Graham Court

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Coordinates: 40°48′12.26″N 73°57′8.28″W / 40.8034056°N 73.9523000°W / 40.8034056; -73.9523000

Graham Court
Graham Court.jpg
General information
Architectural style Italian Renaissance[1]
Location Manhattan, New York City (Harlem)
Address 1921-1935[2](or 1923-1937[3]) Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, New York, NY 10026
Coordinates 40°48′12.26″N 73°57′8.28″W / 40.8034056°N 73.9523000°W / 40.8034056; -73.9523000
Construction started 1898[4]
Completed 1901[4]
Height Eight stories[4]
Design and construction
Architect Clinton and Russell[3]
Main contractor Developed by William Waldorf Astor[4]

Graham 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.[3]

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."[3] The New York Times suggested that it might be Harlem's "equivalent to the Dakota".[5]

Physical description[edit]

It has 800 rooms,[6] currently divided into 93 apartment units.[7] The property is eight stories[5] and contains eight elevators.[8] It runs the full 7th avenue blockfront between 116th & 117th streets, and goes 175 feet deep on the side street.[5]


It is a "boxy mass" designed in the mode of an Italian palazzo.[5] 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.[5]

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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

Side faces[edit]

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.[3]


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.[5] Its gate is now locked against intruders.[5] 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.[5]

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.[5]

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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]


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.[5]



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.[3]

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.[4] The building remained under the control of the William Waldorf Astor estate until 1933.[9]

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;[10] 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."[4] Many eminent blacks moved in, including Dr. Cyril Dolly, a physician who organized the Consolidated Tenants League to protect tenants.[4] Famous residents also include James Pemberton and his wife Edna. James Pemberton was member of the state assembly representing Harlem, part of the Tammany Hall establishment and led protests at Yankee Stadium pressing for the integration of the game. On opening day 1945 after acquisition 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?"


By the 1960s, the building had begun a precipitous decline.[7] Then, the Graham Court fell into city hands in 1978, when its owner failed to pay taxes.[4]

In 1979, Mohammed Siddiqui, a pharmacist, bought the building for $55,000 and a promise to pay $150,000 in back taxes.[4] The sellers were Bankers Trust and the Astor Trust.[11] But Siddiqui fell behind on his tax bill and, according to the tenants association, let the building slide further into disrepair. In the meantime, some residents said drugs were being sold illegally from apartments in the building.[4] During this six-year window of ownership by Siddiqui, tenants ran the building with the help of a court-appointed administrator.[11] By 1986, the city moved to foreclose the building from Mohammed Siddiqui for nonpayment of $933,000 in taxes.[4] It looked as though the city would foreclose on the building for delinquent taxes, allowing the tenants to buy their apartments for a mere $250 each under a city sale program.[11] But in mid-February, only hours before the foreclosure was to become final, the landlord took advantage of the city's four-month grace period and handed $933,000 to city tax collectors to reclaim the building. Then, Mr. Siddiqui, whose pharmacist license was suspended that year for three months for "negligence" in handling prescription drugs, sold it for $2 million to Leon Scharf, a West Side real estate investor with a large apartment building portfolio throughout Manhattan.[4] In 1986, Mr. Scharf told the New York Times that he was spending $1 million on improvements that year, and was optimistic about the future of the building: Eventually, maybe we would go to a co-op plan he said.[5]

In 1990, movie producer George Jackson used Graham Court as the setting for a crack factory in New Jack City,[12] a depiction which the New York Magazine real estate section characterized as "all-too-believable".[12]


In 1998, Mr. Scharf sold the majority interest to the current owners, the "Graham Court Owners' Corporation", under the management company "Residential Management",[7] who still owned the building as of 2003.[13]

The Graham is currently home to notable residents such as radio talk show host Alex Bennett, who fell in love with the apartment complex from the first time he and his girlfriend saw it. Major interior designer Sheila Bridges[14] lives in the same unit in Graham Court where the director Spike Lee shot his 1991 film Jungle Fever. Bridges, whose unit still contains the original built-in cabinetry and wainscoting,[15] had to clean up "the fake-blood stain left over from the scene where Samuel L. Jackson is shot at the end".[16]

Tenant concerns[edit]

Interior renovation[edit]

In the early 1990s, the Graham Court Owners Corp. began a multi year renovation of the building's interior, which is not protected by the building's landmark code.[7] A representative of Residential Management explained: "Basically, the rent stabilization law does not allow us to increase the rent unless we've put substantial money into renovating the apartments and that's what we're doing."[7]

