harlem history


Map of East Harlem terrain during the 1600s

Native Americans who inhabited East Harlem near the East River & 120st.

Inwood Hill Park, Print Archives,
Museum of the City of New York

East Harlem History*
All the area north of what is now 59th Street was called "Muscoota" by the Manhattan Indians. Muscoota means "flat place". This flat place was good for growing food and this is why many of the Manhattan Indians lived in this part of Manhattan. When the Dutch arrived and took over the lower, southern part of the island - "Nieuw Amsterdam", they left the native Indians pretty much to themselves in the northern part.

First European in Muscoota
One trader, Mynheer Hendrick de Forest became the first European to set foot in Muscoota. He liked it immediately. After a while, he built a house, planted some crops and began living in Muscoota, all without asking the Native American if he could. Later on, other Dutchmen and women followed suite and began to move into Muscoota too.

War broke out with the Native Americans after the Governor Kieft indiscriminately and arbitrarily sentenced some to death. The Manhattan Indians managed to kill all of the settlers. The arrival of Governor Peter Stuyvesant changed Muscoota forever. Governor Stuyvesant built a town in Muscoota and named it "Nieuw Haarlem". With the arrival of the English in 1664 Nieuw Haarlem's name was changed to "Harlem".

*(From: "Harlem, The Story of a Changing Community" by Bernice Elizabeth Young Published by Julian Messner, a Division of Simon & Shuster, Inc. 1972)

*(From: "Harlem, The Story of a Changing Community" by Bernice Elizabeth Young Published by Julian Messner, a Division of Simon & Shuster, Inc. 1972)

In 1837 the New York and Harlem Railroad was built along Park Avenue. During 1878-1881 - The elevated railroads reached into Harlem.

Information on the development of Harlem is compiled from Osofsky, 71 - 149, and LPC, Washington Apartments Designation Report.

That part of New York known as Harlem embraces the area of Manhattan north of 96th Street, and joins the narrow northern handle of Manhattan known as Washington Heights. The original village of Harlem was established in 1658 by Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant and named Nieuw Harlem after the Dutch city of Harlem. Throughout the Dutch, British, and colonial periods, rich farms were located in the region's flat, eastern portion, while some of New York's most illustrious early families, such as the Delanceys, Bleekers, Rikers, Beekmans, and Hamiltons maintained large estates in the high, western portion of the area.

Harlem suffered economic decline in the 1830s when many of the farms, depleted from decades of cultivation, were abandoned and the great estates were sold at public auctions. The area became a refuge for those desiring cheap property and housing, including newly-arrived and destitute immigrants who gathered in scattered shantytowns. However, most of the scenic topography and rural character of Harlem was left untouched.

The advent of new and better forms of transportation, as well as the rapidly increasing population of New York following the Civil War brought about the transformation of Harlem into a middle and upper-middle class neighbourhood. Although the New York and Harlem Railroad had operated from lower Manhattan to Harlem beginning in 1837, service was poor and unreliable and the trip was long. The impetus for new residential development in this area came with the arrival of three lines of elevated rail service which, by 1881, ran as far north as 129th Street, and by 1886 extended further north.

Beginning in the 1870s Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of numerous new single-family rowhouses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses, Commercial concerns and religious, educational, and cultural institutions, such as the distinguished Harlem Opera House on the West 125th Street, were established in Harlem to serve the expanding population. The western half of Harlem, though developed slightly later, became a fashionable and prosperous neighbourhood. Luxury elevator apartment buildings with the most modern amenities were constructed, such as the Graham Court Apartments built in 1898-1901 on Seventh Avenue (now 1923-1937 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard), as well as more modest types of multi-family housing. Those who relocated from downtown included recent immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

Anticipated transportation improvements in the late 1890s, such as the proposed subway routes to west Harlem, ignited another wave of real estate speculation which led to highly inflated market values. Between 1898 and 1904, when the Lenox Avenue subway opened at 145th Street, virtually all the vacant land in Harlem was built upon. This tremendous increase in residential construction led to overbuilding, the result being extensive vacancies and inflated rents as landlords sought to recover their investments. A general collapse of the real estate market hit Harlem in 1904-05, as loans were withheld and mortgages foreclosed, and landlords dropped rents drastically in an effort to attract tenants.

