If only these walls could talk! Many of us living in old buildings have wistfully uttered that to our ceilings, and have been lucky to get an earful.
In Harlem’s Sugar Hill section, the two most famous apartment buildings both opened on Edgecombe Avenue almost a century ago. The Colonial Apartments and the Roger Morris Apartments--to locals, just “four-oh-nine” and “five-five-five,” respectively--overflow with Who’s Who references to Harlem’s rich history. But a less famous apartment building with a few bragging rights of its own (and which happens to be my address) is the Kinghaven.
Officially opened in 1911, the Kinghaven, at 445 West 153rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, sits within the Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District. It was designed by George Frederick Pelham, one of the city's most prolific residential architects of the time. Today, most people notice the building’s curious, asymmetrical footprint. Where an eastern wing might have been is a community garden instead. The garden masks a right-of-way given to a curve of mid-19th-century Croton Aqueduct water mains underground.
But the Kinghaven “reopened” in 1929, as Harlem’s well-to-do and middle-class African-American families, once barred, sought its swanky cachet. The prominent black real estate firm of Nail & Parker advertised the 6-story apartment house as “One of the Most Attractive Buildings In The Washington Heights Section.” By 1935, the neighborhood was settling under the more colorful, and enduring, name of Sugar Hill when realtors advertised "Kinghaven 'The House Beautiful'," which "will boast...a standard of aristocratic living." Day and night services included attendants, doorman, mail chutes, electric fixtures and apartments "decorated in desired colors."
The building’s colorful tenants included a young-adult novelist, world champion prizefighter, legendary jazz musician and a French female gang leader.
Here is a roundup of some of the notable tenants from the Kinghaven’s past:
Irene Elliott Benson, Camp Fire Girl author
One interesting early resident of the Kinghaven was Irene Elliott Benson, a popular book author who made prolific contributions to the once-popular fiction genre known as the Campfire Girl novel series. Many of her books were published posthumously. Benson lived here when she died in 1913, and may well have been one of the building’s original residents.
Jack Johnson, boxing champion
In January 1933, Kinghaven tenants decrying diminished services held a rent-strike and picketed outside the building. “Jack Johnson, former world’s heavyweight champion...lives on the third floor,” the New York Post noted incidentally. Three years later, the aging boxer would leave here for work at the Hippodrome Grand Opera, where he was playing an Ethiopian warrior chief in “Aida.” The New Yorker magazine lauded Johnson’s “greater pantomimic gifts than most opera singers” in his non-singing debut, suggesting he aim for Hollywood. But the colorful pugilist hadn’t followed through by April 1938, when the New York Amsterdam News noted “Jack Johnson...lives in the Kinghaven, you know.” The Broadway play, and later movie, "The Great White Hope." In 1967, actor James Earl Jones starred in the Broadway play, "The Great White Hope," and reprised his role in the 1970 film of the same name, whose story was based on the controversial life of Johnson (called Jack Jefferson in the dramas). In 2004, the prizefighter became the subject of the Ken Burns PBS-television documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."
Madame St. Clair, Harlem’s policy queen
If Johnson missed his Hollywood calling, someone a few doors away got hers. While Johnson pretended to Ethiopian royalty downtown, one of his Kinghaven neighbors was trying to secure her uptown kingdom. By 1936, white mobsters Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz were ruthlessly vying with each other to unseat female gang leader Stephanie St. Clair--Harlem’s “policy queen”--from her longtime “numbers” racket. St. Clair (a former 409 Edgecombe tenant) ultimately lost her game, but outlived both arch rival scoundrels who’d upset her cart. Despite her shady enterprise, her well known public philanthropy induced locals to address the Martinique-born native with deference as “Madame St. Clair” or “Queenie.” Two other notable numbers runners in the Kinghaven were Joseph N. Mayors and Joseph Mathias “Big Joe” Ison, but St. Clair reigned supreme. The 1997 film, "Hoodlum," features actress Cicely Tyson channeling the persona of the elegant, albeit formidable, doyenne of vice, one of several theatrical portrayals that her colorful life inspired.
Coleman Hawkins, jazz saxophonist
By far, the Kinghaven’s most famous resident was Coleman Hawkins. Although the tenor saxophonist didn’t move in until the 1940s, he perpetuated the building’s air of prestige. A jazz legend, his benchmark year of celebrity had come in 1939, with the recording of “Body and Soul.” His original, improvised interpretation of the well-known song changed the course of jazz history, and also forged the saxophone into one of the most iconic visual symbols of jazz itself.
Hawkins’ much younger protégé, the also legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins, practically lived in the Kinghaven, for he is remembered for frequently hanging out on the stoop to wait for his mentor to show up.
George Duvivier, jazz bass player
The prolific jazz double-bass player and composer, George Duvivier, was yet another familiar Kinghaven resident. Although a freelancer for most of his career, Duvivier performed live and in recorded sessions with some of the most famous names in jazz history.
Mabel Scott, singer
When newlywed Mabel Scott moved into the Kinghaven in 1939, the Amsterdam News wondered if the “vivacious” singer would “give in to a life of tranquil domesticity or...accept European engagements for the fall?” The rhythm-and-blues singer is best remembered for such hits as "Elevator Boogie" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." Recommending that Cotton Club stage manager Herman Stark book Scott for the night club’s next show, the paper’s columnist wrote, “Like Miss [Billie] Holiday, she’s got plenty of what it takes.”
Which then could have easily been said about the Kinghaven Apartments as well. Alas, today my cracked ceiling appears in places as if its aching to speak.