The Weckquasgeek Tribe, part of the Iraquois Nation were the first people to inhabit Manhattan. In Harlem they came to be known as Reckewa’s people after the chief when the Dutch first arrived there.
Blacks began moving into this area around 1920 .The area became known as Sugar Hill, the place where life is sweetened by piles of sugar-money. This particular row of townhouses was designed by Neville and Bagge and constructed in 1906.
These were one family homes and the people who lived here were considered to be middle class. Back then middle class people did not live in studio apartments.
No, they lived in 4 story townhouse’s, or brownstone’s and the maids quarters was on the top floor, so for those of you who think life is so wonderful in the 21st century, with your ipods and flat screens, remember that 100 years ago they had space.
Around 1906 Negro Harlem was confined to a few blocks north and south of W135 St. It was there that speculative developers enjoyed a spree of building and buying, expecting to become millionaires overnight by erecting apartment houses near the newly built subway. Does any of this sound familiar? After the Panic of 1904-07 no eager renters materialized.
Philip Payton a black real estate agent, who was responsible for starting the movement of blacks to Harlem, realized that blacks would pay a premium to live there. Between 1906 and 1920 Harlem became the the largest settlement of black people in the world. Between the 2 wars Harlem became worlds capital of entertainment with its clubs like the Savoy, the Cotton Club and Smalls Paradise. This was referred to as The Harlem Renaissance, and legends like Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughs moved there.
Then later on came WEB Du Bois, Thurgood Marshal, Paul Robeson and many more. One of the things we have done at Sugar Hill is to focus on this history, this Harlem Renaissance. We bought the building in 1999 and luckily, many of the original details remained. We did a renovation of all the electric the plumbing and we remodeled all the kitchens and bathrooms taking care to preserve the history of the building. All our rooms are named for one of the great artists who were associated with Harlem.
The reception area is our common area where we greet our guests and breakfast is served there. We also have functions, weddings, parties, fund raisers, art shows and play and poetry readings. There is a kitchen attached so food can be prepared.
There is a garden that is mostly composed of things that were found. Old wood beams and red brick from nearby construction sites that have debris left over from demolished buildings. Also, the soil and some old tree trunks and barks, moss and plants that were taken from the woods in an area south of Woodstock in the Catskills.
Actually anything that was in a state of advanced decay and rot was carried down to Manhattan to add to the general decay and rot down here. Actually there is considerably less corrosion and blight than in the 70’s and 80’s, but you will find many New Yorkers who miss the urban decay. They like to reminisce and look back fondly at NYC’s blight. They say it gave us a unique character.
All the soil that we used is taken from the woods. It is comprised of a combination of dry leaves, green grass and scraps of decomposing of wood, that was left on a compost heap for a few months to ferment, with the help of earth worms. Did you know that a worm has 10 hearts and has a life span of 16 years? Organic matter excreted by earthworms is 5 times richer in calcium available for plants, 7 times richer in phosphorous and 11 times richer in potassium than the matter that they consume.
All these chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are used are completely counter productive. If you kill the life in the soil, how do you expect the plants to defend themselves against pests and disease? This is our first year but we’ve been able to grow corn, sunflowers, 2 different varieties of chili pepper. We have tobacco growing in every little spare corner we can find. That was an experiment and we ended up with hundreds of seedlings that we didn’t have space for. There is a fig tree, graciously sharing its space with tobacco, and a hardy citrus, that can withstand New York’s harsh winter.
Down the side of the house where there is a limited amount of sun, we put, our shaded part of the garden. There are plenty of great looking plants that don’t like too much sun, and we love moss and the moss grows nice and green back here, and we have, baby fir trees, firns and ivy which we are coaxing to grow up the walls. That’s the garden, it’s very small but it’s teaming with life. Did you know that in a handful of earth there are more living beings than people on this planet?
All of the rooms were decorated by Carol Donawa a graduate of The New York School of Interior Design.
The rooms on the 2nd floor include Satchmos room and Lena’s room. Lena’s room is named for Lena Horne who was born in Brooklyn and at the age of 16 performed at the Cotton Club. There she was introduced to the growing community of jazz performers including Billy Holiday, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She became the first African American performer to sign a long- term contract with a major Hollywood studio. She became famous for her rendition of Stormy Weather in the movie of the same name. She was however married to a white Jewish American and MGM executives disapproved of her marriage,and she was eventually let go.
