overview

This apartment building was the home of influential cultural arbiter Carl Van Vechten beginning in 1924.

Van Vechten is especially important for his advocacy of African-American art and culture, and for bridging connections between the African-American, white, and gay communities.

Header Photo
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an extremely influential critic, novelist, photographer, and cultural arbiter, especially noted for his advocacy of African-American art and culture. Although married, Van Vechten had many long-term gay relationships and his sexuality was an open secret during his life. In May 1924 Van Vechten moved from a small apartment at 151 East 19th Street (the so-called Block Beautiful, between Irving Place and Third Avenue) into a large and elegant apartment on the seventh floor of the newly-completed building at 150 West 55th Street.

Van Vechten was instrumental in introducing the artists of the Harlem Renaissance to white society.

Harlem was sexually attractive to him mainly because it was a point of fusion among his homosexuality, his fascination with blackness, and his natural voyeurism.

Edward White, biographer

This is especially evident in the homoerotic photographs that he took of African-American men. He was also famed for his portrait photography, including images of many lesbian and gay writers, actors, and celebrities.

Van Vechten was known for his parties, as they were among the few venues where Black and white New Yorkers freely intermingled on an equal basis. Notable gay and lesbian attendees included Langston HughesCountee CullenEthel WatersSomerset MaughamSalvador Dalí, and Bessie Smith.

Van Vechten’s papers, which record many aspects of gay life in New York, especially in Harlem, are housed at Yale University.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Schwartz & Gross
  • Year Built: 1923

Sources

  1. Edward White, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). [source of pull quote, p. 178]

  2. Emile Bernard, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

  3. James Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

  4. Leon Coleman, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Piratical Assessment (New York: Garland, 1998).

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