biography of a building

Graham Court, the Gilded Age Rental

Exploring a time capsule in Harlem.

Photo: Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apples Images
Photo: Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apples Images
Photo: Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apples Images

Every New York apartment building is its own mini-fiefdom. This new series goes inside them, starting with Graham Court. Known as “Harlem’s Dakota,” it was built to house New York’s upper echelon but fell into disarray. Still, its sprawling apartments have kept families in place for generations.

Contents: Building Basics | The People Who Live There | Spectacular Fireplaces | Graham Court’s Many Onscreen Cameos | How to Get an Apartment Here | The Ivy League Eleven | Blind Items | Graham Court Since March

This past February, those trawling StreetEasy for a Harlem apartment may have scrolled straight past a listing for a three-bedroom in Graham Court. The unit, 5G, has all the trappings of an uninspired 21st-century gut — jet-black bathroom-floor tiles; cheap-looking, stark-white kitchen cabinets. It would be impossible to tell from the pictures that almost all the other units in the building are time capsules of early-20th-century Harlem — with original high ceilings, claw-foot tubs, oak pocket doors, and brass sconces.

Graham Court is an eight-story apartment building that takes over the entire east side of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between 116th and 117th Streets. It was completed in 1901 for the real-estate tycoon William Waldorf Astor by the architectural firm Clinton and Russell, which also built the Apthorp on a full block in the West 70s. Both were constructed in the Italian Renaissance style, and both feature lush interior courtyards, arched entryways, and iron gates. (Graham Court also shares a spiritual connection to another Upper West Side landmark; in 1987, the New York Times called it Harlem’s equivalent to the Dakota, which has stuck as a nickname.) The Apthorp, though, announced a $95 million renovation in 2007 and, in 2008, went condo (with a handful of $10 million four-bedrooms for sale). Some two and a half miles uptown, Graham Court remained — and remains — a decidedly non-luxury rental.

In the very beginning, the apartments — suites of six-to-11 rooms fitted with servants’ chambers — were home to oil-company presidents and other types one might have found in the New-York Tribune’s society pages. But then the real-estate bubble burst. Between 1910 and 1930, Central Harlem’s black population surged from 10 percent to 70 percent. The Astor estate cut ties to its investment, and the new management decided to open the building to black residents (many of whom, some tenants say, were the maids of the previous wealthy white tenants). Decreased services followed. Graham Court’s ownership was passed from person to person, including the heir to a clothing fortune, then to a group of real-estate investors who let the building fall into receivership.

The tenants were treated negligently. Besides the crime, which was by all accounts rampant — everything from hallway drug deals to numbers rackets to, supposedly, apartment-run brothels — the condition of the building continued to spiral. A handful of apartments were chopped up by management to further squeeze rent, the elevator was constantly broken, water often stopped running, and heat was unpredictable. By the mid-’70s, the neighborhood was in a similar state of disrepair. “Junkies lining the street, burned-out buildings, vacant lots,” long-term tenant Margaret Porter Troupe recalls.

Before the crack epidemic and the national Carter-era recession, though, Harlem in the early ’80s seemed on the verge of major change. Redevelopment ramped up, and a crop of black artists and actors — Marcella Lowery, Danny Glover, Hugh Masekela — moved into Graham Court. But most of them left soon after, unable to tolerate the lack of services and the relative unsteadiness of the neighborhood.

In 1987, with the city set to foreclose on the building for delinquent taxes, tenants finally had the opportunity to purchase their apartments for $250. But mere hours before the foreclosure was to become final, the building’s owner (Mohammed Siddiqui, a pharmacist whose license was later suspended for “negligence in handling prescription drugs”) paid the outstanding taxes and reclaimed the building — a sharp blow for long-term tenants.

It wasn’t until the early ’90s (as fleets of young African-American lawyers, doctors, and bankers began moving to Harlem and other historically black neighborhoods), when a group of 11 Ivy League graduates moved in, that it began slowly transforming into the more prosperous place it is today. The state of the building was another story — one of the 11, Kathy Frazier, then a trader on Wall Street, describes stepping over passed-out bodies on her way to get to work — but most stayed, entranced with the space. And by the early aughts, the neighborhood began to gentrify in earnest. A handful of yoga studios opened. So did a Whole Foods.

A rapidly gentrifying Harlem gave Graham Court’s ownership financial incentive to renovate its vacant apartments to rent at market rates. This has created what some residents see as a two-class system: New renters speak of hearing back swiftly from the management company when they voice concerns, while legacy tenants in rent-controlled units say their problems go unchecked. Others feel that management is not interested in renting to black people. “I have friends who’ve applied who would have been qualified financially and otherwise who weren’t allowed in,” says Sheila Bridges, an interior designer and long-term tenant. (Management claims, “We have never denied an application based on color.”)

