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374

The House That Satch Built

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The most memorable aspect of the tour is actually hearing Armstrong
"We have a very lovely home. The house may not be the nicest looking front. But when one visits the Interior of the Armstrong's home they see a whole lot of comfort, happiness + the nicest things."

—Louis Armstrong

Many jazz-loving New Yorkers and visitors to the city do not know that an unassuming but significant part of jazz history is just minutes away from midtown Manhattan. From 1943 until his death in 1971, trumpet legend Louis Armstrong lived with his wife Lucille in a house nestled in quiet, working-class Corona, Queens. The area suited Armstrong's unpretentious nature perfectly. It was a place where he could relax after touring, invite his neighbors and famous friends over for parties or gather kids at the front steps for ice cream and informal trumpet lessons. Since 2003 the century-old house, which was granted national landmark status in 1977, has been operating as the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

"[Some people are] surprised at the humbleness of his living space, said Deslyn Downes Dyer, Assistant Director of the Louis Armstrong House & Archives. "You'd expect an Elvis kind of thing. Then they look for the house and they walk in and it's a very humble home for a worldwide icon.

Soft welcoming chimes sound as visitors pass through the front door of the two-story red brick structure. Although the house has been unoccupied for 23 years, the feeling one gets when walking through the various rooms is that Pops and Lucille have stepped out only for a moment and could return soon. Their appliances and electronics were state of the art for their time and the bedroom chandelier and gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms are certainly extravagant, but the Armstrongs lived more in comfort than opulence.

"The Armstrong estate, which is today the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, [willed] the house to the City of New York, Dyer explained. "The project to open the house took a very long time. People said to Michael [Cogswell, the Museum's director], 'Why don't you just open the doors, charge admission, and get going?' But you can't do that. Out of respect for the home, the structure, [building] codes, you just can't open a house that belonged to the great Louis Armstrong and charge admission. You had to go through the proper [channels] and Michael did a great job of that. A lot of people had to come in and make sure that the house was properly renovated and restructured so that it could [accomodate] the public. The Armstrongs had maybe three or four friends at a time visit them; here we have maybe 15 to 30 people every hour going through the house. So we had to make sure that we took care of the house. And everything in the house was theirs. We didn't have to go find a couch from the 1960s. This is the couch he sat on, this is the table he ate at. This is the plate that he used. No one's lived in the house, [so] it's perfectly preserved.

Lucille's touch gave the house a few bold color schemes. The living room is done in beige right down to the piano (neither Louis nor Lucille played but considering the company they kept it was indispensable). The turquoise-colored kitchen has appliances set into the counter and recessed into the walls and features a custom built stove that even today would be considered top shelf. The white- colored bedroom is right next to an alcove with a peach sofa and lighting. Fittingly, though, the plain wood-paneled den on the second floor was Armstrong's favorite room. On one wall hangs a portrait of him by the artist Antonio Benedetto, who for years has 'moonlighted' as a singer under the name Tony Bennett. Set into the opposite wall is a reel-to reel-tape recorder where Armstrong played back and catalogued the hundreds of tapes he made, openly and covertly, during his tours and at home. Notebooks sit open on top of a desk which detail, in his own handwriting, the sequence and contents on some of those recordings.

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