Taking advantage of the deflated market and the housing surplus, a black businessman named Philip Payton and his Afro-American Realty Company, founded in 1904, played a major role in the development of Harlem as an African-American community. In the aftermath of the real estate collapse, Payton acquired five-year leases on white-owned properties, managed them, and rented them to African-American at ten percent above the deflated market price. Thus, New York's black middle class – long denied access to "better" neighbourhoods -- began moving to Harlem.
This real estate climate offered, for the first time, decent, attractive housing in large quantities to a segment of New York's population which had never had such an opportunity.

The major center of African-American New York in the late nineteenth century had been the section west of Herald and Time Squares, from the West 20s to the 60s, comprising the overcrowded areas known as Hell's Kitchen, the Tenderloin, and San Juan Hill. A dramatic increase in Harlem's African-American community came when hundreds of families living in the Tenderloin were displaced during the construction of Pennsylvania Station in 1906-10.

Harlem was considered an ideal place to live, with its broad tree-lined streets and new, up-to-date housing stock. Quoting an Urban League report of 1914, Gilbert Osofsky notes that Harlem was "a community in which Negroes as a whole are…better housed than in any other part of the country." The author explains, "the creation of a black Harlem was one example of the general development of large, segregated Negro communities within many American cities in the years preceding and following World War I."

The migration to Harlem continued during the 1920s as people came to New York in record numbers from the American South and the West Indies. During the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s, Harlem became the urban cultural center of black America, with its center around 135th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues.

Rents in Harlem rose drastically after World War I. The deterioration of Harlem housing which began in the 1920s can be attributed in large part to the high cost of living in the community and the increased demands on the neighbourhood brought by the rising population. Many have blamed both white and black landlords for the distressing scenario in which rents continued to increase while maintenance and services were neglected. As with so many Harlem properties, 409 Edgecombe Avenue eventually experienced such a decline, but not before its heyday as the most prestigious address on Sugar Hill.

"Sugar Hill" on Harlem Heights

The highland area of west Harlem developed later and more gradually than the low-lying valley of Harlem because of limited transportation connections to the rest of the city. In the nineteenth century, the area was a popular destination for excursions out of town, especially for bicyclists, drivers of trotting horses, and patrons of Manhattan Field and the adjacent Polo Grounds (which opened in the late 1880s). When residential construction reached the area during Harlem's real estate boom, the ridge of the heights (later known as Coogan's Bluff) overlooking the Harlem River as a particularly appealing location for stylish apartment buildings which initially attracted upper-middle class tenants of German, Jewish, and Irish background. Sometimes identified as part of Washington heights, the neighbourhood extending from Edgecombe Avenue to Amsterdam Avenue, and from 145th Street to 155th Street, came to be known as "Sugar Hill" when affluent African-Americans began moving there in the late 1920s. By 1930, the population of this entire area south of 155th Street was over fifty percent black, with certain areas having a population that was between seventy-five and eighty-five percent black.

The African-American elite in Harlem gravitated to certain residential enclaves; some lived in the King Model Houses, later nicknamed Strivers' row (which was open to black tenants in 1919), while others settled in attractive apartment buildings such as Graham Court and the Dunbar Apartments (1926-28), the first major non-profit co-operative apartment complex built specifically for African-Americans.

Beginning in the late 1920s, Harlem's elite migrated to the "class houses" of Sugar Hill, notably Nos. 409 and 555 Edgecombe Avenue. In 1946, Ebony magazine gave one account of the derivation of the name "Sugar Hill," explaining that "some 'shanty' Irish looked across 130th Street to the brick-topped ledge where wealthy, 'lace curtain' Irish lived years ago, [and] dubbed it Sugar Hill. Years later Negroes nudged the title 20 blocks uptown, where Negroes with 'sugar' settled."

