Shon “Chance” Miller, president of Borough Media, works in a recording studio at the Langston Hughes House in New York's Harlem section in June. Hughes died in 1967 and the brownstone, which received landmark status in 1981 and changed owners several times, is now a performance and gallery space with recording studios for musicians and poets. - AP

Langston Hughes' home experience a second ... Harlem Renaissance

NEW YORK — For the last two, extraordinarily prolific decades of his life, Langston Hughes turned out some of his most celebrated work on the third floor of the brownstone at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem.

While in his two-room suite, with treetop views, a narrow bed, a shower, books, work tables, photographs and other belongings, Hughes produced a book-length poem, an autobiography, newspaper columns, lyrics, anthologies and many other writings.

"Having that base — that house — was very important to the last 20 years of his life," said Arnold Rampersad, who wrote a two-volume biography of the Harlem Renaissance writer.

Now, four decades after Hughes last drew inspiration from the house and from his muse Harlem, a musician, a music producer and a music executive are transforming the brownstone into performance and gallery space, recording studios and an overall incubator of creativity for musicians, poets and other artists — all while paying homage to the literary giant.

"We don't want to be stuck in trying to recreate the past," said Shon "Chance" Miller, 29, president and creative director of the organization for which the three are seeking nonprofit status. "We're trying to respect and take from what was done before and incorporate that into what we're doing today."

On what would have been Hughes' 105th birthday on Feb. 1, Miller, along with Marc Cary, a pianist and president of Cary Out Productions, and Jana Herzen, president of Motema Records, opened the three-story, 138-year-old brownstone's doors to new events and possibilities.

The street-level — the living and dining rooms and kitchen when Hughes lived in the house — has been redesigned into an intimate performance parlor with seating and standing space for about 60. It has a $150,000 Fazioli piano, and at the rear of the space, a glass case displays Hughes' books, which visitors can buy.

Up the staircase, past walls adorned with Hughes memorabilia, where Hughes' surrogate parents, "Uncle" Emerson and "Aunt" Toy Harper, once slept, are recording studios for jazz and hip-hop and other projects.

Motema Records occupies Hughes' old third-floor workroom. "June, Jazz and Cognac at Hughes House," a festival of Motema artists, took place last month.

Until recently, the Hughes House Youth Ensemble was playing every Sunday afternoon, organizers said, although scheduled events at the house can be erratic.

There's an open mike night twice a month hosted by poet La Bruja and talk of a film series and camera installations to stream events live on the Internet.

"It's very inspirational," Miller said of working in the house. "The creative energy and spirit that runs through here, it's the X factor."

Miller, who said he first learned about the Harlem Renaissance and its most famous writer in the sixth grade in Connecticut, was inspired by the 1920s cultural movement to start writing.

Last year, Miller and Cary, who both live in Harlem, began collaborating. They started searching for studio space. They were shooting a video for a song called "A Dream Deferred," which borrows from Hughes' poem "Harlem," when Miller got a call to check out a potential space.

"This place was just beat down," Miller recalled. But he was stunned when he looked at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission plaque on the front exterior and saw that the home was once owned by Hughes. The building received landmark status in 1981.

Miller said he signed a five-year lease with the current owner, Dr. Beverly Prince Davis, who has owned the house since 1999.

Emerson Harper bought the house in 1947, likely with royalties Hughes received for writing the lyrics to the Kurt Weill Broadway musical "Street Scene," according to Rampersad and property records. Harper's and Hughes' names appeared on the deed, records show.

These days, the muffled sounds of jazz again can be heard wafting from the Italianate-style brownstone, just as it could during Hughes' time. At that time, the music usually came from "Uncle" Emerson's piano.

During the last week of July of 1948, the three moved into the brownstone from the Harpers' Harlem apartment. Hughes was 46. By fall, they began taking in roomers — a student photographer, an art professor, a bus driver — in hopes of having the property pay for itself, according to Rampersad's "The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941-1967."

Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., but lived with his grandmother in Kansas and later with his mother and stepfather in Ohio, where he graduated from high school. He loved Harlem from the moment he set eyes on it in 1921, when he arrived in the city to attend Columbia University. (He eventually graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.) It was around this time that he wrote one of his most famous poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers":

I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world

and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. ...

u u

The doorbell at 20 E. 127th St. rang regularly. Poets, writers and others from around the world, particularly Africa, dropped by, often unannounced, to ask a favor, propose a collaboration or simply have a good time.

Hughes, who was 5 feet and 4 inches, loved children. He kept a 6-square-foot garden near the front steps of the brownstone of nasturtiums, asters and marigolds. He called it "Our Block's Children's Garden" and gave neighborhood children responsibility for watering and weeding.

The garden is gone but the Boston Ivy planted at Hughes' request still covers the house for several months of the year.

"He loved children and he liked the idea of being around neighborhood children and their respect and affection for him," Rampersad said in an interview from California, adding that Hughes often sat to read in Harlem's public library — in the children's section.

"Hughes would never dream of leaving. It was impossible."

From 1925 until he died in 1967 following surgery for an enlarged prostate, Hughes was able to live on his writing, though not always lavishly.

But his move to the Harlem brownstone seemed to have ignited a "burst of creative activity," Rampersad said.

It was there that he completed some of his best-known work, including the book-length poem "Montage of a Dream Deferred"; an autobiography, "I Wonder as I Wander"; and countless Chicago Defender newspaper columns.

He usually rose around noon, wrote letters, read mail, attended appointments later in the day. He wrote until about dawn, and as most people were awaking, Hughes was on his way to sleep.

Shon Miller estimates the group has spent a combined $80,000 on renovations, with more needed.

The sounds of change — concrete mixers and hammers — are everywhere in Harlem, where one can barely take a few steps without seeing a brownstone under renovation or a million dollar luxury condo rising.

Miller and his partners are optimistic their plans for the Hughes House will pan out and fit whatever shape the famous neighborhood takes.

They boast they can "create, market and perform" whole projects beneath the same roof where Hughes toiled for years.

"It's one thing to have the proper equipment," Miller said. "It's another when there's a certain feeling, vibe and history and it adds to the creative spirit. I think everyone has felt it."

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