"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."
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.
The most memorable aspect of the tour is actually hearing Armstrong's sandpaper-against-gravel voice and experiencing his exuberant personality. With the push of a button in the wall there he is encouraging a child to recite Mother Goose or doing some misty-eyed reminiscing about the band he played in at the Waif's Home in New Orleans or blowing along with a record. One tour guide accurately pointed out that even Pops' everyday speech sounded like improvisation. And Dyer agrees that these excerpts, taken from his tapes, transform the house into a truly living entity. "You don't get this in any other museum. You can go through other historic houses and museums in the city and look at the furniture, but you don't often get to hear the person enjoying a meal at the dining room table, sitting in their favorite room, hanging out with friends and chatting. He's in the house welcoming you, chatting with you and telling you how he enjoys the space. I get the feeling [that] he knew that he was leaving this behind, that he knew when he was gone people would probably walk through this house, walk through his life in some other way. What a wonderful way to help them do that.
The museum's gift shop is located in the house's garage space and in addition to the usual items sells boxes of red beans and rice, Armstrong's favorite meal, and Swiss Kriss, a laxative that he swore by and passed out to friends and fans as readily as he signed autographs. ("Some people come here just to buy the Swiss Kriss, Dyer observed.) An adjacent room, which was the basement, contains the Museum's special exhibits and has items on display such as one of his trumpets, diaries and various souvenirs from his travels.
"He's a great American, a great person all around, Dyer concluded. "And I think we have a nice little jewel here that teaches more than music. It teaches a nice life lesson about how people should treat each other in the world.
The Louis Armstrong House Museum is open Tuesday-Friday 10-5 pm, Saturday & Sunday 12-5 pm. Guided 40-minute tours leave hourly (last tour is at 4 pm). Closed on some holidays. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors. Free for members.