He was born in Harlem and spent much of his time in France, but James Baldwin kept an apartment in his native New York from the 1950s until his death in 1987—and now, one of those properties has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
A classic 19th-century Upper West Side rowhouse that received a contemporary remodel in 1961, the building might not look like much from the outside, but 137 West 71st Street was Baldwin’s family home for more than 20 years, as well as a salon, of sorts, for black literary luminaries, jazz musicians, and fellow activists. The author himself lived in the rear ground-floor apartment, according to the NYC LGBT Sites Project, and his mother, two sisters, niece, and nephew were his upstairs neighbors. Toni Morrison lived here for a time, and the likes of Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie often passed through.
The residence was designated an NYC Individual Landmark in June, during WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and it was added to the National Register last week. Those achievements are thanks in no small part to the ongoing work of the NYC LGBT Sites Project, which devoted two years to the effort.
“As a gay black author, civil rights activist, and social commentator, Baldwin transformed, and continues to transform, discussions about race and sexuality in America and abroad,” the organization said in an online update. “Seeing James Baldwin’s NYC residence listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the realization of our mission, in part, to increase LGBT representation on this important official inventory of sites and to formally recognize the U.S. home most closely associated with Baldwin, a pivotal voice of 20th century America.”
As the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission noted in its brief, the building’s white-brick exterior and asymmetric windows reflect the fashions of the time, and though the comment sections of neighborhood blogs and real-estate sites are filled with debate over its aesthetic merits, the residence remains much the same as it did when Baldwin and his family lived there—a point in favor of preservation.
“While the building’s facade may seem unremarkable, there are those who have told us how in awe they are that they and their children can stand in front of the same building that Baldwin saw every time he came home to 71st Street,” NYC LGBT Historic Sites project manager Amanda Davis said in her testimony in favor of preservation. “It is, in fact, the only city residence of significance associated with Baldwin that retains an intact exterior. It therefore stands as an invaluable, tangible link to one of the most important voices of 20th-century America.”