The New York Times cited tenants who said that the purpose of the renovation was "to raise rents and eventually turn the building into a co-op."[7] "What they do is just go in and strip the apartment -- original mirrors and oak cabinets in the kitchen are taken out and they don't even save these things. It's all just trashed and the more valuable things, I suppose, are sold."[7]

Window replacement[edit]

In 1996, the landlord received permission from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to install new windows after an inspection found that 20 percent of them were beyond repair.[17] The plan called for replacing the building's 400 original mahogany windows with aluminum ones.[17] An employee of the landlord said the repairs were necessary, and said that the company planned to install the aluminum windows and seek rent increases.[17]

In the summer of 2000, in a survey by the tenants association, only two of 55 respondents wanted their windows replaced; most wanted them repainted and repaired. Some tenants were quoted as saying that was unnecessary, and was contrived to drive up the rent, which can be increased if certain work is done to the building.[17] The tenants enlisted the support of Community Board 10, hoping that the Department of Housing and Community Renewal would reject the owner's request for a rent increase. But officials at the housing department said it was unlikely that the agency will intervene before the new windows are in place.[17]

Security services[edit]

As early as 2000, the guardhouse was gone,[17] and as of 2006, the building had no doorman or intercom system.[4] While a security guard on duty from 4 p.m. to midnight would admit visitors, the rest of the time tenants had to go down to the gate to greet guests. Residents said there was a direct connection between the lack of security and the regular presence of drug dealers, some of whom live in the building.[4]

In 2007, tenants sought a reduction in rents on the grounds that a reduction in building security constituted a reduction in building-wide services, and got a ruling in their favor from the DRA (Directory and Resource Administrator).[18]

Landlord then signed a settlement agreement with tenants and filed an application to decrease or modify services. The DRA granted landlord's application, noting that landlord and tenants agreed that the security guard be located so that he could see and be seen at two spots within view of the front gate of the building. Landlord then filed a second rent restoration application, which the DRA granted and the DHCR affirmed; a DHCR inspector observed a security guard sitting at a security station designated as one of the two viewing spots in the agreement between landlord and tenants.[19]


  1. ^ "The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People, and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present. By James Trager. 2004.". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  2. ^ NYC Department of Buildings "Property Profile Overview" using a "BIS (Building Information System) Web Query"
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Landmarks Preservation Commission, October 16 1984. Report (11 pages) on Graham Court Apartments, 1923-1937 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard, Manhattan. (This document is a city publication in the public domain.)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Once-Heralded Address Lags Behind Rest of Harlem. The New York Sun. By JULIA VITULLO-MARTIN, Special to the Sun. January 19, 2006.". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Streetscapes: Graham Court; Grande Dame Tries to Regain Her Respectability in Harlem. By CHRISTOPHER GRAY. New York Times. Published: July 12, 1987". 12 July 1987. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  6. ^ Streetscapes: Commissioned by Astor: Buildings for a City He Could Live Without. By CHRISTOPHER GRAY. Published: May 28, 2009
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: HARLEM; When Renovation Erases the Past. By RANDY KENNEDY. Published: April 3, 1994. New York Times.". 3 April 1994. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  8. ^ "Central Harlem History" at, 12/30/05
  9. ^ New York County, Office of the Register, Liber Deeds and Conveyances. Cited in [1]
  10. ^ Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966)
  11. ^ a b c "RISE IN VALUES SPURS RESCUE OF BUILDINGS. By WINSTON WILLIAMS. Published: April 4, 1987.". 4 April 1987. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  12. ^ a b "New York Magazine. REAL E$TATE 2000: Uptown Boomtown". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  13. ^ "Graham Ct. Owners Corp. v Green". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "New York Social Diary - NYSD House". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  16. ^ "Brown Alumni Magazine - Designing Women". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f "New York Times. NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: HARLEM; Tenants Suspect a Plot In a Plan to Replace Windows. By SHERRI DAY. Published: December 24, 2000.". 24 December 2000. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  18. ^ ""Guard house replaced by security guard office and intercom". New York Landlord v. Tenant. Describing Graham Court Tenants Association: DHCR Adm. Rev. Docket No. UL430016RT (3/29/07) 5-pg. doc.". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  19. ^ "Landlord restored security guard service. Graham Court Tenants' Assn.: DHCR Adm. Rev. Docket Nos. XB430036RT, XB430043RT (7/10/09) 3-pg. doc.". Retrieved 17 September 2014. 

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