Regardless of who you are, getting one of the apartments that maintain the charm of Gilded Age Graham Court, if you don’t have a family member already living there, is a fairly epic undertaking. New tenants who succeeded in doing so dedicated at least a year to their hunts, relying on insider contacts. And many of the tenants promise that the only way they’re leaving is on a stretcher. “My grandmother came in, in 1929, and she lived and died here, and my father lived and died here,” says Pat Knox Horne, a former assistant fashion buyer. “And I’ll live and die here.”

Building Basics

Graham Court, 1920. Photo: Thaddeus Wilkerson. Museum of the City of New York F2011.33.279
  • Address: 1921 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard
  • Apartments: There are 100 in the building, spread out over eight floors and four distinct structures. Likely a few dozen are rent controlled and rent stabilized.
  • Prices: $3,094 a month is the average current rate for an apartment. ($400 a month was the typical rent-stabilized cost for a tenant in the ’90s, per one resident, and $900 a year was the starting rental price for an apartment with six-to-11 rooms when it opened in 1901.)
  • Notable residents, past and present: Zora Neale Hurston, Danny Glover, Hugh Masekela, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Marcella Lowery
  • Landmark Status: The outside was landmarked in 1984; the inside never was. “So the apartment below me has the same layout but looks wholly different,” says tenant Yvonne Stafford. “Sheetrock walls, a drop ceiling. And it’s $5,500 a month. Mine is nowhere near that.”
  • Current owner: Graham Court Owners Corp.

Plus: A Dozen Pieces of History

The Apthorp’s weathered copper cornice. Photo: temoor.ahmad/Instagram

The Case of the Missing Copper Cornice
Apparently, the top story of the building once had a copper cornice, just like the Apthorp. “At some point before 1987, it was removed,” says long-term tenant Terry Williams. “And it was never replaced. Why didn’t they do that to the Apthorp?”

William Waldorf Astor’s monograph is still etched into the exterior.

The Smokestack
It was damaged in 1977, which forced management to shut down the heating system. Laconia Smedley says his apartment got so cold that winter that he had to wear his friend’s fur coat to sleep.

The Top-Floor Apartments
“Let’s be realistic — if this place ever went co-op, ours is probably at least a $6 million apartment, with the square footage, the seven windows facing Central Park.” —Jonathan Solars, rare-violin dealer

Photo: Frankie Alduino

The Wrought-Iron Gates
Topped with a Palladian arch, seen to the left, the gates were allegedly once the site of a shooting in the early 2010s that prompted the building’s real-estate agent, Ignazio Leone, to quit. “After that, I gave up the exclusive,” says Leone.

The Elevator Clash
During an elevator-service strike in the ’30s, there was a tussle between the strikers and service operators. Two men were shot. One was bashed in the head.

Fraught Window Frames
Around 2001, the wooden frames were replaced with aluminum. Said architectural historian John Tauranac: “It’s contrary to all the preservation movement holds dear.”

Photo: Veronica Tyson-Strait

The Grand Interior Courtyard
“The landlords put barely any money into the courtyard. About ten years ago, when I noticed it started looking like a jungle, I started weeding, pruning. I put in drought-tolerant perennials that don’t take a lot of maintenance — rhododendrons, hostas, a nice Japanese maple tree.” —Duane Harper Grant, filmmaker and photographer

The Fire Hydrant on 116th Street
“In the ’70s, elevator service and running water were fickle. We’d have the kids run down the stairs to the fire hydrant, fill up the buckets, and hoist them up via a makeshift pulley system.” —Margaret Porter Troupe, executive director of the Gloster Arts Project

A Very Suspicious Dentist
In 1947, a 39-year-old Bronx man died in the dentist office of Dr. Subbeal S. Anderson during a run-of-the-mill molar extraction. Anderson left town within two days.

Photo: Angela Radulescu/Wikimedia

Toni Morrison Read Here
“We’ve been running an arts salon out of our apartment since the ’80s. It’s a private event. We get artists, writers, musicians in our home for conversation — Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Will Calhoun, Ishmael Reed.” — M.P.T.

Movie Blood
“Jungle Fever was filmed in my apartment. When I moved in, there was blood on the floor from the scene where Samuel L. Jackson was shot.” —Sheila Bridges, interior designer [Read about more cameos here.]

The People Who Live There

Inside nine apartments.

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Lucius Laconia Smedley, former music teacher
Moved in 1960

“Through the choirmaster of Metropolitan Baptist Church, who I accompanied on piano for years, I met Pearl Thornwell, who lived in Graham Court. She was an old lady, a cook-maid, and she asked me to give her piano lessons in her home. She was renting out rooms, and I asked if I could move into one. My rent was about $203 then; I’ve been here since. Renting out rooms to folks in the neighborhood is how people who had these big apartments survived through the years.”

