James Baldwin’s Former UWS Home May Become a Landmark

Writer James Baldwin bought the building at 137 West 71st Street in 1965, and lived there on and off for the last two decades of his life. Now the city is considering designating the building between Columbus and Broadway as a landmark, part of a group of city structures being considered because of their connection to LGBT history.

“Although he generally eschewed labels and did not self-identify as gay, Baldwin wrote several novels that featured gay and bisexual characters and spoke openly about same-sex relationships and LGBT issues,” notes the LGBT Historic Sites Project, which has mapped important sites. Among those books is Giovanni’s Room and Just Above My Head, which Baldwin wrote when he owned the place on 71st.

The building was constructed in 1890, but renovated in 1961. Baldwin lived there on and off until his death in 1987, and his family members had apartments there. It also became a hangout spot for some of the most prominent musicians and artists of the time.

“Major writers and jazz musicians, including Toni Morrison—who briefly lived here—Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach visited the Baldwins here and were considered members of their extended family,” according to the city’s description of the site.

HISTORY, NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 37 comments | permalink
    1. Kathleen Treat says:

      The City now has the opportunity to tangibly honor one of the twentieth century’s great writers and contributors to society at large. The City can proudly say to the world, “This was James Baldwin’s home”. Let us all hope that the City will do the right thing.

    2. B.B. says:

      You’re kidding me? No offense but that place looks like a dump. To freeze it in time by declaring it a landmark is insanity.

      There are scores of those white brick five or six floor apartment buildings all over UWS, UES and elsewhere in city. Most are filled with RS/RC tenants and look in nearly similar condition. Just because James Baldwin once lived there seems hardly justification for 137 West 71st Street as it is now to be landmarked.

      In fact it is closer to mark to say Mr. Baldwin used 137 West 71st Street as his NYC residence when he happened to be in town or the United States for that matter.

      James Baldwin spend much if not most of his adult life in Europe (mainly France) which is where his last years were and he died.

      • Evan Bando says:

        James Baldwin was a writer, poet and a clarifying advocate for civil and gay rights. He was not a real estate developer or a robber baron. Hence, the modest residence. What difference does it make what the building looks like, white bricks and all. He was an American citizen and he owned the building since 1965. Shame on him for living in Paris for so many years to escape the worst of racial discrimination? I, for one, am proud to live in the same neighborhood where this singular man and artist had lived. Those who oppose celebrating this great New Yorker because he lived in a “dump,” an “ugly building” should examine their values and then move to the neighborhood of the Frick Museum. Now, he was a worthy man, right?

      • David S. says:

        Agree. Mr. Baldwin’s many accomplishments notwithstanding, the mere fact that he lived there should not qualify a building of no architectural distinction for landmark status.

        What about a statue or other memorial just a half-block away in Sherman Square?

      • Lisa says:

        Completely agree with B.B. One of the poorly constructed, poorly maintained, and aesthetically dismal buildings thrown up in the 60s that really only deserves the distinction of being taken down, regardless of who lived there.

    3. Martha Weissberg says:

      Welcome information — I’m so glad. Thanks so much for publicizing this story. I’ll make a pilgrimage, for sure.

    4. Catherine says:

      It’s a pretty ugly building like so many of the white bricks built in the early 60’s. A blight in my opinion regardless of who lived there.

    5. Nia Whaley says:

      It would be a great acknowledgement of James Baldwin’s contributions to literature. Bravo!

    6. RLB says:

      Good info to know when living on the historic West side. I’ll be stopping by to take a glance and imagine Mr. Baldwin & friends …… Just today I passed Miles Davis Way. I walked thru the block wondering which bldg. Miles lived in & all the history that happened in that block/area. History! I wonder if President Obama’s NY residence is labeled with at least a plaque? Bogart grew up on West End Ave! Let’s not forget our past & folks who made a difference in some shape for or fashion!

    7. Barbara Aubrey says:

      What is mean’t by “landmark”. This is being done by the LGBT Historic Sites Project, which cannot landmark a building, I assume what they want to do is put a sign on the building stating James Baldwin owned and lived in the building.

    8. Robert Iulo says:

      Don’t forget that historic designation isn’t just about architecture, it’s about ‘history.’

    9. Caren Flashner says:

      How about a plaque honoring Baldwin and noting his residence there, rather than landmarking the ugly building?

    10. Same says:

      If the building also had some architectural significance you could say landmark it.

      How about a small plaque at the front entrance. That should be enough.

