Not That James Brown
The pandemic opened up an unexpected door for my brother. Quite literally, the front door of one of New York City’s quirkiest homes. Having been one of the few to brave the empty streets of Manhattan during the mass exodus of 2020, he found himself unexpectedly worthy of a reward. The infamous James Brown House was empty and in need of a new soul to call it home, so my brother traded his SoHo walk-up for a New York City landmark.
The James Brown House also happens to be home to the Ear Inn, one of NYC’s oldest and continuously operating bars. It historically sat four feet from the Hudson River, luring sailors in with its siren song — the murmured sounds of glasses clinking, and libations being poured. Today, rumors of ghosts, poker games with John Lennon, and a story of how an artist resident bought the downstairs bar with a painting add to a colorful history.
The James Brown House was named after the reportedly ex-slave and Revolutionary War veteran, James Brown, who became its first owner. The home has had many lives, and most of those lives live on as hard to verify stories. Pieces of a puzzle still being arranged. It’s been an apothecary, a brothel, a boarding house, a speakeasy during prohibition, a doctor’s office, a publishing space for a magazine, and a hangout for creatives. Archeological artifacts from the basement are on exhibit at the New York Historical Society, as well as scattered throughout the home.
Today it sits dwarfed by new residential towers. Giant glass windows, eye level with my brother’s third story deck, offer a front row seat to his morning ritual of watering tomatoes, strawberries, mint, and basil. He hops around on wooden slats and makeshift stairs, as neighbors sit in the grey uniform boxes they call home. There’s something poetic in this once dilapidated brick building refusing to conform, it’s Federal-style architecture stubbornly sandwiched between monoliths. The new residents sometimes complain about the noise from the bar downstairs, despite the fact it’s outlived everyone and everything around it in the last 200 years.
This place feels alive, like it chooses the souls who temporarily call it home.
It’s a magical, once in a lifetime experience, living in this house. I’m lucky to have spent even a weekend haunting its halls. The experience left me inspired, like a piece of its magic rubbed off on me. The dust of the past stowing away with me as I traveled back home to Arizona, where I tried to paint a piece of this memory.
Homes with soul are lost in the modern world. We build boring boxes so that anyone can imagine themselves living inside their grey and white spaces. Not everyone has vision, though. Many just continue to live in that uninspired space. Give people some quirk to get to know. Fill your home with conversation pieces and your guests, as well as yourself, will never be bored. What do you want people to feel when they walk through your front door?
Originally, this small painting was meant as a Christmas gift for my brother. Covid kept us apart over the holidays, so now, as I am about to hand off my gift nearly five months later, I learned of another landmark move my brother is making — he’s moving out of the James Brown House and in with his girlfriend.