In her autobiography she recounts the pressures that she and her husband faced as an interracial couple. She was very outspoken about her ostracization, and during a TV show on Sesame Street she sang the song,” Being Green” to Kermit the Frog.
Lena’s room is the most elaborately designed room in the house. The fireplace has this wonderful ornamental molding around the fireplace. It is also the most feminine and romantic room in the house. The 4 poster bed with the gauzy fabrics is very much the center of the room. There is an antique armoire, and also original wood floors. The light fixture is not original but it is antique and fits in well with the other furnishings.The bedding and the curtains were all custom made. It comes with a bathroom which, since it was small we used these offbeat colors, royal blue and ruby red.
Satchmos room is named for Louis Armstrong. He was born in New Orleans. He took what was a collective folk music and turned it into an art form with tremendous possibilities, for individual expression. His influence on the development of jazz was immeasurable. In 1963 he became the oldest artist to have a #1 song ,by knocking the Beatles off the top with his hit song “Hello Dolly”.
It is said that while waiting in the VIP room at Orly airport, that then, Vice President Nixon entered the room, and on seeing Satchmo, rushed over to tell him how much he loved his music and how he was this huge fan of his. It turned out that they were traveling on the same flight and he asked Satchmo if there was anything he could do for him.” sure would you mind carrying this?”. And he handed one of his bags to Nixon. As you may or may not know Satchmo smoked a joint every night before dinner, so that was how he got his stash transported on that flight.
Satchmo set up a non profit foundation for educating disadvantaged children in music and bequeathed his music and substantial recordings and memorabilia to City University of New York Queens College
And so it is fitting that his is the largest room in the house and comes with a king size bed a large bathroom, a separate bath and shower and an outside deck. All the bedding and curtains are custom made and the wood floors are original. The furnishings are all antique and the dressing table top is maple with a marble top.
The rooms on the 3rd floor include Miles room and Josephines room. Miles room is named for Miles Davis. Miles Davis was one of the most innovative and influential musicians of the 20th century. A trumpeter, a bandleader and a composer, he was at the forefront of every major development in jazz after World War 11. In 1944 Davis moved to New York to study at Julliard, however after tracking down Charlie Parker, he became a member of his quintet and appeared on many of his recordings.
He was an early Sonny Rollins fan and hung out with him and his Sugar Hill Harlem crowd that included, Jackie Mclean, Kenny Drew and Art Taylor. His career took off when he was signed by Capital Records in 1948. His career spanned 4 decades until 1991 when he died from a stroke.
Miles room has a queen size bed a kitchen and a bathroom. There are 3 large windows with custom made drapes that overlook 141st St. The bedding is also custom made. It has a fireplace that has been stripped of years of old varnish so the true grain of the old wood can be appreciated and matches the original wood floors. Although the lighting is not original the fixtures are all antique lamps that have been rewired. There is a Persian rug on the floor. There is a photo of Miles as well as Billy Holiday, and John Coltrane and right over the bed a photo of Satchmo, Miles only met Satchmo once, at Satchmo’s 70th birthday on July 4th 1970.
Josephine’s room is named for Josephine Baker. She was born in St Louis in 1906. She was part Apalachee Native American and part African American. She was a dancer, actress and singer. She came to New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and performed at the Plantation Club and other Broadway revues from 1921-24. In 1925 she performed in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees where she became an instant success, appearing practically naked on stage. She starred at the Follies Bergere, performing in a skirt made solely of bananas, often accompanied by her pet leopard, that sometimes escaped into the orchestra pit terrifying the musicians.
She became the most successful American performer in France,however due to racial prejudice she was unable to work in the U.S. She remained in France during the World War 11,and worked for the French Résistance. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre,after the war for her underground activities. Although she did not live in the U.S., she supported the American Civil Rights movement.
She adopted 12 children of different races. She called them her rainbow tribe. At the age of 65 she made a remarkable comeback, performing at Club Bobino in Paris. A week later she died from cerebral hemorrhage, she was found on her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance.
