Before January, 1769 the towns of Newtown and Bushwick disputed the exact disposition of their border — and therefore the border between the counties of Kings and Queens.
A survey line finally settled the issue, and Arbitration Rock, now located on the grounds of Onderdonk House, helped mark the divide.
In the flatlands of Queens near the Brooklyn border, where hipster Bushwick transitions into less-gentrified Ridgewood, amidst warehouses and tawdry wholesalers, stands one of New York’s historic houses. Unlike several of its fellows (which tend to get moved to less valuable real estate), the Vander Ende Onderdonk House still stands on the site where it was built over 200 years ago.
Captain King’s great-grandsons, twins Ernest and Charnley Murray, also became sailors. Bearded and beret-ed in 1898, they’d fit in perfectly with the hipster denizens of today’s Bushwick or Williamsburg.
The small “Victorian” garden hosts a couple of bird feeders, a grape arbor (they freeze grapes and make grape juice for visitors all year round), a patch of lawn, and even a teensy koi pond.
I didn’t believe that they could squeeze a museum, bird sanctuary and Victorian garden onto a residential lot in Queens. I mean, two of those things, maybe. But then, I’d never been to the Voelker-Orth House.
Latimer’s work on the lightbulb made him (slightly) famous, but he patented many other things. He invented a method of cooling a room by dampening fabric hung in a window. And a rack that could safely lock your hat, coat, or umbrella, for use at offices or restaurants. And finally, a better train toilet, details of which I’m probably happier not to know.
Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped slaves, helped patent the telephone, refined the design of the light bulb, and ended up a Grand Old Man of the General Electric Company. He also painted and wrote poetry.
He’s sort of a footnote to history — but a good footnote, and a meaningful one, not one of those ones you just skim over. It’s therefore fantastic that his home in Flushing today serves as a museum to his memory.
We didn’t even discuss it on the tour but this vintage washing machine (definitely later than 1661) evoked for me all the artifacts from hundreds of years of Bowne family life in this house– the stories they could tell!
Imagine the year 1661. Charles II was crowned King of England. Sweden and Russia wrapped up a war. The Netherlands ceded the territory of New Holland to Portugal (nowadays it’s a chunk of Brazil). A kid named Isaac Newton enrolled at Cambridge. And Englishman John Bowne and his wife Hannah settled in a small farmhouse in the Dutch village of Vlissingen, in the hinterlands of New Amsterdam.
356 years later, that modest house (with several additions and alterations) still stands on its original plot of land. Today we call Vlissingen the neighborhood of Flushing in the borough of Queens. Continue reading “Bowne House”
Antonio Meucci built a rustic rocking chair from roots and saplings. The description says that he would sit in his garden “embittered by the thought that the glory of his invention had been denied him.” The rocking chair of bitterness, I can get behind that.
Hope and bitterness, triumph and failure, fame and obscurity, a technological and a political revolution, all in one modest house in Staten Island. How can one place epitomize such divergent fates? Such is the story of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.
Antonio Meucci comes first. An inventor who dabbled in new-fangled applications of electricity, Meucci moved from Italy to Cuba before settling in Staten Island in 1850. As early as 1849, he started working on something he called the teletrofono, which converted sound waves to electricity, transmitted them over a wire, and re-converted them to sound via a speaker at the other end. Sound familiar?
The house tells the story of a brilliant but naive man, who took his invention (prototypes, models, and all) to a major telegraph company, only to be brushed off. He lacked resources to file a patent on his own. And was incensed when Alexander Graham Bell patented a suspiciously similar invention a few years later. And Bell had worked for that very same telegraph company!
In addition to a video narrative of his story, one room in the museum collects some Meucci-bilia, including a few surviving teletrofono models, his rocking chair, and his death mask.
Belatedly, both the New York City and the U.S. House of Representatives have acknowledged Meucci’s unsung role in the telephone’s invention, though of course neither he nor his heirs ever saw one dime of royalties. The museum houses those proclamations as well.
If Meucci had a better lawyer, more resources, better English language skills, or a less trusting nature, we’d all be talking on celltrofonos today.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was the driving force for Italian independence and unification. Italy hadn’t been a single political unit since the fall of Rome, and by the 1800s various bits were controlled by the Swiss, Austria-Hungary, the Papal States, and Bourbon Spain. But as the tide of nationalism was rising across Europe, a few visionaries (or lunatics, depending) like Garibaldi decided Italy should be a single, independent country, too.
