The jazz musician’s impeccably maintained home in a modest New York City neighborhood is a testament to his — and midcentury design’s — legacy.
By M.H. Miller
Feb. 20, 2020
CORONA, QUEENS, is an unassuming New York City neighborhood. Nearby is the stainless steel Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair, and three miles west is Flushing’s Main Street, with its crowded dim sum parlors. Corona, though, feels like a suburb wedged into the city, and it’s here, on a quiet residential block, with modest century-old detached homes with small cement porches and aluminum siding, that you’ll find one of the country’s great unheralded design museums: the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Louis Armstrong’s miraculously preserved house, where he lived from 1943 until his death in 1971, at age 69.
Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901, dropped out of school as a child and was a successful touring musician in his early 20s. By 1929, he was living in Harlem, though as one of the most popular recording artists in the country, he traveled about 300 nights a year. In 1939, he met his fourth and final wife, Lucille Wilson, a dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Lucille, who spent part of her childhood in Corona, decided it was time for her husband to settle down in a house, a real house, instead of living out of hotel rooms. (Even their wedding took place on the road, in St. Louis, at the home of the singer Velma Middleton.) One day, when Armstrong was away at a gig, she put a down payment of $8,000 (around $119,000 in today’s money) on 34-56 107th Street. She didn’t tell him she’d done this until eight months later, during which time she made the mortgage payments herself. (Lucille didn’t like being told no; as Hyland Harris, who manages the Louis Armstrong House Museum gift shop, located in what was once the garage — the biggest aberration between the house today and its past incarnations — told me, “There is a reason why she was the last wife.”)THE T LIST |Sign up herefor T’s newsletter, a weekly roundup of what our editors are noticing and coveting now.
From the outside, the two-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house looks just like any other on the block, which was deliberate. Armstrong often referred to himself as “a salary man” and felt at ease alongside the telephone operators, schoolteachers and janitors of Corona, a neighborhood that, in a testament to how much of his life was spent in jazz clubs, he referred to affectionately as “that good ol’ country life.” One of the earliest integrated areas of New York, Corona was mostly home to middle-class African-Americans and Italian immigrants when the Armstrongs moved in. The demographics would change in the coming decades — Latin Americans began replacing the Italians in the ’60s, and now make up most of the neighborhood — but not much else. There was never a mass wave of gentrification or development here, and Armstrong himself was so concerned with blending in with his working-class neighbors that when his wife decided to give the house a brick facade, Armstrong went door-to-door down the block asking the other residents if they wanted him to pay for their houses to receive the same upgrade. (A few of his neighbors took him upon the offer, which accounts for the scattered presence of brick homes on the street to this day.)
One wouldn’t know from the sidewalk that the interior of the house is a more or less perfect reflection of the Armstrongs’ life circa 1969, when Lucille made her final round of renovations during her husband’s lifetime with the help of her interior decorator, Morris Grossberg. Armstrong’s half-empty bottle of Lanvin cologne still sits on the dresser in the master bedroom; their old Electrolux vacuum cleaner is still stashed in a hallway closet. No two rooms are alike — “I guess ‘Rococo’ is the word I could use without losing my job,” Harris said of the overall aesthetic — though many are surprisingly modest, especially given Armstrong’s larger-than-life presence. He is the only person ever to have hit records in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. He played behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and in the Democratic Republic of Congo during decolonization in 1960, during which both sides of a civil war called a truce to watch him perform, then picked up fighting again once his plane took off. There are few American figures as legendary and beloved, and yet, as Harris told me, a common reaction people have upon entering his home is, “This reminds me of my grandmother’s house.” Certainly the living room recalls a ’60s vision of Modernism with a vaguely minimalist formality. The gold sconces offer a glimmer of opulence, but the walls themselves are covered in a subdued, cream-colored wallpaper — the same wallpaper that covered them at least 50 years ago. It matches the upright piano standing against one wall, and the two twill couches. There’s also a small TV — one of the first on the block — that sits low to the floor, so that the neighborhood children whom Armstrong would invite over (he never had kids of his own) could sit comfortably on the floor to watch Westerns.
LUCILLE CONSIDERED THIS a starter home and spent several years trying to convince Armstrong to purchase a more lavish property. She would occasionally put down payments on properties in Harlem or on Long Island only for Armstrong to issue stop payments. He liked it in Corona, and after establishing roots for the first time in his life, he wanted to stay. So Lucille instead channeled her energy into frequent renovations: For the first three years they lived there, Lucille’s mother occupied the second floor; after she died, in 1946, the couple took over the whole house.
