The Independent: B&B and Beyond: Jumel Terrace, New York City. Dodging the hectic whirl of Downtown, Simon Usborne ventures north to find peace in an antiquarian bookshop.
Simon Usborne. SUNDAY 14 OCTOBER 2012
New Yorkers with cartographical vertigo joke about getting nosebleeds or struggling to breathe in the upper reaches of Manhattan. Tourists, too, tend to stick to the southern half, below, say, 89th Street. But if you’ve “done” the usual areas, or fancy something different, there’s much to offer the adventurer who travels north.
Way up on 160th Street (out of 220 streets, if you were wondering), Jumel Terrace is perhaps the world’s only B&B situated inside an antiquarian bookstore and library. Kurt Thometz’s shop is tucked away on the ground floor of this classic brownstone building, on a leafy street in Harlem Heights. Shelves reveal his love of jazz, local and African-American history, among other things, and books spill into the guest room next door. The hallway leads to a bathroom, kitchen and the door to a quaint garden.
Outside, the place feels like a different city. Low-rise and ungentrified, it quietly hums with history and culture. Sugar Hill, the immediate area, has been home to George Washington, Malcolm X and as many names in jazz and hip-hop as Kurt can drop. (He’ll drop them all – the guy’s a serious raconteur.) The heart of 20th-century black New York, it has been called the “crossroads where the Founding Fathers meet the Founding Brothers”.
You’ll find shelves of books within reach of a firm but comfy double bed. At the opposite end of the bedroom is a daybed in the window – a blissful place to read. Furniture and fixtures are antique, save a Bose hi-fi and a cable TV. There’s a recently decorated bathroom, with standard toiletries and top-quality towels. The small kitchen has a stovetop kettle and a fridge, while a bedroom upstairs with a 19th-century queen-sized brass bed is available for a second couple.
Simple: Kurt will email you for your preferences and stock the fridge before you arrive. Then it’s up to you to serve yourself. We tucked into fruit, coffee, croissants and granola, and would have eaten in the lovely garden had it not rained.
Kurt looks like a lost member of the Beat generation, with his round-rimmed specs and swept-back hair. He breathes American history. Even the car fits – a vast black ’76 Checker Marathon, in which he’ll give you a tour of the area (for a negotiable fee).
Kurt’s wife is Camilla Huey, a renowned fashion designer, who has helped to dress Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Lopez. Whatever you do, ask to see upstairs. The house brims with original details and Kurt’s study is a bookworm’s dream. The sitting room includes an antique baby grand piano, which Audrey Hepburn apparently used to play. Kurt may also tell you that Tennessee Williams once made a pass at him and that his plumber is a DJ called Cool Jazz.
Start over the road at the Morris-Jumel Mansion (001 212 923 8008;morrisjumel.org), a grand Palladian-style manor and the oldest house in Manhattan. Built on a hill in 1764, it was the headquarters for George Washington during the 1776 Battle of Harlem Heights, a turning point in the American Revolution. Now a museum, it includes the dining room in which George chewed the fat with Thomas Jefferson et al.
A short walk away on Broadway is the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X held weekly meetings before his assassination there in 1965. It’s now home to the rather sorry Malcolm X and Dr Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center (001 212 568 1341; theshabazzcenter.net; open weekdays only), which offers video displays charting X’s life and legacy. It’s fascinating, but he deserves more.
A few stops north on the Subway is The Cloisters (001 212 923 3700; metmuseum.org), which houses the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval European exhibits and includes landscaped gardens.
Kurt didn’t hesitate when asked for a restaurant tip: Margot’s (001 212 781 8494) is a Dominican café on Broadway, where three grandmas have been “kicking it in the kitchen for decades”. All red tablecloths and garish photos of Caribbean beaches, it’s informal but the food is authentic, cheap and delicious. Dinner for two (fried chicken, rice and peas, fried plantain and avocado salad, flan and fruit juice) cost us just $25 (£16).
Jumel Terrace, 426 West 160th Street, New York City, United States (001 212 928 9525; jumelterracebnb.com). The garden suite starts at $225 (£140), including breakfast. The second room is available on request.