Between the dazzling mirrors bathroom and an impressive studio den, it’s hard to pick out which bit of the Louis Armstrong House Museum is my favorite. Incredibly preserved, the home keeps the spirit of Satchmo alive in this time capsule of history.
World-famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong lived with his wife Lucille in this house in the New York neighborhood of Queens, having bought the property for $8,000. Louis called this place home, from 1943 until his death in 1971. Upon Lucille’s passing in 1983 the house was transferred at her request to the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation.
Almost 20 years to the day after Lucille’s death, following a $1.6 million restoration, the house opened in 2003 as a museum. It’s filled to the brim with objets d’art, archival collections and Louis’s recorded audio clips, enriching the experience for every visitor stepping through the doors. Amazingly, the home furnishings are intact and provide a real snapshot of history.
The living room was also called the international room. This is where the Armstrongs kept their collections of items picked up on world travels.
I spoke to Ricky Riccardi, the Director of Research Collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, who gives us his insight into the house’s style. “Most of the Armstrong House appears as it did at the time of Louis’s passing in 1971,” he explains. Originally when the Armstrongs moved in, Lucille’s mother occupied the second floor. But after she died in 1946, Louis and Lucille began to spread out. It was Lucille who made most of the decorating decisions.
Lucille began hiring Morris Grossberg of Morris Interiors to help decorate the home. There were some major renovations over the years but the biggest one took place between 1968 and 1970.
For over 30 years, Lucille worked closely with an interior designer to shape the home’s look.
Can you tell us about the history of how the rooms changed to reflect decorating trends?
Riccardi: Lucille began hiring Morris Grossberg of Morris Interiors to help decorate the home. There were some major renovations over the years but the biggest one took place between 1968 and 1970. Louis was starting to slow down and his health was starting to fail, but he refused to leave the home or the Corona, Queens neighborhood he grew to love so much. So Lucille and Morris Grossberg teamed up to really bring it up-to-date. We have a letter from Lucille to a friend in January 1969, writing from a nearby hotel as they had to leave the home for a while while the work was being done.
What kind of souvenirs and artwork is displayed?
Everything in the house is 100% original so there’s a lot of stuff on display. From an artwork standpoint, there are paintings of Louis by African-American artist Calvin Bailey and one done by the famous singer Tony Bennett. Lucille has a portrait done by Samuel Countee.
There’s also a LeRoy Neiman paining of the jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, a pencil sketch of classical conductor Arturo Toscanini and a print of Salvador Dali’s “Crucifixion.” From a souvenir standpoint, the living room is filled with artifacts Louis and Lucille brought back from their various tours abroad: statues and knick-knacks from Africa, Japan, India, Germany and more, a Sevres Vase given to Louis in France (he was the first jazz musician to get one), religious figurines from around the world and more.
One of the biggest transformations is the blue kitchen renovation completed in 1970. The wood cabinets are finished with a striking blue lacquer-finish, which give the room a futuristic feel. Built to last, the original appliances in the kitchen still work!
One of the most striking rooms has to be the downstairs guest bathroom. Complete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, there’s a marble tub and sink, finished with golden fixtures. Louis was a big fan of the mirrors; “So we can dig our smiling expressions!” explains Riccardi.
The bathroom was immediately featured on an NBC news segment about ornate bathrooms, and later featured in the 1971 Time magazine article, How the Other Half Bathes.
Upstairs, the master bathroom features a silver mylar wallpaper, giving the appearance of foil. “There’s a very intricate pattern that remains unbroken as the wallpaper covers the 12 medicine cabinets on one of the walls.” The wallpaper extends all the way to the dressing room, and features on the cabinets and drawers too. There are also speakers in the bathroom, so Louis could pump music through to listen while having a bath. He loved having music on at all times.
As already mentioned, a lot of the decorating choices were made by Lucille. But there were still parts of the home that were for Louis entirely. Particularly, the den. For Riccardi and many other visitors to the museum, it’s this room that really stands out.
“Growing up in New Orleans, a room like that would have been used as a bedroom or a living room; he never quite got over the delight of having an entire room to himself.”
Riccardi describes that Louis was really pleased with this room, which he would often use for recording himself, listening to music and entertaining friends.
Are there areas of the house that are more Louis than Lucille?
I’d say 90% of the house reflects Lucille’s personality over Louis’s. Louis loved it all and was proud of how the house looked but he was on the road 300 nights a year so it was important for Lucille to be comfortable with the look of the home since she spent more time there. Louis did have his den on the second floor and that represents, to many, the highlight of our tour. Louis actually said once that “Lucille gave me a den” and growing up in New Orleans, a room like that would have been used as a bedroom or a living room; he never quite got over the delight of having an entire room to himself for his hobbies and to entertain his friends.
What is it that makes the den so special?
That was Louis’s “man cave” and also where he created the tapes, scrapbooks, manuscripts and other items that make up our research collections, currently located at Queens College. It’s also where he entertained a who’s who of the jazz world, including many other musicians from Queens such as Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Charlie Shavers, Clark Terry and many more. You can still feel his presence in there.
Did Louis and Lucille entertain much at this home?
*Many thanks to Ricky Riccardi and the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The interview portion of the article has been edited for clarity and length.
Being able to glimpse into the home life of such an accomplished musician who shaped the 20th century is a rare treat. You can visit the museum on Tuesdays to Sundays, with a 40 minute guided tour through the house.
The future of the Louis Armstrong House Museum is a sunny one. From their fundraising efforts, a new education center is being built across the street from the museum and set to open in 2019. With more space, they’ll be able to share even more of the collection with visitors, feature a 68-seat Jazz Room with regular concerts. Additionally they’re in the middle of digitizing the entire collection, so that Armstrong fans around the world can access the treasure trove online.
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