When Louis Armstrong came home from a road trip one day in 1943, he handed the cab driver the address of the new home his wife Lucille has picked out as a surprise, the first home he had ever owned. Since the house they pulled up to was in a racially-mixed neighborhood, Louis thought the cabbie was either lost or playing a trick on him. But then Lucille, who'd bought the modest two-story, clapboard-shingled house in working-class Corona for $3,500, answered the doorbell. Overjoyed, Armstrong heavily tipped the cabbie and invited him in for breakfast.
This was just one of the many stories lovingly related by my tour guide, Carolyn, at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, in Corona, Queens, New York City. After a $1.6 million renovation, the home, which is a National Historical Landmark, was opened to the public in October, 2003. Nearby Queens College, which currently houses the Louis Armstrong Archives, runs the museum. (Future plans include moving the Archives to a visitor center across the street).
Lucille Armstrong may have paid very little for this home, but she certainly didn't skimp on anything else. The Armstrongs encased the whole house in brick and a beautiful cornice tops the second story. The tour began in a huge Japanese-style garden Lucille developed after buying and knocking down the vacant house next door. The Armstrongs' outdoor bar and grill are still there. The home's entire interior was stylishly decorated throughout. Ninety-eight percent is covered with very special wallpapers. Paintings, ceramics and other pieces from many countries the Armstrongs visited fill the home. Among the most interesting art work is a painting of Louis by Tony Bennett, a painting of Gerry Mulligan by Leroy Nieman, sketches of Arturo Toscanini by the conductor himself (hanging over the piano) and a crucifixion by Salvador Dali in the relgious alcove of the master bedroom. This home is so tastefully appointed that even someone who's not particularly aware of Louis or his music could enjoy the tour.
One of the two bathrooms had been shown on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and the kitchen, with custom-made stove/oven and blender motors built into the counter, looks like it could a 1960's model for the future. However, for Armstrong fans there's the added thrill of being in the room where he held jam sessions and the den where he made hundreds of tapes and wrote his autobiography. There on his desk you can see a notebook with sheets of his tapes' song lists, ending with "'S'all". Incidentally, while making these tapes Armstrong assembled collages for each one (these and the tapes are at the Archives). As the tour progressed, the guide pushed buttons in two of the rooms which activated excerpts from the tapes. On one I heard Louis playing and singing with his niece. On the other he gave a tongue-in-cheek introduction to some of his own singing.
Above I referred to "my" tour guide Carolyn, because I happened to be the only person on that hour's tour. Ordinarily tours for groups up to eight leave on the hour and last forty minutes (mine took over an hour). Larger groups may be accomodated if the museum is notified in advance. Reservations are taken for tours only during the week. Days and hours are Tuesday - Friday 10-5, Saturday and Sunday, 12-5. Admission is $8, $6 each for groups, students and seniors. The address is 34-56 107th St. The museum maintains an excellent web site. You may also reach it at louisarmstronghouse.org (currently under construction). The phone is 718-478-8274. One more item I have to mention...The museum has a very nice gift store with all the kinds of items you'd expectt-shirts, CDs, books, etc.but also sells Louis' favorite food, red beans and rice, and his favorite laxative, the herbal combination Swiss Kriss!
You may want to time your visit for the monthly, three-hour Queens Jazz Trail van and walking tour, which leaves from Flushing Town Hall. Queens was home not only to the Armstrongs, but to many other towering figures, including Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Illinois Jacquet, the Adderley Brothers and many others. Cost, including map, is $26 (which includes the Armstrong house tour). If you want to visit the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, where you can listen to his home-made tapes and watch videos, you must contact them beforehand at 718-997-3670.