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Quincy Troupe and Margaret Porter Troupe, poet and executive director of the Gloster Arts Project
Moved in 1979

Q.T.: We were living on West End Avenue at the time, and my friend told me about Graham Court. When I came to see it, the courtyard was full of drug dealers. I went to meet Laconia Smedley; when he came to the door, I saw his place had fireplaces. I asked him if all the apartments had fireplaces, and he told me some had four. I said, ‘If an apartment with eight rooms comes up, call me up.’ Eventually, he did.

M.P.T.: When I visited, my knees were knocking: The area was very, very scary. But once I got inside, the apartment was so beautifully restored, and you couldn’t hear anything from outside — it was like being in Europe.

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Pat Knox Horne, former assistant fashion buyer
Conceived in the building circa 1940, moved in after her father died in 1995

“My grandmother Ethel came in 1929 — she had a friend who knew the Astors, and the building was almost entirely white. They were probably the second black family to move in. I was conceived right here, in my office. It was my father’s room — he and my mother were only 16, but they were in love. I found that out when I was 39; they took me to dinner, and I said, ‘Was I a love child?’ They told me they were in love, sneaking around when my grandmother wasn’t home. It’s my charge to take care of this home, and that’s what I’ve been doing. There were no amenities around here when I moved back in — you couldn’t even buy a newspaper in Harlem. When my grandmother was here, it was grand. The elevator used to have a sliding gate door with a guy there turning the wheel. We had claw-foot benches in each building in the lobby, and they took those out. We had glass chandeliers in the hallway; I kept one until I decided, What am doing?

Photo: Frankie Alduino

William Allen
National crisis and service director of National Action Network, Democratic district leader for 70th Assembly District
Moved in December 1991

“In 1990, I was living in New Jersey. I was in a meeting with my pastor and my friend, [former Graham Court tenants-association president] Greg Watson. I was telling the pastor, ‘My sister’s driving me crazy. I’ve got to get my own place.’ He said, ‘You’ve had family and friends in Graham Court. Maybe somebody will rent.’ It’s true: I had relatives who lived there dating back to my great-grandmother; we’ve been in Harlem seven generations. Next thing you know, I’m moving in myself. Historically, southern blacks came to Harlem and families in Graham Court would host them until they could find their own place. The whole community knows about this place, and the whole community is in love with this place. Still, today, it’s Old World here. It’s one of the most neighborly places you could ever want to live. When you walk inside the gate, people say ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good afternoon,’ ‘Good evening.’ If you ignore them, they inquire if you’re okay.”

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Duane Harper Grant, filmmaker and photographer
Moved in 1993

“I took over my mother’s lease; she moved in in the late ’70s. Luckily, the tenants association has had some very good representation, because about 15 years ago, the landlords started trying to get rid of me. They tried to bully me and work with attrition. They didn’t think I’d put up a fight, and I did. I’m still here.”

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Marita Green Monroe, sports marketer
Moved in 2002

“In 2000, me and my husband, Earl, were living in New Jersey, and my college roommate, who lived in Graham Court and knew I’d always loved the building, told me an apartment had opened up. Earl said, ‘I’m not moving there.’ But I wanted it. Every day, still, Earl says, ‘I’m getting out of here.’ We’ve had floods, fires, mice. But where else am I gonna get a place like this? We have a house in an apartment, and people are living in a box and paying thousands in rent.”

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Clyde Williams and Mona Sutphen, public-affairs adviser and senior adviser at an investment firm
Moved in 2010

C.W.: I came to Harlem to work for Bill Clinton. Someone had a party at their place in Graham Court — I walked in and was like, Holy crap. When my wife and I went to D.C. to work for President Obama, we said if we came back, we’d live here. Soon after we moved in, I was blown away when I turned my head in the elevator and saw Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe, a Knicks Hall of Famer — turns out he lives right under us. My mind was blown.

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Jonathan Solars and Katie Thomas, rare-violin dealers
Moved in November 2012

J.S: When I brought my contractor to the apartment, he was shocked I wanted to put so much into a rental. He had never seen a rental client do that, he said. But I have customers coming in for multimillion-dollar instruments, and I intend to be here for the long haul. I mean, there are three Strads in this house. So it can’t be shabby.

Photo: Frankie Alduino

Kevin Harter and Jangir Sultan, VP of integrated marketing and fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s and founder of Patient Advocates of NY
Moved in 2016

K.H.: we were living in Dumbo and were looking for a new place. Our twin boys were getting bigger. The apartment we took over was in awful condition, but between the fireplaces and the floors, I knew there was something spectacular. The sense of community in this place is crazy. Not only does everyone know everyone’s kids’ names — everyone knows everyone’s dogs’ names.

Seven Spectacular Fireplaces

Many apartments have one — if not four. And some are fully functional.