 The appellation came to represent all that was "sweet and expensive," signifying that one had arrived, economically and socially, at the summit of New York's African-American culture. The summit was geographic as cultural; people on the "Hill" looked down upon the "valley" of central Harlem where the poorer residents of Harlem lived, many in overcrowded tenements and cramped, converted rowhouses. While the valley was truly the heart of Harlem, Sugar Hill was celebrated for its exclusivity and status.

The Hill attracted those with talent, money, education, and social prominence. The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that "Harlem's most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill." Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill's residential grandeur in 1935:

On Sugar Hill…Harlem's would-be 'sassiety' goes to town. 'Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner."

There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, "…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day."

The Residents of 409 Edgecombe Avenue

No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and '40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, "…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all."

As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, "legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years." Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White's successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)

Walter White's apartment, 13A, is often remembered as the "White House of Harlem," or the "White House of Negro American," the pun making reference to the notable visitors who were entertained there. The reminiscences of White's daughter, the actress Jane White, who grew up at 409, are recorded by historian Jervis Anderson:

We lived in a wonderful apartment, with five enormous rooms….There were wonderful floors in our building, hard floors. There were moldings and panels on the walls. Really sensational. I used to enjoy going with my parents down the hall to see Judge Charles Toney and his wife, Lily. They had a great, dark apartment with massive mahogany furniture and heavy draperies. I loved to sit back in an enormous armchair and just hear them droning on. It gave me a great feeling of security. It was an enormously safe and comfortable kind of existence. And I remember a Jewish contemporary of mine telling me that her family had lived in that building when it was Jewish…

The parties in Daddy's and Mother's apartment were formidable. The kinds of people who were there included Wendell Wilkie, William Robeson (the CBS executive), Clarence Darrow, and so on. We had a full-sized grand piano at one time, because almost everybody had a piano at one time….George Gershwin played 'Rhapsody in Blue' on our piano soon after he wrote it…Another person who was there, at some of our parties, was Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian director. He was heard to say that my mother one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. I saw Claude McKay, Langston Huges, Countee Cullen, Harold Jackman coming to our parties.

It was only by hindsight that I realized I was moving in Harlem society…People like Judge Charles Toney and Thurgood Marshall were always part of our circle…[and]

James Weldon Johnson was a close friend of my parents. …I new Langston Huges more than any of the other young writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He was such a gay, living human being…It was wonderful to have lived among people then. Sometimes you wonder, How was it possible? Because thing were not ungrim then. Some of the years we are talking about were during the Depression. I never got any sense of diminished enthusiasm, diminished vigor, diminished hope…But I'm talking about a period when I was just an onlooker.

Even in the heyday of Sugar hill the general decline of the area was becoming all too apparent, as buildings such as 409 fell victim to mismanagement, rent gouging, and neglect. In 1953 Jet lamented the steady deterioration of Harlem's celebrated enclave, noting that "doormen and elevator operators have disappeared almost entirely, as has the social prestige of living on Sugar Hill" and that bars, saloons, and "third-rate diners" had been permitted to move into St. Nicholas Avenue, where once such establishments were restricted. However, the article singles out 409, claiming that "only at 409 today is there anything approaching the high-styled living of yesteryear," for the building retained a "cross-section of America's top-drawer Negroes." Yet, the author adds, while some "old guard" tenants remained, many others had moved to the Riverside Drive area or to St. Albans, Queens, which was developing into an affluent African-American suburb.

Design and Construction of the 409 Edgecombe Avenue Building

Sited dramatically on the rocky ridge known as Coogan's bluff high above the Harlem River, 409's appeal as a desirable place to live was augmented by both its natural surroundings and by several nearby civic improvements. Colonial (now Jackie Robinson) Park is located just across the street from 409, ensuring an unobstructed river view from Sugar Hill's tallest building. The site also commands a perspective of the Macomb's Dam Bridge, the Harlem Speedway (now Harlem River Drive), and what once was the site of the Polo Grounds (replace by a housing project).

