My 5-year-old son’s class is performing the song “It’s A Wonderful World” at his school’s end of the year graduation party. So when I found out about the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, I knew it would be a timely way to get in some music history. Little did I know that we would both be completely enthralled with the experience.
Unlike other museums that we’ve explored, this is more like a preserved time capsule. The museum is housed in an unassuming brick townhouse on a side street in Corona, Queens that was bought by the singer with his wife Lucille in 1943. The house, their furniture, and artifacts from their life remain in place, as if waiting for the Armstrongs to stroll back in one day and play a tune. Admittance to the museum is through a guided tour, which runs every hour on the hour. When we arrived there was another group of two families already in line, with kids ranging from about 2-12 (whose older son attends the I.S. 227 Louis Armstrong school in Queens). This is not a particularly kid-friendly museum, as you’re not allowed to touch all of the strange and beautiful things in the house. But the kids all seemed to really enjoy it, and the passionate tour guide made a point of including facts geared towards the young.
We started in the circa 1955 living room right next to a Leroy Neiman painting of a saxophonist. We learned that Louis met his wife, Lucille, at the Cotton Club, where she was a dancer. At the time they lived here, Louis traveled over 300 days out of the year, so Lucille had a lot of time alone in the house (and a lot of money) to decorate. What a brilliant job she did; the house is the height of 50’s/60s interior design. The blue kitchen is filled with custom built-in’s, like the double oven, and hideaway paper towel and tinfoil holders. The bathroom is lavishly decorated with mirrors and gold swan handles, and the walk-in closet is blinding with shiny mylar wallpaper (even on the ceiling). Yet, among all the finery, the rooms feel intimate and livable. The most unique part of the tour is the doorbell-like buttons on the walls, that when pushed, fill the rooms with the home recordings of Louis and Lucille’s banter and music. We heard Louis having dinner with friends in the dining room, telling jokes in the hallway, and practicing his trumpet in an alcove. My son was surprised to hear the legendary singer describe how he found the inspiration for “It’s A Wonderful World” through the diversity of the Corona neighborhood.
Throughout the tour, we saw many photos of Louis Armstrong hanging out with the neighborhood kids. Our tour guide regaled us with amazing stories of how Louis let kids watch Westerns on his TV, while Lucille brought them sweet tea to drink. One Christmas, he loaded all the children from the block into his tour bus and brought them all to visit Santa at Macy’s.
The last leg of the tour brought us out to the Japanese-inspired garden on the side of the house. The Armstrongs had built a small stage and a Koi pond, and performed concerts here during their lives. The museum staff carries on this tradition with a free summer concert series throughout July and August.
Finally, we strolled through the gift store that sells everything from jazz-inspired mugs to Armstrong’s favorite laxative, Swiss Kriss. It’s hard to imagine who might buy this here, but it was yet another instance of the way this museum allowed us to peek behind the curtain of a legend and find the intimacies of a great man who was inspired by his neighborhood.
We got a taste of Corona with lunch at Tortilleria Nixtamal, a colorful restaurant famous for their tortillas which are made fresh every day. My son enjoyed pork and pineapple tacos, while I indulged in some spicy shrimp. On a lazy afternoon, their porch is the perfect place to enjoy a mango margarita, and think to yourself, what a wonderful world.
Louis Armstrong House Museum– 34-56 107th Street, Corona Queens 718-478-8274 Hours: Tuesday- Friday: 10:00-5:00pm, Saturday: 12:00pm- 5:00pm. The last tour of the day is at 4:00pm. No appointment necessary. Admission: Adults $10; Seniors, students and children $7; Children under 4: free. Subway: Take the 7 train to 103 St- Corona Plaza
Sunday June 21st: Father’s Day With Pops 12pm-4pm free
Saturday July 4th: Hot Jazz/ Cool Garden Summer Concert Series with The Ladybugs (red beans ‘n rice & sweet tea included) 2pm $18
Saturday July 18th: Hot Jazz/ Cool Garden Summer Concert Series with Jon-Erik Kellso & Friends (red beans ‘n rice & sweet tea included) 2pm $18
Saturday August 15th: Hot Jazz/ Cool Garden Summer Concert Series with Cynthia Sayer & Her Sparks Fly Quartet (red beans ‘n rice & sweet tea included) 2pm $18
Thursday August 20: Jazzmobile Block Party featuring Grammy Nominated Bobby Sanabria in Concert 4:00pm- 8:30pm free
Tortilleria Nixtamel, 104-05 47th Avenue Corona, Queens Hours: Monday- Wednesday: 11am- 7pm; Thursday: 11am-9pm; Friday- Saturday: 11am- 11pm; Sunday 11am-9pm