Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Poppenhusen Institute

Poppenhusen Institute entry hall
Museums: Poppenhusen Institute (15 min) …………………… Free

Poppenhusen Institute
On the northern fringe of Queens lies a neighborhood under siege.  Called College Point after a college that closed over one hundred and fifty years ago, this neighborhood was once a small town of Victorian homes, summer resorts and German beer gardens, yet much of the remnants of that past are being slowly demolished today in favor of low cost, high density apartment buildings.  In the heart of this vanishing town lies an ancient community center with the esoteric name of the Poppenhusen Institute. 

A sign on the front proudly declares it the site of the first free kindergarten in the United States (began July 1st, 1870), but despite its official Landmark status the institute is not really set up for visitors and was difficult to get into.  We’ve found that historic buildings occasionally get noted as museums even if they are not set up as such, and this appears to be the case with the Poppenhusen Institute.  However, it was on our list and I was unable to determine its museum-y qualities online, so Paul and I combed their facebook site for times when they were open and we ended up crashing their summer fundraiser.  When we got there, the flea market and bake sale were up and running and the Beatles cover band was in full swing.  We didn’t know anyone at this neighborhood party, but we’ve gone far stranger places in the pursuit of our goal (see our post on the retirement home in Riverdale), so Paul entered the raffle and we gamely set about exploring the building.

Jail cells in the Poppenhusen Institute
The Institute is named for the German-American industrialist Conrad Poppenhusen, who built a factory here to manufacture hard rubber goods, transforming College Point from a sleepy farming community into a factory town.  Poppenhusen built the institute in 1868 to serve the community that grew up around the factory, and in addition to the kindergarten, this building also served as the local bank, the first library in College Point, a courtroom and the Sheriffs Office.  Paul and I stumbled upon two jail cells in the basement, left over from its law and order days.

Upstairs there were classrooms for the institute’s karate and dance classes, a large ballroom and a limited exhibit on local Native Americans, complete with a grass hut and a manikin dressed in a loincloth.  For me, the most touching part of the museum was a series of poster boards in the back, with pictures of the historic buildings that College Point has lost to development.  Faded black and white photographs of buildings were surrounded with notes of the battles that had been waged to save them and the descriptions of what has been lost.  It felt like looking at photos of lost friends whose lives had been tragically cut short by the rapid pace of high-density development.

Joe Beresheim's Butcher Shop. A note reads: "This building still stands."
The Poppenhusen Institute itself was almost demolished in 1983, but the community rallied to save it and on this occasion they won.   Its nice to know that some pieces of the old College Point will be around a little longer.

Pauline: 2 out of 10. Historic community center, but not much to see and limited hours.
Paul: 4 out of 10. A noble last stand against the destruction of a neighborhood.

Sewing class at the Poppenhusen Institutue

Monday, September 12, 2011

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Louis Armstrong on stage
MuseumsLouis Armstrong House Museum (1 hour) ……….………… $10

As part of our crazy mission, Paul and I have seen 25 historic buildings during the last year and a half, giving us a kind of unique expertise on the subject, and while our opinions differ on specific buildings, we are unanimous on what makes a historic house successful: its all about the tour

Take the Old Stone House in Brooklyn: it had a centerstage role in the bloody Battle for Brooklyn and an amusing later role as the club house of the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, but all was conveyed by dated dioramas and raged posterboards.  The experience failed to engage and we left after 15 minutes.  Contrast this with the Van Courtland House, with a minor Revolutionary War role and staid history as a country house for a wealthy but faded Bronx family, but the docent gave a gripping and detailed lecture on everything from George Washington’s clever use of war time expenditures to the horrors of 18th century toilets.  It had us fascinated for 3 hours and a pair of jaded Bronx high school students peppering him with questions until the museum closed.  Clearly, the tour makes or breaks the historic house experience.

Louis Armstrong House Museum
Today we discovered our favorite historic house to date, which, not coincidentally, also had one of the best tours.  The house is the Louis Armstrong House Museum and was the home of famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong and his wife Lucille from 1943 until his death in 1971.  The house is an unassuming two-floor townhouse in the working class neighborhood of Corona, Queens, and at first glance it doesn’t seem much like the home of a superstar like Armstrong, who was one of the greatest musicians of his age and quite a celebrity.  However, the plainness of the house and neighborhood is actually what Armstrong (and we) loved about the place. 

