Offbeat New York

Louis Armstrong House: Catch a glimpse of Satchmo's Life

by Neala Schwartzberg

Imagine for a moment that it's 1943. Louis Armstrong, famous jazz trumpeter, has just come back to New York from a road tour. He knows the address of the house his wife Lucille bought in his absence but has never seen it. The driver pulls up to the house, a modest two-story clapboard in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood. It looks pretty much like any of the houses on the block. It isn't until his wife greets him at the door that he sees the warm yet sophisticated place will become his refuge, his home.

It's been a long time and much has changed in the last 60 years, but the Louis Armstrong House which opened in October, 2003 for visitors, freezes a moment in time. Although with enough money to live in a far wealthier area, this was the house the Armstrongs lived in for the rest of their lives. Lucille had known and loved the warmth of the neighborhood since her childhood. When she heard a house was for sale, she and Louis bought it, and while Armstrong toured and made music, Lucille, with the assistance of a decorator, redid that house from front to back and up and down.

They became Aunt Lucille and Uncle Louis to the kids in the neighborhood. The kids and Louis, so the story goes, watching westerns on the television and eating bowls of ice cream. Lucille made turkeys and put together baskets of food when death struck someone in the neighborhood. They stayed, as Louis wrote in one of his journals, because "We don't think we could be more relaxed and have better neighbors any place else."

It was Louis' refuge, but it was clearly Lucille's house. From the beige papered walls in the living room, to the patterned woven drapes, to the turquoise kitchen with everything built-in -- including the blender -- to the silver-foiled paper lined draws in the bedroom and the silvered and crystal bathroom with gold faucets.

But the house has more to offer than Lucille's sophisticated decorating, or even a look at that wonderfully retro blue kitchen. It opens a window to the inner life of one of the 20th century's most loved musicians. The guides of the 40-minute tour provide the soul of the experience. They bring Armstrong into the house through anecdotes and snippets of actual Armstrong moments. Louis had a reel-to-reel tape system, and clearly loved to use it. On cue during the tour speakers in three of the rooms (living room, dining room, and upstairs den) pipe in snippets of Louis playing along with a record, or doing scat to a piece of favorite music, or in conversation with Lucille and visitors over dinner.

Guides also tell Armstrong stories, explaining why some of the neighbors' houses have brick work similar to the Armstrong house - because when Armstrong redid his fašade in brick, he extended the offer to pay for some of their brickwork if they wanted. There's the story of Louis' response when asked about his religious beliefs, and his Star of David. Stories behind the paintings and explanations of their personal meaning. And the story of how Armstrong would sometimes stand on the tiny balcony off his only slightly larger den and play trumpet. And the neighborhood would know their famous resident was home.

Armstrong died in 1971 and Lucille lived on in that same house until she died suddenly in 1983. The Armstrong had no children, so the house stayed, frozen in time. But not neglected. In 1973 Lucille had hired Bessie Williams to help her maintain the house. After Lucille died, Bessie kept on maintaining the house, her salary now paid by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, until she retired in 2000.

In 1986 the Foundation gave the house to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and Queens College. The Louis Armstrong House opened to the public for guided tours in October, 2003 after a $1.6 million capital campaign to restore this designated historic landmark. The memorabilia and historic contents of the house, his voluminous papers and journals, his photographs, tapes, and personal trumpets now occupy a six-room archival center in the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library on the campus of Queens College. It is also open to the public.

At the end of the tour, you can visit the gift shop with an extensive collection of Armstrong CDs and books about Armstrong's life. You can also explore the changing exhibits in a small room in what was the garage/basement. Currently on display are pages from his journals, some of collages/boxes and catalogues of his tapes, files collected about him by the federal government when the country was in the midst of paranoia.

The Louis Armstrong House shows the life of Louis and Lucille -- they knew how to enjoy fame and fortune, and still remain grounded.

If You Go:
Louis Armstrong House
34-56 107th Street
Corona, Queens
718 478-8274
Louis Armstrong House

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