Designed by the firm of Schwartz & Gross, the building at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, identified as the Colonial Parkway Apartments, was constructed in 1916-17 for the Candler Holding Corporation. Deep restrictions prohibited the owner from erecting "any building other than private dwellings or apartment houses to be at least five stories in height." While the buildings along Edgecombe Avenue south of No. 409 display a rather consistent building height of five to six stories, 409 towers above its neighbours.

Schwartz & Gross

 The firm of Schwartz & Gross was among the most productive New York architectural firms in the first half of the twentieth century. Both graduates of the Hebrew Technical Institute, Simon I. Schwartz (1877?-1956) and Arthur Gross (1877-1950) began their lucrative practice in 1902. From the beginning the partners specialized in hotels and apartment buildings, particularly luxury buildings with ample plans and generous proportions. The work of Schwartz & Gross is found throughout the city, but particularly on the Upper East and Upper West Sides and in Morningside Heights.

The firm's typical early buildings, like 409 Edgecombe Avenue, have stone-faced bases and brick upper stories, and display the traditional tripartite composition enlivened with ornamental overlays. Most of the pre-World War I buildings have facades highlighted by traditional ornament, often reflecting the influence of the French Beauz-Arts or Italian Renaissance styles. The two buildings flaking the intersection of West 116th Street and Riverside Drive, the Coliseum (1910, No. 435 Riverside Drive) and No 440 Riverside Drive, are particularly interesting comparisons to 409 Edgecombe. Like that 409, their prominent, curving facades take advantage of a park frontage and a river view. The firm's work in the late 1920s and 1930s takes on a more modernistic image, as is seen at three Art Deco buildings on Central Park West: Nos. 55 (1929-30), 241 (1930, and 336 (1928-29).

It is very likely that Schwartz & Gross, so active in the design of apartment houses in New York, was involved in the financing and development of certain projects. Schwartz, in particular, is known to have been president and director of the Surrey Hotel, the Brunton Realty Corporation, and the 38 East 85th Street Corporation at the time of his death. The New Building Application for 409 Edgecombe Avenue gives Jacob Frankel as the president of the Candler Holding Corporation, and Charles Strauss as secretary. Strauss's business address is listed as 347 Fifth Avenue, which is the same as the architects' offices; thus, it is conceivable the architects were in some way financially linked to the venture.

The large, thirteen-story plus penthouse building was characteristic of apartment buildings constructed for New York's upper-middle class during that period. The apartment units were fitted with dumbwaiters, gas stoves, wood interior finished, and other amenities. The two passenger elevators and one service elevator were staffed by uniformed operators. The penthouse originally enclosed twenty-one servants' rooms; in 1945, these rooms were converted into five additional apartments, bringing the total number of units in the building to 124. Most of the apartments had three to five large rooms.

Subsequent History

In 1918, the Candler Holding Corporation sold the property to Nicholas Jones, who in turn transferred it to the Colonial Parkway Corporation. African-Americans were first permitted to move into the building in 1928.

In 1930, at the onset of the Depression, the property was foreclosed; the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company assumed ownership and took over the leases. In 1942, 409 was purchased by the Antillean Holding Company, whose president, Augustine A. Austin, is said to have been one of the wealthiest black businessmen in New York. It was apparently during Austin's long tenure as the owner of 409 (and the management by his son, Orin) that the building suffered physical neglect, losing its former luster and prestige. In 1976 a white lawyer, Harold Tamarin, acquired 409 from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which had taken over the building from Orin Austin after he defaulted on the mortgage. Tamarin had little success in remedying the problems which had originated with the previous management, and the building became an insurmountable financial liability. Some members of the Tenants Association engaged in a rent strike over the lack of building maintenance and decrease in services. In 1979 the building was forfeited to the City for non-payment of taxes, and the Tenants Association entered an interim lease arrangement with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Rehabilitation of the building has proceeded under the City's management of the building.


