The Noblest Architecture
Michael Henry Adams has spent his life preserving Harlem’s Black vitality.
By Sam Needleman
Michael Henry Adams has lived since 2006—or maybe 2007; he can’t quite remember—on 129th Street and Convent Avenue. Before that, he lived on 138th and Amsterdam, in the apartment with the most sunlight he’s ever had. Before that, 122nd and Lenox. Before that, 122nd again, just west of Marcus Garvey Park. Before that, Hamilton Place. Before that, the Village—Hudson Street. Before that, 120th, and before that, 138th and Amsterdam again. Before that, Hamilton Terrace. Before that, a sublet on 147th and Broadway. Before that, 147th and Convent. Before that, the 37th floor of 500 Park Avenue, where he worked as the live-in cook for Larry and Klara Silverstein. Before that, “Queens—one of those first places you come to in Queens.” Before that, Riverside—wait, no. Before Queens was Fordham Road and Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, in the living room of an apartment owned by an estranged member of the Afghan royal family. Before that, 158th and Riverside, in the dining room of a subscriber to a gay men’s roommate service. Before that, a bedroom of another subscriber to a gay men’s roommate service on St. Nicholas near 145th. Before that, Hamilton Terrace again, with a friend named Kevin, in a very historic house.
Most of the buildings Adams has lived in are about twice as old as he is now. For a city that likes to thrust itself into the center of world history, that’s a low multiplier; if he had left Ohio for a historic quarter of Paris or Aleppo or Calcutta, the number might be higher. Still, he has found a life’s meaning in reminding his neighbors about the very interesting piles of bricks and stones that people on this island have tended to make, and about the very interesting ways that they have tended to live in them. This is especially true of Black people in Harlem, who made, in Adams’s words, the “most dynamic contribution to world culture” in American history with music that they composed and performed inside those piles. He insists that bricks and stones are worth keeping around not just because they make great houses and schools and churches and stores, but also because they enable people to make beautiful things, and are themselves quite beautiful to look at. Singularly so: New York City has no real aesthetic parallel in space or time. Certainly Harlem doesn’t. Nothing close.
Adams’s devotion to Harlem is not inborn, but it’s just as resolute as you might think. He formed it by himself on the long journey to Manhattan from the middle of the country in the middle of the last century—Akron in 1956, where he learned to love buildings. His father was a high school teacher, a university professor, and an athletic coach, and his mother was a nurse; his four sisters were all younger. After he was rejected by colleges in Boston—the grand houses of the Back Bay tempted him—he stayed in the old Rubber Capital of the World for a decade of undergrad. He moved here in the summer of 1985, and two years later he enrolled in the Master’s in Historic Preservation program at Columbia. He didn’t graduate, largely because he struggled to find a thesis advisor with his interests and passions; only through a process of elimination did he land with the famed architectural historian Gwendolyn Wright. She found his academic writing too florid, “like Henry James.” Then he tried to make a living saving buildings, which proved difficult, as it usually does. But it was especially difficult for Adams, a gay Black man up against a white establishment intent on writing their white architectural histories to buttress their white ideologies.
Over the decades, Adams has worked as a curator’s assistant, a sales clerk, a “cook slash houseman,” a waiter at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, and the Community Cultural Associate for State Senator Bill Perkins. But he’s best known as a historian and an activist. His publications include Harlem, Lost and Found and Style and Grace: African Americans at Home; gorgeous copies of both are available to pore over in Avery. He is now searching for a publisher for Homo Harlem, a book about queer life uptown in the twentieth century, and for his memoir, tentatively titled Mud Huts. His message and mission are crystal clear in the name of one of the many preservationist organizations he’s founded: Save Harlem Now.
I met Adams twice at the peak of early June’s heatwave, when Harlem’s streets were even quieter than their weekend morning norm. By noon, chic crowds started filling the outdoor sections of the restaurants he led me to for eggs benedict and coffee and bellinis. Adams is the sprawling neighborhood’s designated dandy; both days I spent with him, he donned a straw boater and a post-Memorial Day blazer. “We haven’t seen you in over 400 days!” the owner of the second restaurant declared as he set us at a prime table in the shade. Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum and maybe New York’s most celebrated curator, walked by with her husband and said, “Hi, Michael!” Adams nodded, then paused for a minute before launching back into his story.
After hours of talking, I finally told Adams I had to go. “But we haven’t seen any buildings yet!” he cried, as if the autobiographical monologues on history, politics, and culture he’d just spent a weekend delivering were meant as an appetizer. I reminded him that he had been extremely late both days and, on the second, steered me away from the buildings and toward brunch just after we’d finally linked. We laughed. I assured him we’d meet again; hopefully, his buildings aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: Where do you shop?
Michael Henry Adams: For my socks, from African vendors on 125th Street that sell these socks for little girls for a dollar apiece. At Marshall's, and—what is that place? There’s some place that’s underground that’s another outlet store. And then occasionally, if you get tricked by seeing something at Brooks Brothers that’s on sale, I might go there. I got these shoes online. I once recklessly bought a hat from Brooks Brothers, but then I found out by getting a Brooks Brothers charge card, I could get this tremendous discount. So I did. But unfortunately, I’m very careless with my clothes and things.