    11. Joseph Wright says:

      Ahem..James Baldwin did not :”generally eschew” labels upon his bearing the task of a witness to his people and to humanity. He escaped categorization and demolished all notions thereof by the inkstand and pen.
      To relegate a family dwelling place that was a place of sojourn for him, his immediate family (and to a great ma1ny souls from All walks of life) to any narrow scope of reference would be an insult and a travesty to all that He and his work encompasses. Howbeit honor should be given,Landmarks do not need to be ‘named’ and ” Causes are notoriously bloodthirsty”

    12. Josh says:

      The Upper West Side has a long history as a home for artists that is being steadily destroyed. Where are the James Baldwin’s of today doing their writing? Not the Upper West Side. How could they afford it?
      These attempts to preserve the buildings where the artists worked are a literal cargo cult. The neighborhood is dealing with a desperate housing shortage that this preservation will only exacerbate. If we want the UWS to be a home for artists, we need to build more homes. The neighborhood’s character as an incubator for the arts would be much better served by using this land to build three times more housing than to freeze an ugly example of generic architecture.

    13. your_neighbor says:

      The only remarkable thing about that building is the remarkably ugly conversion from brownstone to multi unit apartment building.

      Are the landmarks people saying that they would prevent a new owner from restoring the 1890’s facade because a famous person once owned the building and used it as a pied-a-terre?

      Is the current property owner in favor or opposed to landmarking their property?

      If someone has the burning need to commemorate the spot put up a little plaque and be done with it.

    14. Weird That Way says:

      Here we have a vintage building constructed in 1890 which was turned into c-r-a-p in the 1960s. This isn’t distinguished architecture, it’s debased architecture. I vote for a simple plaque.

    15. F. Shtopp says:

      Landmark / Shmandmark !

      The building is a fine-art photographer’s dream:

      1) Rectangular black window-frames and black air-conditioning vents contrasting with white brick, the brick itself showing urban grunge;
      2) Wonderful glass brick, great for distorted reflections !

      As for its historic significance? Yes, a nice plaque honoring Mr. Baldwin is necessary.

    16. Naima Major says:

      A great thing to do but not only for the LGBT community but for the writers, the artists, the revolutionaries and the just plain folks from every nation that came through there. But most importantly forthe Black community in Manhattan, aka as African Americans – remember us!?

    17. If the building had the same look as the 1890s before the renovation of 1960 by all means it should be kept no matter who lives there or lived there.
      Just looking at this building architecture is ridiculous and any building that was renovated like this from 1960 and later should be torn down it’s a shame that any building was ever defaced like this.
      For somebody who lived there that should be recognized by the public perhaps a plaque or tree of some sort in front of the building would be enough.

      • Peter/West 77th Street says:

        Billy, I totally agree with you. That’s a wonderful idea.
        A tree and a plaque in front of the building would be ideal and would be most appropriate in this case. And yes it is a shame what they have done to some of these brownstone buildings before landmarks was started.

      • Barbara Bernstein W. 68 Street says:

        I also agree with Billy this would be the best solution. Also something to think about in the future on public acknowledgments.
        Planting trees –
        This shows that your life will be of honor and you may end up associating with very important, noble and respected people in the society. It means that you will earn respect from people around you. You are truly blessed.

    18. KittyH says:

      It’s a good thing, to honor James Baldwin and his accomplishments, but to landmark this building would mean its exterior could never be changed, i.e., improved, in its appearance. Where did James Baldwin live prior to 1965? I’d hope somewhere less visually offensive than this structure.

    19. kakki says:

      I think that a plaque commemorating James Baldwin would be most appropriate. Landmarks should only be used to ensure that structures remain the same. In this case ensuring this non-descript (at best) structure remais would be detrimental to development in the city.

    20. Ronke' says:

      James Baldwin is a legendary literary giant who rose from humble beginnings in the Village of Harlem to DeWitt Clinton High School on Moshulu Parkway in the Bronx, lived in the Village and on to France as Guggenheim Fellow, where he became one of the most prolific writers of that era.

      Mr. Baldwin was also very active in the African American Civil Rights Movement. He joined Dr. King and his followers on many a march protesting segregation in the U.S He also was a voice to be reckoned with, as he spoke eloquently on and around the race problem in the U.S and was often called upon to participate in debates centered on and are around the race problem in America.

      During his latter years, he held several prestigious teaching appointments as a Visiting Lecturer at several colleges.

      If the city wants to make the building a landmark, I definitely support it.

      May the ancestors continue to find him in their favor.

      • B.B. says:

        Richard Avedon and James Baldwin met and became good life long friends while both attended DeWitt Clinton high school.

        One day Richard Avedon invited James Baldwin to his home on East 86th street. Upon arrival the doorman on duty made Mr. Baldwin use the service elevator. Apparently Mrs. Avedon promptly found out and was horrified at treatment of her son’s guest/friend.

        Doorman in question was promptly summoned “upstairs” told off, and made to apologize to James Baldwin….

    21. Nelson says:

      I agree: a commemorative plaque or street sign renaming the block would be appropriate and aesthetic. That building…yikes!

    22. B.B. says:

      Building sits in CPW historical district, so LL is prevented already from changing façade without going through major hoops. And if there ever was a building that needed work, it is this one.