Josephine’s room has a kitchen, bathroom and a double bed. We often use this room when there is a family of 3 or 4 and there is need for a second bed. Like Miles room, there is a wood fireplace that has been stripped of years of old varnish and matches the floors. The light fixtures are antique, as is the bed. The bedding and the drapes are custom made and there is a curtain that closes off the kitchen area so that clients that don’t even want to see a kitchen on their holidays can just draw the curtain. There is only one window in this room, and it looks down into the garden, so this room is very quiet, as it is in the back of the house. There is a photo of Josephine in her “Sunday Best”, kneeling on the floor and a painting of Ray Charles, who lived in Harlem in the 40’s.
There is also a photo of James Baldwin who not only lived in Harlem but wrote extensively about his childhood there. Lastly there is a photo of Robert Johnson, who probably never even made it to New York, never mind Harlem. However there is something very endearing about someone that few people knew when he was alive and few even heard of until 20 years after his death, when his music was discovered in the early 60’s. There are only 2 photos of him and he died in obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1998 his son Claud won a long court battle and received a six figure check, for royalties from his fathers music.
On the 4th floor there is the Renaissance Suite which comes with 2 bedrooms a kitchen a bathroom and a living room with a sofa bed. There is a fireplace in the living room. The curtains are custom made and there is a Persian rug on the floor. The room leads into a hallway with exposed brick and an open kitchen. There are streams of light as there are 3 skylights, 2 in the hallway and one in the bathroom.
At the end of the hallway, there is Ali’s room, which is named for Muhammad Ali, considered the world over as the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Ali had an extremely unorthodox way of boxing, he carried his hands at his side and danced around his opponent, relying on his speed to avoid being hit. In the beginning people did not take him seriously, perhaps due to his playful humor, and amusing poetry. However he took the world by storm when he beat the strong favorite Sonny Liston.
From 1965-67 Ali defended his title 9 times. No other heavy weight champion in history has fought so much in such a short period of time. He is also known for his political activism particularly his resistance to the Vietnam War, refusing to serve in the military. He was banned from boxing in the U.S,and for most of 1966, had to fight outside America.
Ali’s room is a deep periwinkle color and matches the bedding. The headboard is antique, so it is a double bed, since it is only in the past 60 years that there were queen and king-size beds. The curtains are lace and there are wood floors.
The 2nd room in the Renaissance suite is Ella’s room. It is named for Ella Fitzgerald; she was orphaned at an early age and moved to Yonkers. She got into trouble with the police and was sent to reform school, from which she escaped, and for a time was homeless. She made her singing debut at a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. In 1935 she met Chick Webb, at the Harlem Opera House, who hired her to travel with his band, often performing at the Savoy Ballroom. Ella’s most famous collaborations were with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She was one of the best known female jazz vocalists of the 20 century.
Ella’s room is painted in a warm sienna color, there is a queen-size sleigh bed and the custom drapes and bedding are in blue and white toiles that all together give the feeling of the setting sun.
At Sugar Hill we take the impending disaster of global warming very seriously. Some people seem still seem to take it very lightly and claim that “everything is just fine”. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici cited on May 28 2006” There will be no climate change legislation coming out of my committee this year” So don’t expect any changes coming from Washington.
I am not sure what kind of disaster they are waiting for in order to take this threat seriously. Obviously, New Orleans’s did not meet these criteria. On a state level however, changes are being made and states like California, New Jersey and New York are making a significant effort to encourage homeowners to use renewable energy in their home. There are tax incentives, grants and low interest loans available We are in the process of installing photo voltaics, solar panels on the roof. This will significantly change our usage of non renewable energy supplied by Con Edison. I realize this is a small contribution to an enormous problem but perhaps if we can all make a small effort, we can avert a much larger disaster.
There are many reasons to visit Harlem. The history is unprecedented in New York. There is no other part of Manhattan that so many talented musicians and artists have lived. It is extremely accessible to other parts of the city, via the A train.
Harlem is not only the most famous district in New York City it is probably the most famous place in the world and guess what? Sugar Hill is the best known part of Harlem.