B&W: Really? Have you always been that way?
MHA: I have been. I think it must have been a reaction against my father. He was very meticulous and had things that he’d had from the beginning of his college days at the end of his life. I used to wear them, and I think I ruined those, too.
When I was a kid, I would watch movies like Gone with the Wind or A Band of Angels or Saratoga Trunk, and I’d find myself identifying with the white people. Why did I do that? I guess because I wanted to be an heir, to be a part of the beauty, of the beautiful way of life, the clothes and the buildings.
B&W: And you had no examples of that aesthetic in Black life?
MHA: Well, I did to a certain degree. But I realized that the font of all that beauty and grace was devolved from the white society. Eventually, I came to see that whether it was Williamsburg or Oak Alley or some other grand plantation house, because of these places being linked to slavery, that I have some sort of responsibility to abjure them. So I transferred my affections, then, to English country houses. Ultimately, I came to realize that William Beckford was the richest man in England because of the West Indian sugar trade. I came to recognize a more profound truth: There is no beauty or attainment of any kind anywhere in the world, no mosque or temple or cathedral, that’s not rooted in misery and suffering and hell some kind of way, and that the Soviets have got it right—that you can’t destroy Czarist palaces because they, like plantation houses, represent the blood, sweat, and tears of so many and therefore are transmuted into the cultural patrimony of us all.
B&W: Why should buildings be preserved?
MHA: Because they are a tangible embodiment of what we as a society say we value, what matters. If one is in agreement with the proposition that Black lives matter, then it needs to be underscored by conceding that Black landmarks matter as much as white landmarks. If you have a situation where 80 percent of Greenwich Village is protected by landmarking, and only less than 10 percent of Manhattan above 110th Street is protected by landmarking, well then something clearly is wrong.
B&W: Is Harlem the most historically significant neighborhood in Manhattan?
MHA: Certainly for Black people. But, you know, New York is a place of momentous importance not just to Black people. Everything from the fashion industry to the movies to literature are all expressed by the architectural legacy of New York. But certainly, wherever you go in the world, Harlem is a place of international significance that’s immediately recognized.
B&W: Have you found that there’s a disjuncture between that significance and the way that people who live here treat it, especially people who are intent to preserve certain parts of the city and not others?
MHA: In New York, ambivalence for preservation is a given. But is New York unique? No. Wherever you go, be it Venice or Newport or New York, there are a certain number of people who are perfectly sanguine about the idea of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. If you concede that one of the things that is foremost in making this place viable and profitable is tourism, all these places are all too happy to bring in cruise ships and to build waterfront hotels that block the waterfront, and build more and more luxury condos, which are unsustainable in terms of the environment and unsustainable in terms of preserving an authentic atmosphere that people will want to experience. And so at some point, which these people generally feel will be sometime after their demise, people will stop coming here. But the short-term gain is just too irresistible.
B&W: Do you ever think about what your life would have been like if you hadn't come here?
MHA: Well, you know, there are still libraries. So I would have found a way. And I might have even been happier, in terms of the greater physical comfort I might have been able to have living in Akron or Cleveland, and I certainly hope I would have become even better known as a big fish from a smaller pond. But on the other hand, with every passing year, I realize that it would have been impossible. I mean, the last time I was home, I was down on the campus of the University of Akron, where I was an undergraduate. There was a young white man walking down a street—there was hardly anyone on the street, on the sidewalk—he was walking down the street and he had a big rifle in his hands. And that’s legal in Akron. Why? Why?
My whole preservation evolution came about because as a kid, one of the things we would do when I was a child is my father would take us out for a ride. We’d just go driving around the different neighborhoods and just look! As a young kid, I would see neighborhoods I thought were beautiful and that had wonderful old houses, and then I would notice that some wonderful 19th-century house was being torn down and being told that it was going to become a parking lot or a supermarket. There was this one house that was not so far from our house which sat on a hill and had big columns. And I remember when it was on the front page of the paper that it was being demolished. I could read. And I remember it said it had pink marble columns, and I knew what marble was because my great-grandmother had these tables in her living room that had vein marble tiles. So the whole notion of pink marble just seemed so exotic and incredible. And it was being demolished! I remember talking to my father about it, and this kind of thing continued getting worse and worse.
When I was near the end of my college career—which took an enormous amount of time, like 10 years or something—there was a house that had been built by this man who was the grandson of the founder of Akron. His house had become the United Fund, and because I had been the president of Red Cross Youth and we had done a letter folding thing there one time, I knew this house, and I knew it was largely intact. Even though the exterior was covered in aluminum siding and the front porch had been taken off, the interiors were all intact, wonderful. So the United Way decided they were going to tear down this building. I couldn’t believe it. And the city had this armory building that was built just prior to the First World War, and they were going to tear that down. And they did—they tore them both down. So that prompted me to write this guest editorial to the Akron paper. At the end, I invited people to join together and start a group that would be concerned with Akron’s preservation, called Progress Through Preservation. It got started, and I quickly learned the pain of how you can start something, but because people are almost always going to be inclined to be more conservative and unconfrontational than I am, they would try to push you aside so they can create a more decorous group, which, from their perspective, will be more effective because it won’t be beating up on people all the time. So I got swept aside.
