16 October 2019 -

Report: DHS Student Travel Award by John Clegg

Dominance and Subversion: Sexuality, Design and the Harlem Renaissance

With the generous support from the Design History Society I was able to spend nearly two weeks conducting archival field research in New York City. My research was broadly focused on the Harlem Renaissance, an American phenomenon evolving out of the Manhattan neighbourhood of Harlem, where cultural and artistic self-expression reinterpreted what it meant to be African American, sometimes referred to as ‘The New Negro Movement’ (Lewis, [1981]1997: 156). I was specifically trying to figure out how the built environment perpetuated hegemonic identities and how that power was performatively usurped during the Harlem Renaissance. The key sites which served as the lens through which I was able to examine this interaction with the built environment were the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (figs.1, 2) and The Walker Townhouse. (fig. 3)

Figure 1: Front elevation (facsimile) as published in The Monograph, by McKim, Mead and White, Avery Architectural Library, University of Columbia.
Figure 2: Exterior photograph taken in 1905 shortly after the building opened to the public. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, division of Prints and Images. Schomburg Center Photographs, Box 1
Figure 3: The Walker Townhouse after renovation, c.1916 Byron Collection, Museum of the City of New York

While conducting my field work in New York City, I had the pleasure of working with amazing collections and want to thank those who facilitated this:

Matthieu Pomerleau, Public Services Archivist at Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Drawings and Archives

Further to the archives, I was also able to interview local subject area specialists including also A’lelia Bundles, Madame CJ Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. Her insight, provision of archival information, and willingness to provide unpublished edits from her upcoming book are extremely appreciated. Also, two Harlem based architectural historians Eric Washington, and John Reddick who agreed to meet with me while I was in New York conducting field research.

Located in the middle of the neighbourhood, the 135th Street Library, was the literary nexus of the Harlem Renaissance. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1905, its grand Beaux-Arts architecture projected hegemonic ideals of citizenship, power and respectability. One of the librarians provided a specific space for emerging writers to work within the library. Writers known to have worked in the reserved space include Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Eric Walrond (Whitmire, 2014: 37). Given the relatively ‘open secret’ of the sexuality of many writers mentioned above the identity politics of their working space becomes what Foucault terms a heterotopia ([1977]1998: 180). Heterotopias as spatial phenomenon are often derived from behavioural patterns ([1977]1998: 180). Grounded in this heterotopia, the writer’s area is a temporal space which personifies the identity of the ‘New Negro’, a place where the self-fashioning of the literary image of their identity occurs.

Figure 4: The Adult Reading Room, 135th Street Branch The New York Public Library Digital Collection

A’lelia Walker (1885-1931) employed African American architect Vertner Tandy to renovate two existing brownstones in 1915. After living there for several years, she moved out and hired Paul T. Frankl to renovate the residence into a private members club. Walker’s parties were notorious for being sites of mixed sociality ethnically, and sexually. Walker had a significant amount of black gay and lesbian friends including Edward Perry, Edna Thomas, Harold Jackman, and Caska Bonds (Garber, 1989: 318-331). Proximity to the arts presumed a liberality and certain amount of open-mindedness around homosexuality (Washington, 2019). Meanwhile her friendship with many of the younger artists, including Zora Neal Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes brought into her social circle much of the embodied ideology of ‘The New Negro’.

Figure 5 – Photograph of a gathering in “The Dark Tower” literary salon, James VanDerZee, c. 1929, Copyright © Donna Mussenden VanDerZee

A’lelia embraced Frankl’s vision of modernism, even using the image of his bookcase on the membership invitations (figure 6), but she utilised it as a means of physically staking political claim to the space. The Dark Tower is what art historian Reed deems imminent domain, or a space that is asserting itself, where signs of political difference are more overt, thus taking a politically active stance grounded in sexual theory (1996: 64). With his Skyscraper bookcase, and Harlem Renaissance poetry painted on the walls, the room became the physical manifestation of counter hegemonic identities.

Figure 6 - Invitation card to join ‘The Dark Tower’, Walker Family Archives
Figure 7- Example of a Skyscraper Bookcase by Paul T. Frankl, On display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Photograph: Authors own

The artists and individuals of the Harlem Renaissance were consciously trying to fashion a new identity for themselves and for others they ethnically identified with. Sexuality was inseparable to this, though less visible. This artistic flourishing challenged the power imbued in these buildings and spaces by the designers and architects who created them. Through this challenge to a historicist world-view, the identity of the ‘New Negro’ was projected in bricks and mortar, in addition to print and paint.


Manuscripts and Archives

• Avery Architectural and Fine Art Archives, Columbia University, New York City (AAFAA) - Avery Classics Collection:

(1925) A monograph of the work of McKim, Mead and White, The Architectural Book Publishing company; New York

• Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Division of Prints and Images, New York City Public Library, New York City

Schomburg Center Photographs, Box 2

• The Walker Family Archives

Invitation to the Dark Tower

• Interviews conducted:

Washington, Eric – May 2019 (Washington: 2019)

Reddick, John – May 2019 (Reddick: 2019)

Bundles, A’Lelia – May 2019 (Bundles: 2019)

Printed Secondary Sources

• Foucault, M [1977](1998) Different Spaces. In J.D. Faubion (Ed.) Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault Volume 2 (p175-186). London: Penguin
• Garber, Eric. (1989) ‘A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem’, p.318-331. Hidden from History: reclaiming the gay and lesbian past. (Eds. Duberman M, Vicinus M and Chauncey Jr, New York: NAL Books
• Lewis, D.L., [1981](1997) When Harlem was in vogue, New York: Penguin Books.
• Reed, C. Imminent Domain, Queer Space in the Built Environment, Art Journal, Winter 1996, 55(4), pp.64-70. Available online:, accessed on 12/05/19
• Whitmire, E. (2014) Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian. Chicago: University of Illinois Press


Want to contribute to the blog and newsletter? Contact us


Keep informed of all Society events and activities, subscribe to our newsletter.