The musical and literary salons that the British poet James Fenton and the American writer Darryl Pinckney hosts in their Harlem townhouse are a delight not only to their guests, but to passers-by as well. The temperatures lending themselves to it, they open the large-paned windows so that the soft notes of a Chopin sonata can resonate from two large Steinway pianos in their living room.

When the couple first visited the residence in 2010, they had no way of knowing that music would be central to their lives there, as neither of them is a musician. Instead, they are both beaustrists: between them they have written poetry, essays and novels as well as reporting on war zones. (They both have books coming out: a memoir by Pinckney and a collection of classic essays on interior design edited by Fenton.) The house was designed by Boston architect Frank Hill Smith and built in 1890 for a founder of Arm & Hammer. Its aesthetic is a riff on the Lombard Romanesque style, with a column of four oval rooms adjoining a five-story rectangle with an ornate Renaissance Revival arched entrance. Ten thousand square feet, 18 rooms (including two kitchens), all wrapped in a pink facade of thin Roman bricks.

The stucco ceiling and mahogany walls in the dining room are original to the house.

Stephen Kent Johnson

But the weather had not been favorable to the place. 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 undetermined number of single-occupancy units. room, until it became vacant for almost a decade. . These wide-paned windows were covered in plywood and plastic, hiding a flooded, cut-out interior beyond recognition.

With the help of the architect Samuel G. White, Fenton and Pinckney have restored the building’s many treasures. Beneath decades of paint and plaster, they discovered vivid stained glass windows as well as marble and onyx fireplaces. Fenton went wild with wallcoverings, choosing bold wallpapers for some rooms and painting others in rich jewel tones. His love of bright colors was encouraged by his old friend, the late British painter Howard Hodgkin, who preferred them to plain white walls as a backdrop for artwork. The decorative painter Jane Warrick featured multiple rooms with intricate faux finishes, faux wood and friezes. For their quieter living rooms, around 14 people will gather in the kitchen around a long table – harvested from an old farmhouse in Hudson, New York – to give readings, while Fenton tends to five or more pots bubbling over the burners.

in a living room with yellow walls is an onyx fireplace with a white painted columned mantel with small carvings on top and an armchair beside it, an ornate antique mirror above the fireplace reflects two grand pianos
In the living room, the Regency mirror by Thomas Fentham, and the walls are in Sunshine by Benjamin Moore.

Stephen Kent Johnson

“James has a magical sense of sight,” says Pinckney, who readily defers to his partner for all things domestic (including cooking). “His first playground was between the flying buttresses of Lincoln Cathedral in England. He brought this great wreckage back from the urban depths and saved it.

The couple finally felt the house was ready for a warm-up in April 2014, when 120 friends came to celebrate Fenton’s 65th birthday, the first of their musical events – Champagne at seven, concert at eight, catered dinner at nine o’clock. Pianist Jeremy Denk was among the renowned musicians on the lineup. “There were people floating around the library, going up and down the stairs,” Denk recalls. “The place never seems to end.” Nor are the books, of which there are around 10,000, organized by language and subject in a multitude of rooms.

the two owners, both wearing glasses, stand in front of floor-to-ceiling shelves
James Fenton (left) and Darryl Pinckney in the latter’s study.

Stephen Kent Johnson

As for their beloved guests, the couple’s intellectual passions have attracted a loose, multi-generational “family” of New York creatives, including writer and critic Joan Acocella, ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov and Booker Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie, to name a few. “Listening to live music in a small group of people who knew each other, I felt like one of Mozart’s friends, or the friends of his patrons,” Acocella says. “The music felt more personal, shrill, something I better pay attention to – almost like speech.”

Now all of that is over. The pandemic put a stop to the concerts and the growing division in the country ended Fenton and Pinckney’s desire to stay here. Earlier this year, the couple put their home on the market. Once they have found a buyer, they will pack their bags and look for a new home in England. “Hopefully the new owner will be as happy here as we have been,” Pinckney said.

may 2022 cover elle decor

Stylized by Baby Howorth

This story originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

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