Photo: Frankie Alduino
Photo: Frankie Alduino.
Photo: Frankie Alduino.
Photo: Frankie Alduino.
Photo: Frankie Alduino.
Photo: Frankie Alduino.
Photo: Frankie Alduino.

From a Crack Den to an Oboist’s Apartment

Graham Court’s many onscreen cameos.

Jungle Fever (1991) and New Jack City (1991). Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; Warner Bros..
Jungle Fever (1991) and New Jack City (1991). Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; Warner Bros..
Sugar Hill (1994) and Mozart in the Jungle (2015). Photo: Twentieth Century Fox; Amazon Studios.
Sugar Hill (1994) and Mozart in the Jungle (2015). Photo: Twentieth Century Fox; Amazon Studios.

How to Get an Apartment Here

The last available unit was apartment 5G — a $4,850 three-bedroom (with two fireplaces), which was temporarily taken off the market on March 13. The real-estate agent who has rented many of the recently available apartments is Jason Lax, who posts them on StreetEasy. The more coveted apartments — the ones that retain their full Gilded Age charm — rarely make it on there. For access to those, you’ll have to be more resourceful. Clyde Williams, who moved into a three-bedroom in 2010, “called everybody under the sun: the property manager, the owners. Finally, somebody called us back.” Kevin Harter, the VP of integrated marketing and fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, describes a similar process when he started trying to move in, in 2016. “I had to work it,” he says. “I gave gifts. There are people in the building wearing Bloomingdale’s cashmere who weren’t before.”

And the Last Four on the Market

Apt. 5G: Listed March 2020. Three-bedroom, one-bathroom, $4,850. Photo: Photos courtesy of StreetEasy via HFF Realty LLC
Apt. 4C2: Listed December 2019. One-bedroom, one-bathroom, $2,100 Photo: Photos courtesy of StreetEasy via HFF Realty LLC
Apt. 2I1: Listed September 2019. Studio, $1,995 Photo: Photos courtesy of StreetEasy via HFF Realty LLC
Apt. 4C: Listed June 2019. Three-bedroom, two-bathroom, $4,295 Photo: Photos courtesy of StreetEasy via HFF Realty LLC

The Ivy League Eleven

They came in 1993 and set the gentrification wheels in motion.

A friend of mine from Brown lived in Graham Court, and he was able to convince the owners of the building to rent a number of apartments that they were warehousing for photo shoots and film production to all these young black professionals who would be willing to pay market rent. That’s how I got here.” —Sheila Bridges, interior designer and author

“Our friend from Brown organized it. Eleven of us moved in with Ivy League degrees — five of us still live here today — and the change probably began then. I don’t want to sound saviorish, but when 11 black Ivy League graduates move into a building at the same time, it denotes something. We hoped to purchase our apartments once the building went co-op — our goal wasn’t to be lifetime renters. What we’ve missed out on is the price appreciation; when we leave, there’s no payout.” —Kathy Frazier, wealth adviser

Building Blind Items

Anonymous tidbits from the tenants.

Of the new families flooding Graham Court in recent years, one tenant says, “They don’t have money for Westchester, so this is the new place.”

According to court records, former Knicks player Melvyn Davis is embroiled in a long-lasting litigation with the landlord and his own subtenants.

When tenants need “someone with power to get anything done in the neighborhood,” they’ll go, says one, to Clyde Williams, the former national policy director of the DNC.

One resident lives down the hall from what he believes to be the apartment of an heir to the Cabot Creamery fortune. “He got his lease for next to nothing,” the tenant says, “then did a massive renovation.” Plus: “He has parties, and I haven’t been to one, but I hear they’re amazing.”

Graham Court Since March

How the tenants are faring.

“Many of the drug addicts in the park across the street, which was closed because of COVID-19, were camping out in front of our gate — then the drug pushers joined them and were using it as a drug-selling station. It was like the Harlem of the ’70s and ’80s on steroids. The pushers and the addicts were not distancing, many were sickly. In mid-April, it got a bit better — we think people got word that the city was fining.” —William Allen

“I’ve been inside for about two months — my niece is incarcerating me here. She brings me food from a Spanish restaurant — yellow rice, beans. The tenants seem all right. One woman’s in the hospital. You can’t help but run into people, but they’re sensible, so they follow the rules.” —Laconia Smedley

“Some folks from the building have been calling the police on the people that have come over from the park, who are maybe doing drugs. I’m not one to participate. I saw someone out front, ready to sit down. I didn’t yell at him. I told him, ‘I know you’re tired.’” —Yvonne Stafford

“You don’t see the neighbors [as much]. We do have a tenants’ page on Facebook. Yvonne posted to ask if anybody needed anything, and we have extra gloves that we’ve been sharing with our neighbors.  The courtyard lets us get some sun on our face. It gives a sense of security.” —Jonathan Solars

*This article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

More From This Series

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