Each in Its Proper Place

Michael Henry Adams opens the door of his New York apartment wearing pressed black pants and a black T-shirt with Gothic silver script that reads, HARLEM. The dome of his shaved head catches light and his signature tortoiseshell glasses trace Elton John circles around his eyes. A signet ring hangs heavy on one pinky. Behind him stretches a narrow hallway hung with brightly patterned fabrics reminiscent of those worn by women kicking up dust on a far continent, and on the bureau just inside the door sits a vase with a bouquet of walking sticks, as if a clutch of English gentlemen might be seated in the living room. Adams’s bowler hat and something trimmed with fur and a few pairs of black gloves clutter the top of the bureau. He shuts the door with a gentle click and swings the genteel curve of his belly toward the living room, inviting.

 

 

I am not the first to visit Adams, who is regularly quoted on both the history and future of Harlem. But it’s not just the controversy stirred by his political views that brings me here, not just his coffee-table books and museum exhibitions on the architecture and aesthetics of African America, either. It’s the photographs of his apartment. They reveal a singular collection amassed over the course of decades: antique trinkets and gilded picture frames holding images of people he will never know; tasseled lamps and glass-enclosed china; upholstery in leather and velvet. The apartment itself is modest. The hallway buds a single bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, then opens into a living room where high ceilings offer an enlarged sense of space. From the photos I’ve seen beforehand, I recognize a scallop-backed chair, an African mask, and a rusted chandelier with only a few mismatched crystal teardrops clinging to its emaciated arms. Chinese silk pillows in reds and pinks lie piled on the daybed, which is draped with an American crewelwork quilt. Adams has discovered most of these objects in Harlem, his home for nearly twenty years. Some are valuable antiques, others are not. Many of them, like the chandelier overhead, have been rescued from a future as refuse. What makes a man fill an apartment to overflowing (he also rents a warehouse in Queens, he says) with bits and pieces scavenged from his neighborhood? A tapestry that hangs on the wall over the daybed is sewn with seemingly hundreds of mirrored bits, and as I sink into an armchair by the window opposite, the mosaic of tiny mirrors is winking in the afternoon light.

 

 

“There is a distinction to be drawn between true collectors and accumulators. Collectors are discriminating; accumulators act at random. The Collyer brothers, who died among the tons of newspapers and trash with which they filled every cubic foot of their house so that they could scarcely move, were a classic example of accumulators, but there are many of us whose houses are filled with all manner of things that we ‘can’t bear to throw away.’ ”

Russell Lynes, “On Collecting”

 

 

A pair of elegant white candlesticks at least two feet high, each with a fish, maybe a dolphin, arching upward from its sculpted base.

 

 

One thing I know about Michael Henry Adams: he would be offended to be called a mere collector. He is a preservationist. He acts on a scale much grander than that of his apartment or a few hundred square feet of storage space in Queens. He champions iconic jazz clubs now closed, churches crumbling in disuse, and the whole physical history of Harlem. His tools range from the bullhorn to the backroom deal. Adams is a frequent figure on local boards and committees, whose job is to fight other boards and committees. Most often, he is arguing for a building or a city block to be granted historic designation, often against the ticking clock of a scheduled demolition. If a site is granted historic status, public spending may be required for restoration and preservation. Naturally, this costs money the public is not always interested in spending. Adams loudly insists that they do. People recognize him on the streets of Harlem.

 

 

Four or five little porcelain dogs, with pug noses in the air, scattered on tabletops around the room.

 

 

Saint Petersburg is nearly halfway around the globe from Harlem. From where I stand on Nevsky Prospekt, I can see the Church on the Spilled Blood rising anachronous from busy post-Soviet streets. Crosses blaze gold above bulbous cupolas decorated with colors unexpected against the gray backdrop of Russian sky: sunflower yellow, cornflower blue, the green of garden snakes and unripe limes. The eyes can hardly take it all in. Brilliant images of saints and apostles and scenes from the life of the Orthodox Savior busy the facade that rises up to squinting distance. A whole life has been collected here. A narrative. A religion. This church is one of the world’s most striking examples of the art of mosaic, decorated by roughly enough mosaic images to cover one and a half football fields. The stones were carefully selected and imported to Saint Petersburg in thousands of rare colors from all around the world. I imagine slabs of green arriving from the south, sheets of azure from the west, marbled red slabs from the east. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the church, my eyes slowly adjusting to the dazzle of image upon image, I notice the bricks between them. Their sturdy tessellation, brick on brick on brick, is the same offset pattern seen on buildings in New York. The space between the two cities collapses for a moment in my mind, the history of one bleeding into the other.

 

 

Photo: Panorama


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