Lawsuits and the Langston Hughes House

A Harlem cultural touchstone, like so many others, closes off its past

As the Landmark Preservation Commission itself points out, museums and activities aren't part of its mandate: The landmarking law only applies to a building's appearance.

"The city's landmarks law was enacted to protect the city's buildings . . . . It does not have the power to mandate how a particular property is used, and therefore cannot require a private homeowner to operate a museum or educational program that explains the cultural contributions of the activities that occurred in a particular place," says the commission's spokeswoman, Elisabeth de Bourbon.

In fact, landmarked buildings aren't even required to put up a plaque indicating the designation. That decision, said de Bourbon, is left entirely up to the discretion of the owner.

Shon Miller tried to make the Hughes house a destination.
Patricia Sener
Shon Miller tried to make the Hughes house a destination.

"It is very troubling for me that Harlem is becoming a richer and whiter place every day," says Adams. "But once you have more white people, there will be more attention paid to landmarking in Harlem, because white people will demand it. But by then it'll be too late, because there won't be any black people living here and commemorating buildings like the Langston Hughes house. It will be like Colonial Williamsburg, with black actors hired to entertain the white people who come to visit."

Before her death last month, Barbara Ann Teer—the executive director of the National Black Theater, who purchased the 64,000-square-foot building on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1983 to create a black-arts complex—was thinking about this very issue. "Dr. Teer discovered that there was a special zoning resolution, specifically establishing special zoning districts for Little Italy, Lincoln Square, and lower Manhattan. She was exploring how to distinguish Harlem as a special-purpose district and establish a geographical zone to make it a designated area," says the theater's Shirley Faison.

For now, the nonprofit that Miller started to preserve the Hughes house is operating out of a space at Danbro Studios in Williamsburg. Michael and Beverly Prince, meanwhile, have filed a federal lawsuit against Miller, the city, and others, complaining that Miller fraudulently altered the house and that the city did nothing about it. They're asking for $300 million (yes, $300 million) in punitive and $20 million in compensatory damages.

Despite these setbacks, Miller remains clear about his aims: "The first and foremost goal of the Langston Hughes House not-for-profit organization is to try and buy that building from her." Miller says he hasn't been back to the house since a few weeks after the eviction. "When we went back a couple of weeks later, there was a bum sleeping on the steps in a pool of piss. We were just like, 'This is great. That's excellent. That was a great investment.' "

He adds: "I would love to get that building out of her hands. There's nothing more I would love."

"I hope that, one day, there's something there that testifies to Hughes's importance," says Rampersad. "But it takes more than an individual. It takes people assisting that individual, and money—and I don't know that those resources have been forthcoming. It takes an angel, in some respects."

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