhibition, a reminder of the influential era of the Harlem Renaissance that reached its height in the 1920s and transformed Harlem into a cultural capital. Influential artists included writers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen; Aaron Douglas, whose murals are at the Countee Cullen library; and James Van der Zee, who maintained a studio in Harlem and whose photographic portraits are in the exhibit. Music and venues like Small's Paradise and the Savoy Ballroom were also an important part of the Harlem scene during this period.
Vividly colored terra cotta fragments highlight a display of the famed Audubon Ballroom. It was one of the first theaters built for William Fox of the 20th Century Fox movie studio and became best known as the place where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Most of the building was demolished in the 1990s but parts of the ballroom and the facade were saved and incorporated into a new building.
The exhibit uses architectural fragments such as a cornice frieze, balusters, railings, and gargoyles to show what we are missing. Losses like this and a number of others prompted the curator, a historic preservationist, to publish a book showcasing Harlem architecture.
The exhibition is modest in size, but crammed with information. The captions are extensive, with academic descriptions of the history and architecture of Harlem. The show relies on the collections of the Museum of the City of New York, known for its historic photographs and New York City decorative arts collections, as well as the curator's private collection. Contemporary color photographs by Paul Rocheleau portray Harlem's vibrant and extraordinary architecture.
For those who cannot visit the exhibit in person, the Museum of the City of New York Website provides a good summary of the exhibit at www.mcny.org.
Mary B. Dierickx Architectural Preservation Consultants
1. Michael Henry Adams, Harlem Lost and Found (New York: Monicelli Press, 2002).