Where Satchmo made himself at home

Now a museum, Louis Armstrong's voice still echoes in his Queens house

Destination: New York

December 26, 2004|By Bill Rankin | Bill Rankin,Cox News Service

By the time Louis Armstrong moved into his first real home in 1943, he had already transformed American music.

With his soaring trumpet, unmistakable voice and dazzling sense of rhythm, Satchmo enchanted audiences throughout the world. But he often lived out of a suitcase, spending more than 300 days a year on the road.

So when Armstrong's fourth wife, Lucille, said she wanted a house, he let her buy one and decorate it before he'd ever seen it.

Now called the Louis Armstrong House & Archives, the home at 34-56 107th St. in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., is a national landmark and open to tourists. In 1986, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation gave the home to New York City and to nearby Queens College, which also oversees Armstrong's archives.

The home, which opened in October 2003, had an estimated 15,000 visitors over the past year. Most find out about the house by reading jazz publications or discovering its informative Web site, www.satchmo.net.

A tour of the home is a half-day trip from Manhattan well worth taking.

In an autobiography, Armstrong said he laid eyes on the house for the first time in the early morning hours after returning from a tour. He handed the address to a cabbie and said, "Take me to this place in Queens."

When the cab pulled up in front of the house, Armstrong couldn't believe it. "Aw, man, quit kiddin'," Armstrong told the driver.

Armstrong mustered courage to walk up and ring the bell. Soon enough, there was Lucille standing at the doorway looking "just like my favorite flower, a red rose."

Armstrong fell in love with the house. He and Lucille would live there the rest of their lives. Louis died in 1971, Lucille in 1983.

Because no one has lived there since Lucille's death, the house stands frozen in time. After a $1.6 million restoration, the home is a sparkling period piece of 1950s and 1960s design.

Louis gave Lucille carte blanche to refurbish the home, so it bears her eclectic and exuberant stamp. Scattered throughout are precious mementos, such as Louis' signature white handkerchiefs, reading glasses, even his Brunswick Records coffee mug. Lucille's dressing gowns and golden slippers remain in her wardrobe closet.

"Their vibe is still very much here," said Michael Cogswell, director of the Louis Armstrong House & Archives.

There also is hardly a square inch of paint in the entire home. Almost every room is covered in wallpaper. The closets, ceilings, baseboards and switch plates are wallpapered. Vine- and flower-patterned, silver-foil wallpaper is in the Armstrongs' bedroom -- and exactly matches the wallpaper applied on the room's horizontal window blinds.

The splashy downstairs bathroom has wall-to-wall mirrors, a pedestal sink and chandelier. The swan-figured faucet fixtures are gold-plated.

Just another neighbor

Even so, for someone of Armstrong's stature, the home, at least from the outside, is quite humble and sits in a rather ordinary neighborhood.

Armstrong grew up dirt-poor in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. The jumble of rectangular houses off Perdido Street had inadequate sanitation and no running water. At age 11, Louis was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, reportedly for shooting a pistol into the air on New Year's Eve.

At the waifs home, Louis played trumpet in a band, which later helped land him a job performing on paddle-wheelers steaming up and down the Mississippi River. In 1922, Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago, where his career took off.

Armstrong stands as the most influential figure in jazz. His recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, first with his Hot Fives & Hot Sevens and later with an orchestra, represent some of the finest music ever played.

When 1943 rolled around, Armstrong could have lived on an estate with a trumpet-shaped swimming pool or in one of Manhattan's most elegant apartments. Instead, Lucille chose Corona, where he could walk the streets without being hounded by fans and get a haircut at the corner barbershop.

When he'd return from a tour, Armstrong, who had no children, would round up the kids on the block and have them over to watch Westerns on TV and eat ice cream.

The guided tour of the Armstrongs' home takes less than an hour and begins in the living room. Hanging on one wall is Calvin Bailey's famous portrait of Satchmo. On another wall is a LeRoy Neiman painting of saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which Armstrong bought on impulse one day.

Among the most popular rooms is the 1960s state-of-the-art kitchen that's lined with turquoise cabinets. The Sub-Zero refrigerator, also paneled in turquoise, is flush-mounted into the wall. A blender, towel holder and other appliances are recessed into countertops and the wall. Pantry shelves on piano hinges allowed for maximum storage space.

The custom-made, double-oven Crown stove has six burners and is proudly engraved "Mr. and Mrs. Louis Armstrong." Just imagine how many times Louis' favorite meal -- red beans and rice -- was prepared on that stove.

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