The musical and literary salons that the British poet James Fenton and the American writer Darryl Pinckney host in their Harlem townhouse are a delight not only for their guests, but also for passersby. Temperatures willing, they throw open the wide-paned windows so that the gentle strains of a Chopin sonata can sound out from two grand Steinway pianos in their living room.
When the couple first viewed 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 belletrists: Between them, they’ve written poetry, essays, and novels as well as reported from war zones. (They both have books forthcoming: 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 Lombardo Romanesque style, with a column of four oval rooms adjoining a five-story rectangle with an ornate arched Neo-Renaissance-style entryway. Ten thousand square feet, 18 rooms (including two kitchens), all of it wrapped in a rosy facade of thin Roman bricks.
But time had not been kind 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 indeterminate number of single-room-occupancy units, until falling vacant for nearly a decade. Those wide-paned windows were boarded up with plywood and plastic, concealing a flooded interior chopped up beyond recognition.
With the help of architect Samuel G. White, Fenton and Pinckney 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 ran wild with wall coverings, choosing bold wallpapers for some rooms and painting others in rich jewel tones. His love of striking colors was encouraged by his old friend, the late British painter Howard Hodgkin, who preferred them to plain white walls as a backdrop for artworks. The decorative painter Jane Warrick emblazoned several rooms with intricate faux finishes, faux bois, and friezes. For their quieter salons, 14 or so 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 on the burners.
“James has a magical visual sense,” says Pinckney, who happily defers to his partner in all things domestic (including cooking). “His first playground was between the flying buttresses of Lincoln Cathedral in England. He brought up this great wreck from the urban deep and saved it.”
The couple finally deemed the house ready for a warming 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 supper at nine. The pianist Jeremy Denk was among the renowned musicians on the lineup. “There were people floating around the library, up and down the stairs,” Denk recalls. “The place never seems to end.” Nor do the books, which number around 10,000, organized according to language and subject in a sprawl of many rooms.
As for their beloved guests, the couple’s intellectual passions have attracted a loose-knit, multigenerational “family” of New York creatives including writer and critic Joan Acocella, ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Booker Prize–winning novelist Salman Rushdie, to name just a few. “Listening to live music in a smallish group of people who knew one another, I felt like one of Mozart’s friends, or his patrons’ friends,” Acocella says. “The music seemed more personal, acute, something I’d better pay attention to—almost like speech.”
Now all of that is over. The pandemic put a stop to the concerts, and 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 find a buyer, they’ll pack up and look for a new house in England. “I hope the new owner will be as happy here as we’ve been,” Pinckney says.
Styled by Bebe Howorth
This story originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE