Home Is Where the Art Is (and the Bookstores, Too)
Jumel Terrace Books
426 West 160th Street
New York, New York 10032
The Museum of Art and Origins (MoAaO)
430 West 162nd Street
New York, New York 10032
(646) 284-0057 Harlem ( Sugar Hill )
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH November 28, 2005 New
Neighbors often cooperate to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood. George Preston and Kurt Thometz, who live two blocks from each other in Jumel Terrace at the top of Sugar Hill in Harlem, simply chose to do it in a slightly unusual way. On Nov. 10, they opened two new cultural institutions - in their homes.
(NYT7) NEW YORK -- Nov. 27, 2005 -- HARLEM-ARTS -- George Preston at the
Museum of Art and Origins, located in his brownstone, in the Jumel Terrace
section at the top of Sugar Hill in Harlem, pictured in Nov. 2005. Preston, 66,
who grew up in the neighborhood and will retire at the end of this semester
after teaching African art at City College for 32 years, turned three floors of
his brownstone at 430 West 162nd Street into the Museum of Art and Origins,
displaying his collection of African masks, figures and implements. (Heidi
New York Times)
art bookstore Sugar Hill in Harlem
Mr. Preston, 66, who grew up in the neighborhood and will retire at the end of this semester after teaching African art at City College for 32 years, turned three floors of his brownstone at 430 West 162nd Street into the Museum of Art and Origins, displaying his collection of African masks, figures and implements. Over at 426 West 160th Street, Mr. Thometz, 53, a dealer in rare and out-of-print books who moved to the neighborhood in 2004, converted a room of his brownstone into Jumel Terrace Books, featuring works on Africana, Harlem history, jazz, African-American literature and related topics.
Their dual opening night drew an array of literati, artists and intelligentsia, who made the two-minute stroll between the homes. The chain-smoking humorist Fran Lebowitz chatted with the Nigerian author Emmanuel Obiechina. Robert Farris Thompson, dean of African studies at Yale, signed a copy of his new book, "Tango: The Art History of Love," for the hip-hop legend Fab Five Freddy Braithwaite. The Harlem writer Playthell Benjamin, the soul music producer Billy Jackson (who co-wrote the Tymes' 1963 hit "So Much in Love") and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, mingled.
Kurt Thometz in Jumel Terrace Books, a room in his brownstone.photo: Heidi Schumann ( The New York Times )
It's not that Jumel Terrace needed help distinguishing itself. Perched on the highest elevation in Manhattan, the neighborhood feels like a slice of Colonial Williamsburg airlifted into the city. The Palladian Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765, is the oldest house in Manhattan, and was associated with George Washington and Aaron Burr. The mansion's tree-shaded grounds offer sweeping vistas across the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium and down to the spires of Midtown, glittering like Oz in the distance. There's also the implausibly quaint cobblestone street Sylvan Terrace, a single block lined with wood-framed row houses from 1882. The majestic brownstones of West 160th and West 162nd Streets that frame the area complete a pocket of almost startling gentility wedged between uppermost Harlem and Washington Heights.
Mr. Thometz said he and Mr. Preston were following an old and recently revived Harlem tradition of holding art exhibitions, literary salons and musical soirees in the home. At least 30 art galleries are currently operating in homes throughout Harlem. A few blocks from Jumel Terrace, Sherman Edmiston, a premiere dealer in the works of Romare Bearden, has operated Essie Green Galleries in his Convent Avenue brownstone since 1987. Around the corner from Mr. Thometz, the jazz musician Marjorie Eliot is host to weekly concerts in her Edgecombe Avenue apartment.
Mr. Thometz moved to New York City from Minneapolis in 1973, worked in various bookstores in the city, and by 1980 was organizing private libraries for clients including Diana Vreeland, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Felix G. Rohatyn and S. I. Newhouse. He has a special interest in African and African-American literature, and edited a book of Nigerian pamphlet writings, "Life Turns Man Up and Down," published by Pantheon in 2001.
Of the books on the shelves in his small shop Mr. Thometz said in a recent interview: "I've hand-picked every one. The books I haven't read I want to read."
Unlike working in commercial bookstores, he explained with a smile, "I don't have to make any concessions to anyone else's taste."
On display during a recent visit to his shop (which is open "by appointment and by serendipity," he noted) was a signed first edition of "The Big Sea," by Langston Hughes, next to copies of a 1950's magazine called "Hep," promising "the lowdown on Sepia U.S.A." and featuring articles like "Elvis and the Brown Gal Who Loved Him Awful Bad." There were copies of Nina Simone's "I Put a Spell on You" and Bruce Davidson's classic photo essay "East 100th Street," the novels of Chester Himes and Ishmael Reed, and a fragile 1883 pamphlet titled "The Trial and Execution for Petit Treason of Mark and Phillis, Slaves of Capt. John Codman Who Murdered Their Master at Charlestown Mass., in 1755; And the Woman Was Burned to Death." Histories of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Haitian voodoo, Afro-Cuban music and hip-hop were also at hand.
Turning his home into a museum of African art (also open by appointment, with a $5 entrance fee) seems a natural step for Mr. Preston, who as a 21-year-old Beat poet opened the legendary Artist's Studio, a storefront on East Third Street. There, during its one year of existence in 1959, he was host to readings by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara.
He made his first trip to Africa in 1968, doing fieldwork in Ghana toward his Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University, and built his collection during numerous visits since. In 2001, the Akan tribe of Ghana made him a chieftain, in a ceremony that involved holding dried herbs in his mouth for four hours. "That's because one of the first things for a chieftain to learn is how to keep his mouth shut," he explained.
The arts of many tribes and periods crowd the rooms of his brownstone in warm, intimate profusion. Massive ceremonial masks painted in bold geometric designs glare down from the walls above tiny ancestral figures with exquisitely expressive faces; an Egyptian mummified falcon guards a doorway; a Chokwe chief's tobacco pipe, 40 inches long, has been rubbed to a glistening patina by many years of use. This is a museum where the curator gives the tour, explaining the provenance and meaning of every object.
Mr. Preston and Mr. Thometz are now planning collaborative exhibitions, lectures and musical events with other brownstone cultural institutions in the area. Mr. Thometz was hesitant to declare it a new Harlem Renaissance, then added, "But I can't resist calling us the new Sugar Hill Gang."
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