Stephen Kent Johnson The musical and literary salons hosted by Darryl Pinckney and James Fenton, a British poet, in their Harlem home are a joy for both their guests and passers-by. When the weather is good, they open the large-paned windows to let the gentle sounds of a Chopin sonata from the two grand Steinway pianos in the living room.
The couple saw the house for the first time in 2010. They didn’t know that music would play a central role in their lives as musicians when they first saw it. They are both belletrists. Between them, they have written poetry, essays and novels, as well as reporting from war zones. Both have books coming out: Pinckney’s memoir and Fenton’s collection of classic essays about interior design. Frank Hill Smith, a Boston architect, designed the house and it was built for Arm & Hammer in 1890. Its aesthetic is a riff on the Lombardo Romanesque style, with a column of four oval rooms adjoining a five-story rectangle with an ornate arched Neo-Renaissance-style entryway. Ten thousand square feet, 18 rooms, including two kitchens. All wrapped in a beautiful facade of thin Roman bricks.
Stephen Kent Johnson’s original stucco ceiling and mahogany walls are from the dining room. But time was not kind to the property. After that original owner sold the building in the 1930s, it became a medical facility, a home for the Harlem Community Art Center, a place of worship, and an indeterminate number of single-room-occupancy units, until falling vacant for nearly a decade. The wide-paned windows were covered with plywood and plastic to hide a waterlogged interior.
Fenton and Pinckney, with the assistance of Samuel G. White the restoration of the building’s treasures was possible. They discovered beautiful stained-glass windows, marble and onyx fireplaces beneath decades of plaster and paint. Fenton was a master of wall coverings. He chose bold wallpapers to cover some rooms, while painting others with rich jewel tones. Howard Hodgkin (a British painter who died in 2012), encouraged Fenton’s love for striking colors. He preferred to use them as backgrounds for his artworks over plain white walls. Jane Warrick, a decorative painter, decorated many rooms with elaborate faux finishes, faux bois and friezes. The quieter salons will have 14 to 20 people gather around a long table, which was sourced from Hudson, New York. Fenton will tend to the five or more pots that are bubbling on the burners.
Pinckney shows his affection for his wife in the kitchen, where he uses the Regency mirror made by Thomas Fentham. “His first playground was located between the flying buttresses at Lincoln Cathedral in England. This great wreck was found in the urban depth and saved by him.
In April 2014, Fenton and his wife decided that the house was ready for warming. 120 friends came together to celebrate Fenton’s 65th Birthday. Jeremy Denk, a pianist, was one of the renowned performers on the line-up. Denk recalls, “There were people floating around in the library up and down the steps.” “The place never seems complete.” Nor does the library, which has around 10,000 books, seem to have an end. They are arranged according to subject and language in many rooms.
Darryl Pinckney and James Fenton in the former’s study. Stephen Kent Johnson Acocella said, “Listening live music in a smallish, familiar group of people made me feel like Mozart’s friend, or his patrons” “The music felt more personal, acute, and something I would better pay attention too–almost as if it were speech.”
All of that is now over. The pandemic stopped the concerts and grew division in the country, ending Fenton’s and Pinckney’s desire to remain here. The couple had their home put up for sale earlier this year. After finding a buyer, the couple will pack up and move to England. Pinckney said, “I hope that the new owner will feel as happy here as I have been.”
Styled by Bebe Hopworth
This story first appeared in the May 2022 issue ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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