The building at 409 Edgecombe Avenue is E-shaped in plan, with the openings of the "E" oriented to Edgecombe Avenue, and has a convex front which conforms to the avenue's curve. The building has a frontage of approximately 179 feet on the avenue. Faced in red-brown brick, the design is a typical tripartite vertical composition with neo-Georgian and neo-Renaissance terra-cotta detail at the base and top. A stone enframenent, topped by a pedimented window surround, marks the main entrance to the building at the center section. The ornamental detail in the lower zone includes spandrel panels with cartouches and decorative, blind arched window heads at the fourth story. Similar arched heads top the windows at the thirteenth story. Small balconettes have been removed from the windows at the fourth and eleventh stories. The paired, one-over-one aluminium window sash are recent replacements for the original paired, six-over-one wood sash. The light courts formed by the arms of the "E" and rear and side elevations are faced in yellow brick. Within the lightcourts are entrances to ground-level units; the courts are enclosed at the sidewalk by iron fences. The design of 409 is enhanced by its size, its plan, and its highly visible location above the Harlem River.

Report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli,
Landmarks Consultant


Unpacking Harlem History

NYT May 8, 2003

Unpacking Harlem History



WHEN the movers arrived at her house in Alexandria, Va., in February, A'Lelia Bundles says she begged them to be "extra, extra careful" with the tall Queen Anne-style desk in the foyer.

Trimmed in green and gold and and embellished with chinoiserie, the secretary was more than a favorite possession. It was a connection to an illustrious family past. The piece belonged to Ms. Bundles's great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker. Born in 1867 to freed slaves, she was an entrepreneur who presided over a hair-care products empire that made her one of the richest self-made women in the United States.

The secretary was handed down to her only child, the regal A'Lelia (pronounced ah-LEE-lee-ah) Walker, who kept a salon for writers, artists and musicians during the Harlem Renaissance. Of her death in 1931, Langston Hughes wrote that the renaissance had died with her.

In January, the secretary will have pride of place in the foyer of Ms. Bundles's new home, a bungalow in the Friendship Heights section of Washington. Until then, however, it will be at the Museum of the City of New York, as part of an exhibition, "Harlem Lost and Found."

"What's extraordinary about the Walker women is that they were building great houses, hiring noted decorators and spending tens of thousands of dollars on household furnishings at a time when the earnings of a black worker in Harlem averaged about $800," said Michael Henry Adams, the curator. "Few white people had that lifestyle. For African-Americans, it was unheard of."

This is the public's first glimpse of most of the items in Ms. Bundles's collection. It includes Tiffany silver and Limoges porcelain, one of A'Lelia Walker's signature turbans (often worn with harem pants), a beautifully penned thank-you note from Enrico Caruso and a portrait of A'Lelia Walker by the photographer Berenice Abbott.

Ms. Bundles, an Emmy-winning news producer who is now at ABC Television, has been wrestling with her family's legacy since the 1970's, when she wrote her master's thesis on Madam Walker at Columbia's journalism school. In 1981, while at NBC News, she met the author Alex Haley, who asked her to help him with a biography of Madam Walker. Mr. Haley never made headway, so Ms. Bundles decided to take on the project herself, warming up with a young adult biography, "Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur" (Chelsea House, 1991).

Ms. Bundles turned up a few family skeletons. Madam, for example, had three brothers she never mentioned. She had three marriages as well — as did her daughter A'Lelia. There were lawsuits over Madam's company and criticism by some, including Booker T. Washington, that her hair products were meant not only to grow hair but to straighten it.

A few days before her mother died in 1976, Ms. Bundles asked her whether she should leave the messy details out of the book she was contemplating. "Tell the truth, baby," her mother answered. "It's all right to tell the truth."

Ms. Bundles's biography of Madam, "On Her Own Ground" (Scribner, 2001), evokes her own childhood memories, not least those of the secretary, which used to sit in her grandfather's foyer in Indianapolis. "In the entryway, as my mother knelt to adjust my hair bow and smooth my three long braids, my eyes always fixed on a tall, moss-green Chinese lacquer secretary," she wrote. "Letters, keys, stamps and paper clips tumbled from its tiny, gold-trimmed drawers and secret cubbyholes."