Garibaldi’s story is one of the merits of persistence. He tried a couple of times to march an army across the Italian peninsula, and failed. He fled to exile first in Uruguay (where he again stirred up revolutionary passions among the locals) and then, for a while, in New York. When the local Italian community needed a place for the polarizing, heroic man to lie low, Meucci stepped forward. Garibaldi wanted to be out of the limelight, so the idyllic little house in Staten Island appealed.
Eventually, of course, History called (but not on a teletrofono), and Garibaldi returned to Europe. Where, much to the surprise of nearly everyone, he actually succeeded in creating the Italy we know today.
Garibaldi only lived in the house for a couple of years, but two rooms of the museum cover that time. One presents a collection of Garibaldi artifacts — weapons, uniforms, an imposing bronze bust, and some charming maps that detail his travels in loops of yarn. The other, upstairs, re-creates Garibaldi’s bedroom.
Should You Visit the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum?
After Garibaldi’s death in 1882, the house got a plaque recognizing his stay. When Meucci died, New York’s Italian community took over. In the early 1900s, they erected an ersatz Palladian temple of wood and plaster over and around the house.
Maintaining that proved difficult. They removed the monumental shell in the 1950s to create the modest museum and cultural center that exists to the present day. Operated by the Sons of Italy, the museum has periodically formulated plans to expand.
That might help. Garibaldi was l’eroe dei due mondi, (hero of two worlds–Italy and Uruguay, that is). However, I’m not sure everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to his brief home on Staten Island. It’s interesting, but haphazard. Like many small museums, the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum’s very limited space and resources hamper its ability to tell its dual stories.
An introductory video covers Meucci, with appropriate levels of bitterness and righteous anger. And my guide through the museum was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. However, a clutter of folding tables and chairs in the way of the displays detracted. They serve the museum’s other role as classroom for Italian language, culture, and opera.
If you’re a fan of history, Italy, or underdog inventors, you’ll enjoy visiting the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. And if you are trekking to the terrific Alice Austen House, this is an easy walk away.
There’s so much I liked about Alice Austen’s story and her home. However, I was blown away by Clear Comfort’s spectacular, panoramic views of the harbor. I’d go back there just to sit on the lawn and watch the ships go by.
Touring Alice Austen’s house in Staten Island, my guide quipped that if Alice Austen were alive today, she’d be one of those people who lines up for the new iPhone each time one comes out. I say she’d also most likely be an Instagram star.
That her life stretched from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, most of it spent in a lovely house on the shores of Staten Island, makes her even more fascinating.
In 1912, this 50-page speech, folded in Teddy Roosevelt’s overcoat pocket, helped slow a bullet fired by a would-be assassin on the way to a campaign event in Milwaukee. Bullet lodged in his side, Roosevelt proceeded to give his 90-minute speech, extemporaneously, before seeing a doctor. He later said of being shot, “It is a trade risk, which every prominent public man ought to accept as a matter of course.” Brevity may be the soul of wit, but verbosity can block a bullet.
The first thing you should know about the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace is that it’s a fake. Artificial. Teddy Roosevelt was decidedly not born in the master bedroom of that house in 1858, nor did he spend his formative childhood years in that building.
The family moved uptown and sold the original brownstone in that location, TR’s actual birthplace, in 1873. In 1916, in a fit of early twentieth century anti-sentimentality, developers demolished it in in favor of a retail building. Then, after the great man died, sentimentality won out. A group of dedicated Rooseveltians bought the property, reproducing the brownstone in its original location. The current building opened as a museum in 1923. Continue reading “Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site”
This place feels so real. It’s like Louis and Lucille Armstrong just left the room to get you an iced tea, and they’ll be back in a jiffy. Nothing is labeled, no velvet ropes. The Armstrongs’ iron (or very good facsimile) still sits in their closet. I strongly suspect their air conditioners cool some of the rooms. More than any other house museum I’ve visited so far, this place still feels like a home.
A riddle: If Louis Armstrong were a superhero (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), what would he call his souped up vehicle for patrolling the streets of Gotham?
A: The SATCHMOBILE.
