Lovecraft’s friend and correspondent James Morton lived for many years at No. 211, West 138th Street, in a top floor apartment of a very dusty and unkempt building located a little north of the centre of Harlem, New York City. Lovecraft described it as a “single house”, Long in his memoirs as a “brownstone”. Both were partly right. Lovecraft was likely using the architecturally-correct Georgian term for a long single-block of row-houses, built in a pseudo-Georgian style in the 1890s, rather than meaning ‘a detached single house with a garden and yard’.
I’ve now found modern rental photos showing the inside of No. 215, the pictures being here suitable treated for a more retro look. The interior is not quite 211 but must surely evoke something very close to what a visit to Morton’s place might have been like. You have to imagine it prior to the strong gentrification, of course, and incredibly dusty as Lovecraft describes it in the new Letters to Family books…
No. 211 — the Morton mansion — is an old brick single house owned by an elderly eccentric named Edwin C. Walker; a spacious & unkempt edifice, thick with dust, & with half the rooms unused. Morton’s room is on the top floor, reached by dark & winding stairs, & is remarkably neat though atrociously dusty.
Anarchists, as a rule, tend to be disinclined to housework. The dust also suits their paranoia, usefully revealing the intrusion of the clandestine police investigators they imagine are around every corner. Lovecraft thought the street pleasant enough, though, with decent houses and trees and no policemen idling on the corner.
Entrance to 215, seen at an angle.
Entrance to 215
Lower exterior window of 215
The building’s owner was the fellow orator and publisher Edwin C. Walker (1849–1931) who then still ran the freethought / free-love / inter-racialist ‘Sunrise Club’ from there. This was a long-running bi-weekly dining meeting which had in its time seen a wide variety of invited after-dinner speakers, ranging from the distinguished racial universalist Du Bois (1919) to anarchist Emma Goldman on birth-control and censorship (1915), along with a wide range of fringe speakers on the burning topics of the era. Evidently ‘Red’ Emma was a regular guest, as she was impressed when she met and heard Du Bois there in 1919. These speakers are also known to have included spiritualist mediums. Glimpses of Walker’s Fair Play magazine of 1908, with a different mailing address, suggests the mix: pro-sex and birth-control stances; interest in the disciples of Walt Whitman; individualistic Stirnerite anarchism; anti-censorship; racial equality; and spiritualist ‘mediumship’. Lovecraft himself attended a meeting on pro and anti-censorship in 1922, finding the speakers and arguments facile except for the contribution on Morton.
It seems likely that the lower street windows of the building were those of Walker’s rooms, and thus in the latter years may have presented to the world a certain faded bohemian glamour in decor. Possibly there was sometimes a window-card to indicate the ‘Sunrise Club’, though in 1922 it was held in a nearby cafe for the meeting that Lovecraft attended. The “empty rooms” Lovecraft knew of were likely available as discreet meeting rooms on the first floor, above the prying eyes of police or journalists or Houdini-like debunkers. Walker is listed at that address in Hartmann’s Who’s Who in Occult, Psychic and Spiritual Realms, 1925. For more on Walker see The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (1977).
Lovecraft evidently met Walker briefly, when he first visited and probably also thereafter. Though Walker was in his early-mid 70s in the 1920s. Lovecraft had a lot of time for ‘good old fellows’ but he was unlikely to have seen eye-to-eye with Walker, had they chanced to settle into conversation. Though they might have been alright if they had stuck to the pros and cons of censorship and anti-liquor matters, things on which they both broadly agreed. I imagine he might have been a slight influence on the character of Robert Suydam in “The Horror at Red Hook”.
A photograph shows that Walker had been quite a looker, seen here his prime about the year 1889 when his ‘Sunrise Club’ was founded…