Graham Court Apartment House, Harlem, 1925

January 9, 2014
graham court in harlemGraham Court is a historic Harlem apartment building. It was commissioned by William Waldorf Astor, designed by the architects Clinton and Russell, and constructed in 1899-1901 as part of the great Harlem real-estate boom.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building a landmark in 1984, characterizing the Graham Court as “one of the premier reminders of the urban development of Harlem at the turn of the century” and “one of the signal achievements in the history of the apartment house in New York City.” The New York Times suggested that it might be Harlem’s “equivalent to the Dakota“.

It has 800 rooms, currently divided into 93 apartment units. The property is eight stories and contains eight elevators. It runs the full 7th avenue blockfront between 116th & 117th streets, and goes 175 feet deep on the side street.

It is a “boxy mass” designed in the mode of an Italian palazzo. The first two floors of the exterior facade are of rusticated limestone, with tan or gray brick above and a crowning story of foliate terra cotta capped by a copper cornice.

The building is divided horizontally into three parts. The main façade, on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard, is divided into five parts vertically as well, having slightly projecting central and end pavilions. The two-story rusticated base, consisting of limestone set in alternating wide and narrow horizontal bands which show only the horizontal joints, has simple rectangular fenestration and rises above an areaway with molded watertable and wrought-iron railing.

Capping the base is a projecting stringcourse which is decorated with a wave molding on the center and end pavilions. The monumental main entrance, leading through an arcade to the interior courtyard, is a Palladian motif consisting of a central molded arch, with a keystone ornamented with a cartouche, rising from an interrupted entablature which is supported by pinkish polished granite columns of composite order and pilasters with entasis. A pair of large central ornamental wrought-iron gates is flanked by smaller gates. The spandrels carry inset granite roundels. The entrance is flanked by round-arched first-story windows with molded surrounds and keystones and second-story rectangular windows with surrounds.

The inscription “Graham Court” appears above the arch, flanked by horizontal terra cotta panels with anthemion motif decoration. The arcade leading into the courtyard continues the treatment of columns and pilasters. A barrel vault, faced with Guastavino tiles, rises from the entablature and is decorated with broad ribs which extend from the columns.

The pavilions of the midsection of the building, extending from the third through the seventh stories, are framed by quoins; the rusticated stone bands of the central pavilion are punctuated by fenestration. All windows have simple rectangular terra cotta surrounds; those at the fourth, fifth, and seventh stories of the center most portion of the central pavilion have entablatures.

Each floor is separated by a continuous stone stringcourse. Above the entrance on the third story, between the windows, are terra cotta panels of foliate design. The fourth floor of the central pavilion has a stone balcony with cartouches (part of the coping is missing), and there are also iron balconies with a harp motif at the fourth-story end and a seventh-story central and end pavilions.

The seventh story is capped by an ornamental terra-cotta stringcourse (reeds bound by bay leaf garlands) with central and end cartouches. The top story has alternating round-arched windows and terra-cotta panels with decoration of classical derivation. The metal cornice, originally denticulated and modillioned, has been removed; remaining are the dentils and an egg-and-dart motif molding. A parapet wall, acting originally as subtle pediments for the central and end pavilions, is now fully exposed and covered with tar.

The two side faces are identical mirror images (except for two round-arched entrances at either end on 116th Street and one larger one at the western side on 117th Street) and continue the same treatment as the main façade. The two side facades are arranged vertically as three pavilions. The unarticulated rear façade is of plain brick.

The courtyard, reached by an open arcaded entry from Seventh Avenue, is 79 feet by 108 feet square and was originally planted with grass and ornamental shrubbery. Its gate is now locked against intruders. The court itself creates a genteel but cozy feeling, grand but also comfortably secure from the outside – an unusual amenity in a city where there are few private unroofed spaces. It also gives cross ventilation to every apartment.

One of the great issues in apartment design at the turn of the century was the disposition of the courts – often reduced to mere air shafts. But because of its size, Graham Court could have a courtyard shared with no other building.

In the courtyard, a driveway and sidewalk encircle an oval garden area with walks in a cross pattern which originally had a central fountain (the stone base remains).[3] Eight iron lampposts were located in the oval and one pair flanked each of the four interior entrances (only four posts, one globe, and the stone pedestals remain). The reverse of the front façade entry arch, on the courtyard, is similar to it but without the keystone and is flanked by a pair of blind oval bulls-eyes with top and bottom keystones.

The building is entered from the courtyard through four porticoes with columns of composite order, Guastavino tile ceilings, and balustrades (part of the one at the northeast corner is missing) which are set against the angled corner. Wood double doors with glass central panels and transoms are surrounded by egg-and-dart moldings and are flanked by small round-arched windows (most of which have been filled with polished granite). The courtyard walls maintain the building’s overall horizontal division and materials, except that the base is one story high and is composed only of wide limestone bands and the brick is set in horizontal bands with plain and denticulated stringcourses.

The first story has simple rectangular fenestration; the windows of the second through seventh stories have flat-arched lintels with triple keystones (some have end voussoirs), except for the second-story corner windows above the entrance porticoes which have molded surrounds with cartouche keystones. The top story has round-arched windows with keystones and is capped by a copper cornice with egg-and-dart and patterned motif moldings.

The planning of the apartments was a bit crude. Andrew Alpern, in his book Apartments for the Affluent, says the building has an “awkward circulation pattern” and the bedrooms tend to be small and narrow. But each apartment combines features – oak kitchen cabinets, mosaic foyer floors, mahogany and oak flooring, paneled dining rooms and multiple fireplaces – that later, simpler buildings could only sample.

The land on which Graham Court stands was acquired by William Backhouse Astor in the 1860s and was transferred to William Waldorf Astor by the Astor estate in 1890. Graham Court was constructed by architects Clinton and Russell at an approximate cost of $500,000 as one of New York City’s largest and finest “flathouses” (apartment buildings). The builder was John Downey.

The Graham Court then got caught in the market collapse of 1904-05, which hit Harlem particularly hard. Moving up from the West Side, blacks turned Harlem into a “community where Negroes as a whole are better housed than in any other part of the country,” according to historian Gilbert Osofsky. The building remained under the control of the William Waldorf Astor estate until 1933.

The building was one of the last major apartment buildings in Harlem to become integrated. One source says that it was not opened to black residents until 1928; another asserts that it did not rent to any black tenants until 1933, when new management’s decision to “accept colored was accompanied by a reduction in services and an increase in the reduced, Depression-era rents.” Many eminent blacks moved in, including Dr. Cyril Dolly, a physician who organized the Consolidated Tenants League to protect tenants. Famous residents also include James Pemberton and his wife Edna. James Pemberton was member of the state assmebly representing Harlem, part of the Tammany Hall establishment and led protests at Yankee Stadium pressing for the intergration of the game. On opening day 1945 after aquisition of team by MacPhail, Webb and Topping Pemberton led a group of protesters carrying signs that asked, “If we can pay, why can’t we play?” and , “If we can stop bullets, why not balls?”

The Graham’s Danny Glover has lived there for years, the newest tenant is legendary, world famous radio talk show host Alex Bennett, whom fell in love with the apartment complex from the first time he and his girlfriend saw it.

Photo was taken in 1925.

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