B&W: What was New York like when you came here?
MHA: It’s very funny, you know. I’d seen an article in the National Geographic about Harlem that included a photograph of Mrs. Hoyt and her entertaining guests at dinner in her house on Hamilton Terrace with a maid—that’s the woman who had Aunt Len’s Doll and Toy Museum, the first job I had. Then, there was also an article that came out in Ebony magazine called “Where the Black Middle Class Lives,” and it showed people on Hamilton Terrace. Ironically, the first place that I lived in New York was then Hamilton Terrace, and the shock for me was that both articles seemed to suggest that some neo-Harlem Renaissance was in effect.
So I was rather surprised when I got here and I went to places like Strivers’ Row and realized that some of the houses there were still rooming houses. Harlem seemed to me by no means some place on the upswing. In fact, my very first visit to Harlem was an accident. I had come here in whatever year it was that the song “I’m Coming Out” was brand new, and I was going to go to church at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And instead of getting off at 125th Street on the local train, I got off on the next stop, which put me on this street, behind the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. What’s very funny is that many of the apartments and the buildings here were vacant, and in preparation for a visit from Richard Nixon, who was coming here to campaign for Black votes … they didn’t want him to see Harlem as too run down, so they put these decals on the windows of vacant apartments that showed Venetian blinds or curtains or sometimes a flowerpot with a geranium, or sometimes a cat, even, so that if you were riding by the motorcade, you might think, Ah! What a cheery place. A true Potemkin village. So when I got off the train, I was looking around and I saw these buildings with ... all sorts of architectural embellishment, and I thought, Oh, this is neat. They told me Harlem was a slum. At that point, still, I had this blind spot. It seemed inconceivable that one could have noble architecture in a slum, and I continued to have this until I noticed those decals, and all of a sudden the sight of the decals on that Sunday morning gave me the idea that this was indeed a kind of menacing place that I should make a hasty retreat from. So I did, and went to St. John the Divine.
B&W: “White Harlem.” Is that a phrase you use to refer to pre-1920s Harlem, and is it a phrase you use to refer to present-day Harlem as well?
MHA: [Laughter] Well, I hope not. We are going to see! This is the year when the census data comes out. I suspect that Harlem is still over 50% Black. What people don’t appreciate is there’s been a tremendous amount of white disappointment vis-à-vis Harlem. People will buy an apartment or rent an apartment or buy a house, and their eager real estate brokers will say to them, “Oh! The noise, the trash, isn’t that terrible. But don’t worry, this block already has five white homeowners, and soon the Blacks will be gone.” And they’re not—or not sufficiently. So they sell up and move on. And then there are others, like, say, Don Lemon and his boyfriend, who simply think, Well, this was fun, this was off-beat, but we can do better. And they’re gone. Marcia Gay Harden: Poof! Gone.
B&W: When you go to Columbia, there is a kind of existential—maybe not guilt, maybe guilt—but, at the very least, concern that the institution you’re paying for a degree is destroying, at least in part, this neighborhood.
MHA: They’re definitely a part of it. And there are white people perfectly happy to help them in the name of supposedly helping Harlem.
When I first came here … I was protesting against the demolition of the Audubon Ballroom and Theatre to build Columbia’s biotechnological research lab. That was … where Malcolm X was killed. One would not do that in terms of the Ford’s Theatre or the Dallas Book Depository or the Lorraine Motel, as a fitting monument to Lincoln or Kennedy or King. Today … there could be no more startling indictment than to see that this all could have been saved, that even now there are parking lots and undistinguished buildings where [Columbia’s lab] might have been more reasonably built. When you have the place where Malcolm X was killed and you just let it go for a parking lot, that is a pretty lame situation.
Look at someone like A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. She’s on the Columbia board. Columbia tells her, “Oh, there’s not going to be any displacement in terms of our expansion.” Well, that’s a joke. She can try to tell herself that all she wants to, but it’s not true, it’s not so. But she doesn’t want to believe it is, for good reason. I mean, she’d have to question her whole involvement with it. And she will say, “Oh, well, you know, thanks to my presence, I’ve managed to get an A’Lelia Bundles scholarship that helps people.” How many Black people will be able to take advantage of that? I don’t know. But is the tradeoff worth it? I don’t know that, either.
Was the exchange of Seneca Village worth Central Park, that all New Yorkers have benefitted from? Doubling my despair that people are so exercised about Seneca Village—which, like it or not, it’s gone, it’s gone forever, there’s nothing you can do to bring it back—is the fact that whether you’re talking about Tremé or Washington, D.C., or parts of Philadelphia or Harlem, all these places are Seneca Village. All of these places were richer by far, culturally and economically, than Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And although it is a bloodless evisceration, it is just as thorough and long-lasting as what happened at Greenwood, and happening in the same way, with the participation of government making it easy for people to rape and pillage and steal what had been prosperous, eminent Black communities. So where is that outrage? That’s the outrage that I have.