Actually the Satchmobile is the name of the official van of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Louis Armstrong practically invented jazz. He played all over the world, made a bajillion records, sang songs that everyone knows. And when he wasn’t doing all that, from 1943 until the day he died he and his wife Lucille lived in a modest three-story brick house in the Corona area of Queens. They entertained generations of neighborhood kids, Louis made tape recordings of himself (he was sort of a tape diarist), and generally lived far more quietly than you’d expect from a jazz superhero.
Louis Armstrong died in 1971. Lucille lived for another 12 years, until 1983. They never had kids. And the house, pretty much exactly as it was when Lucille died, passed into the hands of the city. Queens College manages the place, and they lovingly restored and opened it in 2003 as the best house museum I’ve seen so far.
You can only enter the house on guided tours, but my gods, it feels just like you’re visiting the Armstrongs. The group (nine people joined my tour on a random Saturday afternoon) goes right up the front steps, rings the musical door chime, and proceeds on their visit, which explores every room in the house, down to the breakfast nook.
The management frowns on photos. I cheated once, to take a picture of Louis Armstrong’s infinitely mirrored bathroom. I wondered if Yayoi Kusama ever visited the Armstrongs. Or took this tour…
Here are some of the things I managed to resist photographing:
Louis’s wood paneled den with its fabulous bar (there is still alcohol in his bar. Drambuie.) and fabulous reel-to-reel tape recorders.
The Armstrongs’ bedroom with its wild silver wallpaper.
The amazing 50s kitchen. Bright blue, enameled, curvy cabinetry, custom sub-zero fridge, everything built in. Paper towels stored in their own wall cubby. They even had a blender built into their countertop. Lucille and her kitchen designer were geniuses!
Their white upright piano, which neither of them could play, but looked good in the living room.
Four green ashtrays shaped like the suits from a deck of cards.
Art from a lifetime of world travels.
Okay, I wanted to take pictures of everything.
But I could not resist the bathroom. I apologize, Louis Armstrong House Museum folks.
The Louis Armstrong House uses sound, but unexpectedly it doesn’t play a lot of music. Rather, during the tour, the guide periodically plays bits of recordings of Armstrong talking about the house and his life. In his den, there’s a portrait of him by Tony Bennett (!), and Louis talks about that–how he signed it “Benedetto.” Letting the man speak for himself in his own home works incredibly well.
A Few Other Things
The entry to the Louis Armstrong House and its gift shop is in their former garage.
From the garage you proceed to a small exhibit area, in what used to be his rec room. Where he played poker with Dizzy Gillespie. (His poker table is on display upstairs.) I like to think of it as the Satch-cave.
Look at these stairs! And the wallpaper!
Currently there’s a display commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inescapable, somewhat saccharin (to my taste) “What a Wonderful World.” Not a hit when first released, the film “Good Morning Vietnam” rediscovered the song and set it on its path toward ubiquity. But Louis said whenever he sang it, it reminded him of Corona.
You can also see Armstrong’s bathrobe and slippers, life mask, and suitcases. And one of his trumpets. And three pages he wrote about his joy living in the neighborhood. I got the sense that even if someone had offered them, say, Andrew Carnegie’s mansion, he and Lucille would’ve stayed right where they were.
The most unexpected thing about the house is the Armstrongs bought the lot next door and made it into an expansive garden, with pine trees, a little lawn, a tiny koi pond, and a bar and barbecue. In this one place, I felt a legendary musician exerting some star power. They only built the garden in 1970, so just a year before Armstrong died. Better late than never.
I sat there for a while playing in my head what I’ll get to say when someone asks me what I was up to today. “Oh, not much. Sat in Louis Armstrong’s garden reading a magazine for a bit.”
The Louis Armstrong House experience will soon change significantly. A vacant lot across the street (where they currently park the Satchmobile) is going to get a spiffy new building that will greatly increase the museum’s ability to tell Louis and Lucille’s story. I think that’s wonderful — though I wonder if the neighbors on this quiet block agree.
But even as they’re able to show off more of their collection, I sincerely hope that the house stays just exactly the way it is. It is an amazing monument to the talent, humility, and soul of one of the great figures in the history of music.
You can build museums to jazz (not saying you can succeed, but you can try). You can memorialize great concert performances in museum form. You can digitize music and tell its story through touchscreens and headphones. But nothing you can possibly do will bring you closer to Louis Armstrong than visiting his house in Corona, Queens.
Meanwhile, somebody please write a Justice League-style comic book featuring the Superheroes of Jazz battling the forces of squareness.