The most ostentatious room by far is the first-floor bathroom, which is covered in wall-to-wall gold-rimmed mirrors — as Armstrong once wrote, “It’s a pleasure to see yourself wipe your ass from all angles” — with marble floors, a marble bathtub and a marble sink converted from a birdbath. It feels more like something that belongs in a penthouse suite of a ’70s-era Las Vegas hotel; the care lavished upon the space is perhaps expected from a man who emphatically loved using the bathroom. (Armstrong even had a favorite brand of laxatives, Swiss Kriss, an herbal product that he’d mail sample packets of to fans who wrote to him, along with a picture of him sitting on the toilet, holding the laxatives and beaming his famous, enormous grin; his slogan, “Leave It All Behind Ya,” was printed beneath the image.)
No less startling is the kitchen, a room that exemplifies ’60s Futurism and was partially inspired by the space age exhibitions at the 1964 World’s Fair: There are clear acrylic shelving units, a blender installed into a countertop, a can opener built into a wall and a bespoke Crown stove with six burners, two broilers, two ovens and a small gold placard that reads “Custom Made by Crown for Mr. and Mrs. Louis Armstrong.” The cabinets are lacquered a deep blue — a shade that, in a certain light, looks like the color of the Earth as seen from space, a hue similar to Lucille’s beloved Cadillac.
Upstairs — past the master bedroom, where Lucille’s tiny gold slippers still rest on the floor next to the king-size bed, and where the silver wallpaper is so shiny you can actually see your reflection in it — is the most moving room in the house: Armstrong’s personal den. To this day, it houses his liquor cabinet (still stocked as it was at the time of his death, including a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniel’s), his desk and typewriter, his record collection, which included works by more avant-garde jazz masters (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk) and his reel-to-reel tape machine, a gadget by which he documented his remarkable talent for the spoken word. Armstrong left behind some 700 tapes, from recordings of his favorite interviews to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 funeral. There’s even a tape of him discussing the room itself, which reveals a certain power dynamic in his and Lucille’s relationship: “She gave me a room and made a den out of it,” he says. “You know what I mean? That really knocked me out.” Growing up, he continues, “we couldn’t afford no den . . . we’d rather sleep in that room.”
HOW IS IT possible that this house has remained so perfectly intact? And why is it so little known? (The home, which opened to the public in 2003, gets about 18,000 visitors each year; Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, by comparison, draws about 600,000 people annually.) The second question can be explained partly by its location in Corona, a neighborhood that, unless you live here, takes some work to get to.
The first question is more complicated. It certainly helped that the Armstrongs had no children, though it’s still remarkable that the house wasn’t completely picked over following Armstrong’s death. (His 1971 funeral, for which Frank Sinatra and Dick Cavett were among the honorary pallbearers, was held in nearby Flushing Cemetery and drew thousands of spectators.) Much of the credit for its preservation is due to Lucille; after her husband died, she abandoned her desires for a fancier home and became the primary caretaker of his legacy. She stayed in the house until her own death in 1983, at age 69, and left it to the city; since 1987, it has been run by Queens College, which also owns Armstrong’s archives. The college had the foresight to put Lucille’s longtime housekeeper, Bessie Williams, whom she hired in 1972, on the payroll, and every couple of weeks, she’d clean the house as she always had; she retired not long before the house opened as a museum.
But the other factor was Armstrong himself, who despite dropping out of school in the fifth grade had a scholar’s proclivity for saving and indexing. His archive houses his trumpets, his library (which includes “War and Peace,” “Of Mice and Men” and the Bible), the original score from the first recording of “What a Wonderful World” in 1967 and also stranger fare: There’s a 1959 manuscript of a treatise on marijuana (“gage, as they so beautifully call it sometimes,” he writes in the opening sentence); boxes of Franz Schuritz lip salve, which he used prolifically enough (the trumpet was hard on Armstrong’s mouth) to receive a lifetime supply from the company; and a personally compiled joke book that includes an extensive index of punch lines (“Them ears,” “Prostate massage” and so on). Ricky Riccardi, who runs the Armstrong archive, said of this penchant for collecting and organizing: “He was very humble, he didn’t have an ego, but he was very self-aware of his accomplishments. He wanted to be the one to tell his own story.” The house, then, became its own archive, a record of his life off the road.
Riccardi recounted a story about how, during the postwar years, Armstrong would visit Chicago for gigs and stay at the Palmer House hotel downtown. When word would get out, as it always did, that Armstrong was in town, a line would form outside his room, and Armstrong would listen to people’s hardships and give them money: $20 here, $50, sometimes as much as $500. When Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, asked why he’d give away money like that, Armstrong responded, “Money? What do I need money for? They’re gonna write about me in the history books one day.”