CORONA, QUEENS, is an unassuming New York City neighbourhood. 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 parlours. 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 travelled 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 [(approx. S$165,000)] 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.”)
From the outside, the two-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot (approx. 279 sqm) house looks just like any other on the block, which was deliberate. Armstrong often referred to himself as “a salaryman” and felt at ease alongside the telephone operators, schoolteachers, and janitors of Corona, a neighbourhood 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 AfricanAmericans 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 neighbourhood — 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 neighbours 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 neighbours took him up on the offer, which accounts for the scattered presence of brick homes on the street to this day.)
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