Years later, while visiting her maternal grandfather on his 90th birthday, Ms. Bundles found a wardrobe trunk that had been missing since her childhood. It was filled with treasures like an ostrich feather fan and a pair of jeweled opera glasses. A hand-embroidered wedding dress was folded in one drawer. The license for her great-grandmother's second marriage, a spray of baby's breath pressed within, was in another. Beneath it was Madam's last letter to her daughter: "I send my love, kisses and kisses and kisses. Your devoted mother."

As morning light warmed the dining room of her new home one recent Sunday, Ms. Bundles, 50, sifted through cartons of memorabilia, selecting objects for the exhibition. "My grandfather had a family story for each item in that trunk," she said of the 90th birthday visit. "We spent a whole night going through it, too charged to sleep. When I saw the sun shining through the blinds, I had that familiar feeling that I was put on this planet to do family history."

She glanced appreciatively at her partner of many years, Frederick C. Cooke, a tall, bearded lawyer with whom she is now merging households. "God puts pack rats together with non-pack rats," she said.

Mr. Cooke shook his head in mock disbelief. "When A'Lelia was getting ready to move and I saw all this stuff starting to bulge out of their containers, I told her that I just wasn't seeing the physics of it. There was more stuff than space."

Out came a crystal hip flask in a silver jacket with A'Lelia Walker's monogram, and a square decanter, its lid inscribed with her name, its spout cleverly secured with a lock to protect it from the constant parade of guests at the Walkers' homes. One was a Federal-style double town house at 108-110 West 136th Street that was designed by Vertner W. Tandy, the first black architect registered in New York. He also built an Italianate villa for Madam in Irvington-on-Hudson, near the Rockefeller estate. The villa is now a National Historic Landmark but in an example of cultural clear-cutting that would now be resisted, the town house was torn down in the 1960's to make way for a library. A'Lelia Walker also kept an apartment hideaway at 80 Edgecombe Avenue, just blocks away and still standing.

Ms. Bundles dipped a rag in polish and rubbed the heavy tarnish off monogrammed silver hair brushes and a shoehorn. "This stuff probably hasn't been polished in 75 years," she said. "Not that A'Lelia would have done it herself."

"Here's something I love: A'Lelia's address books," Ms. Bundles continued, pulling out several worn leather-bound volumes. She pointed to a listing for Bessye Bearden, whose son was the painter Romare Bearden. "Romare told me that he remembered his mother and A'Lelia playing poker together," Ms. Bundles said. "Not many blacks had high city jobs then, but Bessye was on the school board."

Carl Van Vechten, the photographer, novelist and confidant of many Harlem Renaissance notables, is listed at 150 West 55th Street. Paul Robeson gets two entries, one in St. John's Wood, London, the other on West 145th Street. Another listing reads "Madam Ma Rainey, blues singer," with an address in Chicago.

Though A'Lelia Walker was charged with the family business after her mother died in 1919, she preferred to supervise Harlem's artistic and cultural scene. In 1927 she inaugurated a salon cum cafe at her town house, calling it the Dark Tower. A menu, titled Feast of the Muses, lists woodcock salad, caviar sandwiches and "A'Lelia's Ice Tea."

"Probably had gin in it, even though this was Prohibition," Ms. Bundles said.

The Dark Tower lasted only a year, A'Lelia Walker not much longer. She died at 46, soon after the splendid contents of the Hudson Valley villa had been auctioned off.

Ms. Bundles, who has no children, plans to bequeath her heirlooms to museums. For now she will keep her first editions of books by Harlem Renaissance writers in a bookcase downstairs, near a pair of chestnut and glass cabinets containing some of the silver and perhaps even the ostrich feather fan. The neatly marked boxes of papers will go in the second-floor study.

Ms. Bundles glanced at Mr. Cooke. "One reason it took so long to move in together," she said, "is when I was working on my last book I turned the house into one big file cabinet."

Mr. Cooke seems philosophical now that Ms. Bundles is gearing up for the next book, a biography of A'Lelia. "I'll just get rid of all my stuff, that's all," he said. "It's worth it to be standing on the shoulders of her elders."