    23. B.B. says:

      That block of W71st is on balance a rather excellent example of UWS “brownstone blocks”. It is just a few buildings like 137 that spoil the over all look. Across the street there is another white brick façade building with almost equally in need of sprucing up.

      Tried searching tax record pictures but couldn’t find anything from prior to when 137 was changed to an apartment building.

      • My guess is between the late 1950s and early 1960s. I have seen a few very similar.

        • B.B. says:

          UWS, UES, West Village, etc.. all over Manhattan there must be tons of these white or other brick façade renovations of former row houses into apartment buildings from the 1950’s through 1970’s.

          Simple economics really. Far easier to take an existing row house (or two) strip the façade and or otherwise replace with brick to a new design. This new design would match interiors that perhaps are gut renovated to create apartments but would need to match current building code regarding windows.

          While walls are opened run gas lines (for kitchens), and or electrical lines (including separate fuse box for each apartment), finally close everything up and you’ve got a “new” apartment building that costs less than starting from scratch.

          Easy way to research some of these “renovated” apartment buildings is to look for clues.

          In front of property there may be one or two old and unused caps that once lead to oil tank (heating). You’ll often still see a metal trap door that leads to a shed directly partially under sidewalk. This once lead to coal shed where deliveries of that fuel were made before switching to oil.

          Finally if can gain access to basement/cellar often it looks exactly like what one would expect to find in an old row house. Divided into rooms with the foundations pretty much same as other row homes on block still existing.

          Then there is also one of my favorite blogs on NYC buildings and their history: http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/

        • B.B. says:

          No, that is just the property as it looked after the former brownstone/row house got a new façade and other changes.

          Converted Dwellings or Rooming House (C5) designation likely means the brownstone/townhouse at some point was converted into a rooming/boarding house or SRO. This was fairly common for former private townhouses as areas changed during early to middle part of last century.

          Took some effort but finally found the building as it looked in 1940’s before renovation. Hope link works.

          http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/NYCMA~5~5~241024~515772?sort=borough%2Cblock%2Clot%2Czip_code&qvq=w4s:/where%2FManhattan;q:1143;sort:borough%2Cblock%2Clot%2Czip_code&mi=19&trs=166

          What a sin and shame what someone did to a once rather nice row house.

          Though still squashed between two large apartment buildings (likely built as other row houses on either side were sold and lots combined for redevelopment), the place was still quite nice.

          Basically we can see what the renovation did besides slap on that layer of white bricks.

          The stairway/stoop was removed and entrance dropped/created at street (or rather English basement) level. Reason why second floor (or first depending upon method of counting) has so much space between it and one above is that the window above front door is where the doorway at top of staircase/stoop once was located.

          There was some sort of large doorway or something to right of staircase which is now bricked up with glass blocks.

          You can see from information given in link above there is notation building was altered in 1961-1961. That travesty gave us the current building.

          James Baldwin or no if one bought the place would reverse the damage and return it back to a charming single family home.

          Manhattan is vastly today than in 1940’s, and Lord knows plenty of townhouses/brownstones on the two blocks off CPW have been converted back to private homes.

          • B.B. says:

            Typo: should read “altered 1961-1962”.

          • I thought so…it was strange seeing 1950 year in there.
            I counted five brownstones on my Block a loan on W. 80 St. between Columbus and Amsterdam that the entrance stoops were torn down that are now apartments and the entrance is through the basement floor. As I walk through the Upper West Side I see more and more of them. All this just to have an additional room on the 1st floor. Thank God for Landmarks and Mayor John Lindsay!!!! If it was not for him the whole Upper Westside would look like the East side right now and overpopulated.

            • B.B. says:

              Removing stoops/staircases happened for many reasons, and many town/row houses suffered that fate. It always wasn’t to increase “room” or whatever either.

              First and foremost city over years engaged in various street widening programs which forced property owners to give up their front stairs/stoops.

              Historically the ground floor/English basement of these row homes was the service entrance. Family, guests and other “non tradespersons” entered at the first/parlor floor via the stairs.

              Late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s the “servant problem” became acute. That is people began to find it difficult to get good help. Thus more and more persons middle class and above (who normally occupied these brownstones/row houses), began living without.

              Once you start living without servants then the whole delineation between “upstairs” and “downstairs” really does not matter. More to the point many of the English basements/ground floors became what we see today; kitchen and living quarters where the family actually went. Thus rather than trek up all those stairs, why not just enter at ground level.

              Once you do this it is possible to reclaim that ground floor even more by removing stoop, which also frees up space at parlor floor where entrance once was located.

              Stoops have to be maintained. They also need to be swept/cleaned daily or at least routinely. Cleared of snow or ice and so it goes. Also they tend to draw all sorts to sit and camp out on your property all hours of day and night.