Louis Armstrong's "Hello Dolly" Gold Record Award, 1964
Early in the tour, the docent tells a story of how Armstrong’s wife Lucille once tried to buy a townhouse in the swank Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan.  At the time America was still racially divided, but in this case race wasn’t the Armstrongs’ problem.  Louis was so famous that when he stepped out of the car to see the townhouse, he was immediately mobbed by fans and autograph seekers.  Here in Corona, Lucille’s family was well established and everyone knew Louis as her husband, and he was left alone.  This was the one place in the world where the great Louis Armstrong could take a break from his grueling schedule of 300 concerts a year and just go to the barber on the corner like a normal guy and play his trumpet on the front porch for the neighborhood kids.  Knowing that Lucille would have preferred a Manhattan brownstone, Armstrong bricked the front of their house to look like one, and offered free brickwork to anyone on the block to make their neighborhood resemble Manhattan just a bit (only one household took him up on it).  This was a house where a superstar could get a taste of the quiet life, and he clearly treasured it.

Louis Armstrong writing about his neighborhood in Queens
We know his feelings about the house because Louis was somewhat obsessive about documenting his life, writing two autobiographies, hundreds of pages of handwritten memoirs and most interestingly, leaving hundreds of reel to reel recordings of his daily life.  His beloved reel-to-reel player is still on display in his upstairs den and the best parts of the tour are when the docent reaches over and presses a button in the wall and you hear recordings of Louis hanging out with his wife, teaching his young niece to sing, or talking about how much he loved his den
The house is capably managed by the music school at Queens College (the Kupferberg Center for the Arts) and they could have focused the tour on Louis Armstrong’s legendary music (and no one would have blamed them) but instead the tour explores the man behind the legend and you feel like you get to know him personally.  You hear about Louis’s rough upbringing eating out of dumpsters in New Orleans.  When you see his gold plated bathroom the guide includes the embarrassing detail that Louis spent a lot of time in the bathroom due an overuse of laxatives initiated by his mother after dumpster diving.  You hear how he got that scar on his lip, and the sad stories of his three failed marriages until he finally “got it right” with Lucille, who was clearly the love of his life. 

Gold plated bathroom at the Louis Armstrong House
By the end of the tour you’re calling him by his nickname Satchemo and you know what it stands for.  You get comfortable in his homey den, looking at his reading glasses laid on handwritten sheet music and wondering if you could get a nip from the half bottle of whiskey waiting in the cabinet.  You hear him say how much he loved the portrait on the wall, painted by his good friend Tony Bennett.  Then, as the tour is winding down and you feel you know him like that sweet older gentleman on your block, the guide finally plays a song over the house speakers and the sounds of Satchemo’s magnificent trumpet escorts you out.

Trumpet given to Louis Armstrong by King George V in 1933

Kitchen of the Louis Armstrong House
Lucille is brought to life on the tour as well.  Louis met her when she was a dancer at the Cotton Club, and for a while she toured the world with him until she’d had enough of the crazy schedule and bought the house in Queens.  Lucille chose the décor and the home was clearly decorated by a woman who knew what she liked.  You may not love the foil wallpaper on the ceilings or the all-teal kitchen, but you can’t say that she didn’t have strong opinions on style, or probably anything else.

Louis and Lucille Armstrong's garden
The Louis Armstrong House is seen only by guided tour that leaves every hour on the hour.  If you’re very lucky, you’ll get to meet the gracious Selma Heraldo who lives next door.  Selma was Lucille’s best friend and toured with the Armstrongs.  Although the tour interrupted her gardening, Selma greeted us like visiting friends and her stories lent an even more personable air to this engaging historic house.

Pauline: 8 out of 10:  A glimpse into the private life of a superstar amid classic 60’s décor.
Paul: 9 out of 10:  It’s amazing that someone as famous as Louis Armstrong could live a normal life.