Many of the gates that lead to the private alleyways behind the townhouses of Strivers’ Row still bear the original signage from their construction in 1891-1893.
If you’ve ever walked the area on 138th and 139th streets between Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards, you might have noticed three rows of beautiful townhouses. Perhaps you’ve seen the odd marker, “Private Road, Walk Your Horses,” painted onto the concrete columns that support intricate curled rod-iron gates leading into private parking for said townhouses. Or maybe you were just taken aback by the fact that any residence in NYC, (in Harlem, moreover) had such spacious private parking areas. Regardless of what you may have noticed about them, these rows of Neo-Italian and Georgian townhouses in the heart of Harlem together make up what is known as “Strivers’ Row,” one of the city’s architectural heirlooms and a rich source of local history.
Dreamed up by developer David King during the turn of the century, the lavish “King Model Houses,” as they were originally called, were intended for upper-middle class whites (think of the Darling family in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp); in the years prior to their construction (the first stone of the townhouses was laid in 1891), New York’s white elite had been steadily moving upward when searching for places to live.
As such, the three architectural efforts that designed the townhouses spared no expense to provide their new homeowners with every amenity. According to one website, the houses originally cost about 1.5 million dollars in total to build, which, given inflation, would be something like 35.7 million dollars today. Despite being designed by three different architects, each house is relatively the same size, measuring about 18-22 feet wide and 50 feet deep with a rear extension. Stanford White, of McKim, Mead and White, designed the northernmost row of townhouses on 139th Street in a Neo-Italian Rennaissance style, while Bruce Price and Clarence S. Luce’s firm planned the Federal Renaissance style yellow and tan houses on the southern end of 139th street and on the northern end of 138th street. Architect James Brown Lord designed the brownstones on the south side of 138th street. The decision to have three different architects work on the project was out of keeping with the conventions of the time, but David King wanted his prospective tenants to be able to choose from three different house designs when buying their townhouse.
In addition to his architectural prowess, Strivers’ Row architect Stanford White boasted a scandalous private life (and a crazy mustache, apparently). Photo via Wikimedia: George Cox
White, who was famed in New York both for practically inventing the American facade (his firm also designed the Astor, Vanderbilt, and Tiffany mansions, the Judson Memorial Church, the Century and Metropolitan Clubs, the Washington Square Arch, the second Madison Square Garden, and one of the additions to the Met), and for leading a rather scandalous private life, arguably contributed the most, design-wise, to the King Model Houses project. Not only did he come up with the unique back-to-back layout of the houses, which allowed the residents to share a rear courtyard and the back alleyways that allowed for the discreet stabling of horses and delivery of supplies, but he was also responsible for the beautiful gateways and arches that once stood at the entrances to the rear courtyards.
Despite all of these design innovations (the houses even had modern indoor plumbing, a new and quite coveted domestic amenity), the King Model Houses development failed spectacularly, and ownership of the houses reverted to The Equitable Life Assurance Society, which had financed the project. Part of the problem in selling the houses was that New York’s white population was steadily moving out of Harlem, which, by the mid 1890s, was largely populated by African Americans; this issue was compounded by the company’s blatant refusal to sell to affluent black individuals, who desired the “forbidden” townhouses and had the money to pay for them. As a result, the houses sat empty until 1919, when the company finally allowed black ownership; soon, many of NYC’s African American elite had purchased a “Royal King House” for $8,000 each.
Because these townhouses quickly became associated with affluence and prestige within New York’s African American community, despite the rest of Harlem’s slow decay into a ghetto, the area soon became known by its current name, “Strivers’ Row.” Among the new tenants were many ambitious and successful members of the black community, in such fields as medicine, law, dentistry, and the arts. Naturally, such a place was and continues to be largely associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
By the 1920s and 30s, the first residents on Strivers’ Row included such Harlem royalty as Vertner Tandy, the first commissioned African American architect in the state of New York, heavyweight contender Harry Wills, a.k.a. “Black Panther,” (who never got to fight for the title due to racism in the boxing industry), preacher/congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (for whom the street is named), renowned activist and surgeon Dr. Louis T. Wright, comedian Lincoln Perry (who was famous for his controversial character, Stepin Fetchit), and actor/singer Luther Robinson, a.k.a. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
In addition, Strivers’ Row played host to plenty of black musicians, including musician W.C. Handy, widely recognized as “the father of the blues,” jazz pianist and orchestra leader Fletcher Henderson, jazz pianist and composer Eubie Blake, and many others. The housing complex also appears in several songs, like Earl Hines’ “Topsy Turvy” (shown above) and Cab Calloway’s “The Ghost of Smokey Joe.”
“The Ghost of Smokey Joe”, by Cab Calloway:
By the 1940s, the houses had started to decay, and many were converted into Single Room Occupancies (SROs), several losing the original decorative details because of renovations. Luckily, the exteriors of these houses are considered historical landmarks, so the integrity of the original facades remains undamaged, but to this day, people are still allowed to renovate inside, much to the dismay of many Harlem residents today. Other Harlem history enthusiasts, like antiques collector Danny DeKind, buy the townhouses themselves and work to preserve their original state. In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, DeKind explained that his motivation for restoring his Strivers’ Row townhouse came from a community resident named Jean-Claude Baker, who adopted the illustrious Josephine Baker’s last name after working with her for most of his life.
“Those homes are more than just wood,” Baker said, of the townhouses on Strivers’ Row. “There is a story of people fighting to keep their history.”
To this day, you can purchase a house on Strivers’ Row, complete with private parking and Harlem historical value. According to most current listings, Strivers’ Row is “the West Village of Harlem,” and the going price per townhouse seems to hover around $500,000 to $700,000, but good luck finding an opening on the market. Still, it is fun to stroll past these elegant townhouses on a sunny day; just be sure to download some old jazz music and maybe wear that old vintage dress you found down in some East Village thrift shop.
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell.