The Louis Armstrong Center is Open!

Things have been a little quiet over here on our “That’s My Home” site but they’ve been anything but over in Corona, Queens: on July 6, 2023, the Louis Armstrong Center opened for business right across the street from the Louis Armstrong House Museum!

A week earlier, we held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new space–here’s a highlight reel in case you missed it:

Publicity for the Armstrong Center and its new “Here to Stay” exhibit curated by Jason Moran has been spectacular; you can learn more about it through pieces on CBS Sunday Morning, WNYC radio, the Gothamist, NPR, and many other outlets.

But for our “That’s My Home” purposes, we thought it might interesting to discuss how exactly we got here, because this was far from an overnight process. In fact, opening on July 6, 2023 was poetic in a way; Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971 and one can argue that the plans for the Armstrong Center began in some fashion soon after that date.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a photo of a group of Corona neighborhood kids holding signs on the day of Louis’s funeral:

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Check out the fourth sign to the right: “ELMCOR Will Not Forget Our Louie. Louis Armstrong Memorial Building for the Performing Arts Will Be Built in Corona.”

In fact, all the signs in that photo are quite touching (all also reference “Louie”; one young woman from the neighborhood, Denise Pease, recently told the staff the Armstrong himself implored the kids to call him “Uncle Louie,” taking some of the steam of the claims that continue to spread around that he “did not like” being called “Louie”). They also all reference ELMCOR–more on that in a moment.

On August 20, Lucille Armstrong held her first news conference after her husband’s passing–here’s a clipping about it:

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If you can’t make it out, Lucille said of their home in Corona, “It has so many beautiful memories, 28 years of happiness. It was the only home he’d owned. He used to say it was the home he had dreamed about in the Waifs Home in New Orleans. All of Louis’ things are there. I’m going to keep them there. Eventually I’ll probably give it to the city as a memorial to Louis. We had planned to do that. People can start coming to see the place where Louis lived.”

Lucille would indeed live the house to the City of New York and beginning in 2003, people from around the world did indeed “start coming to see the place where Louis lived.” But the idea of a “memorial museum” or sorts did not pick up steam until 1972, when Lucille got heavily involved in ELMCOR thanks to the involvement of Al Cobette. Cobette’s brother, Ferdinand, was in the Colored Waif’s Home with Louis back in New Orleans, which helped Louis endear himself to Al, who was 17-years-younger. Cobette regularly visited Armstrong in Corona, appearing on some of his reel-to-reel tapes in the 1950s. Cobette also dabbled as a trumpeter and was the recipient of the EMO World trumpet Louis played between 1954 and 1954. Here’s a photo of Louis and Al together:

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After Louis passed away, a private “Louis Armstrong Memorial” meeting took place on November 12, 1971, attended by many dignitaries, including Congressman Benjamin S. Rosenthal, with Cobette there as Lucille’s representative. Plans were made to raise $1.8 million for the “first multicultural arts and recreation center in a black community,” according to this March 19, 1972 New York Daily News article:

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As related in the above article, the project would be done in conjunction with ELMCOR Youth and Adult Activities, Inc. (the name came from the combination of East Elmhurst and Corona). ELMCOR was formed in 1965, initially “to service this community in the area of Little League Baseball,” according to a 1972 document prepared by the organization. “Today, seven (7) years alter, our activities include: Little League Baseball, City-Wide Summer Basketball, Biddy Basketball, Pop Warner Football, Modern Dance, Ballet, Piano and Guitar Lessons, Yoga, Narcotic Information, Consultation, Referral, and Treatment Unit, a comprehensive educational and tutorial program, and musical education.”

Cobette and Lucille Armstrong teamed with ELMCOR to begin planning the first Louis Armstrong Memorial Concert at Lincoln Center on June 4, 1972. A special program was printed to promote the concert; here is a page with more information on the organization, along with a photo of Jeffrion Aubry, a crucial part of the story who has served as an Assemblyman since 1992:

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Here’s the cover of this particular program:

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Lucille Armstrong offered a statement for the occasion, opening with, “One of the desires of the late Daniel Louis Armstrong was the construction of a cultural center where he could settle down from the arduous toils of his travels to teach his art to the young and underprivileged children of his neighborhood and to see the Center grow in stature so that all children could partake of its programs. This desire, which he confided to friends, stemmed from the fact that [he] was once underprivileged. Louie felt that since he was taught the rudiments of art in a New Orleans Orphanage, he wanted all underprivileged youngsters to have a start in their chosen professions in life.”

Here’s Lucille’s complete statement, along with more information about ELMCOR and more photos with Cobette:

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To promote the concert, Lucille and Cobette appeared on NBC’s Positively Black television show on May 21, 1972, hosted by Gus Heningberg. Audio was sent to Lucille and it’s worth sharing in full as it is an almost entirely Queens-centric conversation, with more information about ELMCOR and Louis’s love of Corona:

Lucille Armstrong and Al Cobette on Positively Black May 21, 1972
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The Memorial Concert was a success and Lucille started feeling confident that the plans for the “Memorial Cultural Center” would come to fruition thanks to the efforts of ELMCOR. In January 1973, one newspaper ran the following headline:

As stated in the article, “To perpetuate his memory, [Lucille] plans to create a museum with her husband’s memorabilia–his trumpet, music manuscripts, records, photos, and keys to many cities.”

On July 4, 1973, Lucille was in attendance for a special concert that served to rename the nearby Singer Bowl as “Louis Armstrong Stadium.” “The proceeds from yesterday will help finance the building of the Louis Armstrong Arts and Culture Center at 108th St. and Northern Blvd.,” the New York Daily News reported.

While touring Europe in 1974, Lucille was interviewed by the BBC while passing through London. Asked about Louis’s “archival materials” in the following clip, Lucille talked about their home, the need to preserve Louis’s scrapbooks, and finally, how she’s “setting up a memorial museum of all of Louie’s things”:

Lucille Armstrong, Excerpt of BBC interview, 1974

ELMCOR continued sponsoring annual Louis Armstrong Memorial Concerts and eventually set up a tax-exempt non-profit, “LAMP,” for the Louis Armstrong Memorial Project. Properties were purchased on Northern Boulevard in Corona and even a rendering was made of what the future space could like like:

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By 1975, ELMCOR’s Ottley Brownhill was posing with a model of the proposed Armstrong Center, telling the New York Daily News about the struggle for funding:

The full story of what happened next would require an in-depth investigation through our Archives, but in short, Al Cobette and Allan McMillan, another of Louis’s old friends who wrote for the Black press, were removed (or resigned) from the LAMP project. We also have a handwritten note from Lucille, angry that the organization was losing money and she wasn’t being given any reports. Very little survives about the Louis Armstrong Memorial Project in the late 1970s, but suddenly, it was resuscitated thanks to the efforts of two major players in the history of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the aforementioned Jeffrion Aubry and Helen Marshall.

The following New York Daily News article from February 15, 1980 broke the news that the Board of Estimate had approved $1.7 million in funds for the “first building” of the Louis Armstrong Memorial Project. “The first phase of the project will be a building to house a drug rehabilitation center,” the article stated after talking with Helen Marshall, “a representative of Elmcor.” Marshall promised a “a multi-purpose center where concerts and stage productions can be held” would come “down the road,” stating, “It wouldn’t be right to have a memorial to Louis Armstrong without having a center for the performing arts in it.”

A few months later, Jeffrion Aubry wrote to Lucille on June 3, 1980 to propose forming a new committee “for the raising of funds for the completion of the Louis Armstrong Memorial Project Phase II which is the cultural arts recreational complex and amphitheater.”

Unfortunately, the Board of Estimate wouldn’t greenlight the purchase of property for the “Louis Armstrong Rehabilitation Center” until October 1986–three years after the passing of Lucille Armstrong. ELMCOR finally opened the “Louis Armstrong Recreational Center” in 1989 and it still provides essential services to the Corona community, but it did not become the “Memorial Museum” Lucille originally envisioned back in the early 1970s.

At the time of her death, Lucille was in Boston, attending an annual tribute to Louis at Brandeis University. Brandeis was interested in having Lucille donate Louis’s archival materials to their campus, but Lucille died suddenly without ever putting anything in writing. After her passing, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which she and Louis formed in 1969, came together to figure out a plan for the Armstrong’s home–now a National Historic Landmark–and all of the treasures buried within. As she promised in 1971, Lucille left the home to the City of New York, who turned it over to the Department of Cultural Affairs. DCA needed an organization to step up and administer the Armstrong House–that organization would be Queens College.

Thanks to the efforts of Jimmy Heath and Howard Brofsky in the music department, and the enthusiasm of the university’s president Shirley Strum Kenny, Queens College announced the acquisition of the Armstrong House at a star-studded “For the Love of Louis” event in October 1987. Some of the luminaries in attendance were Heath, Jabbo Smith, Doc Cheatham, Jonah Jones, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, Art Farmer, Maurice Peress, Lew Soloff, Red Rodney, Cecil Bridgewater, Dexter Gordon, Ted Curson, Illinois Jacquet, Marty Napoleon, Joe Muranyi, George Avakian, and more! Here’s ten minutes of footage from the event, including most of the trumpeters joining forces on “When the Saints Go Marching In”:

In addition to the House, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation also donated all of the archival materials inside of it, which would be moved to the College’s Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, to be opened in 1988. Before it moved, NBC’s Today sent a camera crew to Corona to follow Kenny as she went through the materials in Louis’s Den:

In the summer of 1991, Queens College hired Michael Cogswell to be the Archivist of the Louis Armstrong Archives. In September of that year, Cogswell presided over a dedication ceremony for the Archives, featuring another gathering of legendary trumpeters, including Wynton Marsalis, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens, 86-year-old Doc Cheatham, and 14-year-old Nabate Isles–also, they don’t play, but look to the left for Donald Byrd and to the right of the stage for Dizzy Gillespie! Here’s “St. Louis Blues”:

After three years of arranging, preserving, and cataloging, Cogswell opened the Louis Armstrong Archives to public in May 1994. The following year, Queens College, named Cogswell as the Director of the Louis Armstrong House, tasking him with raising the funders and overseeing the restoration of the Armstrong House so it could be open to the public, fulfilling Lucille’s dream.

Cogswell did just that, opening the Louis Armstrong House Museum in October 2003. Here’s an Opening Day photo just before the ribbon-cutting featuring Cogswell, Jon Faddis, former ELMCOR employee and then-current Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, Lucille’s niece Elizabeth Rolle, David Gold and Phoebe Jacobs of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and then-Queens College President James Muyskens:

But in between, Cogswell noticed something fortuitous: directly across the street from the Armstrong House was an empty lot and in 1998, it went up for sale. Cogswell was deep into fundraising for the Armstrong House–First Lady Hillary Clinton would visit that year on behalf of the government’s Save America’s Treasures program–but he couldn’t help thinking that that empty lot could be important some day. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation ended up purchasing the lot and giving it to the Queens College Special Projects Fund, which oversees real estate on behalf of he College.

In the fall of 1999, Cogswell announced this property acquisition in an issue of the Dippermouth News members newsletter:

“Future plans for the site include a state of the art museum-educational center that will house portions of the archives and provide space for exhibits and public programs,” Cogswell wrote, putting the vision of the Louis Armstrong Center in writing 24 years before it opened. The Armstrong House was first and foremost, but Cogswell began talking about this space more and more; in its coverage of the opening of the Armstrong House, the New York Sun noted that the Foundation “bought a lot across the street from the house, which will serve as the site of a visitor’s center.”

After the House Museum opened to the public, Cogswell was able to turn his attention to the empty lot across the street. Queens College President James Muyskens and CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson successfully worked with Assemblymember Jeff Aubry–the other former ELMCOR employee–to obtain state and city capital support towards the new building. This time, Cogswell announced the news on the front cover of the Spring Dippermouth News:

The New York Daily News reported about more successful fundraising efforts in September 2006:

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With enough money raised to move forward, a nationwide search was conducted for an architect, resulting in the hiring of the husband-and-wife time of Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson in March 2007. An announcement was made in the empty lot on October 31, 2007, with the following photos taken:

Standing left to right: Judy Bergstraum (CUNY Facilities, Planning, Construction & Management), Everardo Jefferson (Architect), Jay Goldstein (DASNY), Susan Stern (CUNY Dept. of Design, Construction & Management), Sara Caples (Architect), Sun Henderson (Queens College VP for Institutional Advancement), Deslyn Dyer (LAHM Assistant Director), Jay Hershenson (St. Vice Chancellor, CUNY University Relations), James Musykens (Queens College President), Risa Honig (CUNY Dept. of Design, Construction & Management), and Michael Cogswell (LAHM Director). Seated left to right: Iris Weinhall (Vince Chancellor for Facilities, Planning, Construction & Management), Selma Heraldo (Armstrong House neighbor), and New York State Senator John Sabini.
Iris Weinhall, James Muyskens, Selma Heraldo, Jay Hershenson, and Michael Cogswell.

Here’s how the news was once again covered by the New York Daily News:

Cogswell also trumpeted the news on the cover of the Dippermouth News…unfortunately with a headline that would come to haunt him:

Needless to say, the Armstrong Center did not open in 2010. Years of delays passed by, with multiple searches conducted, a zoning variance procured, and even the need for additional funds to be raised, bringing the total to $26 million.

Cogswell was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and fought valiantly over the ensuing years, putting all of his energy into planning every detail of the new Center. With the clock running out, he managed to get the green light to hold an emotional Groundbreaking ceremony in July 2017:

The moment of truth, as Louis Armstrong House Museum Executive Director Michael Cogswell, Board Members Stephen Maitland-Lewis, Jerry Chazen and David Ostwald,  Queens College President Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, New York State Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, New York City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, jazz legend Jimmy Heath, representatives from Caples-Jefferson Architects–and more!–broke ground on Armstrong Center lot in July 2017.

One month later, Cogswell went in for surgery and never formally returned to the job, retiring in 2018. He passed away on April 20, 2020. Three months earlier, Jimmy Heath, who had been crucial in Queens College getting involved with the Armstrong House, died at the age of 93. Longtime Board Member, and eventual Chairman, Jerry Chazen tirelessly fought for the completion of the Center but he, too, passed away in January 2022 at the age of 94. By the time of Cogswell and Chazen’s passing, the world was in the middle of the Covid-19 global pandemic, which caused further delays.

But even through these sad losses, all parties involved, from the staff–now led by Executive Director Regina Bain–to Queens College to the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation to CUNY to DASNY to the architects, exhibit designers, construction workers, and everyone in between kept pushing and pushing until the sunny day on June 29 when the ribbon cutting. And like the celebrations in 1987, 1991, and 2003, Jon Faddis was present, along with an amazing assemblage of trumpeters including Bria Skonberg, Steven Bernstein, Frank Greene, Tatum Greenblatt, Kalí Rodríguez-Peña, Summer Camargo, Linda Briceño, David Adewumi, Riley Mulherkar, Danny Jonokuchi, and Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen, performing a medley of “West End Blues” and “What a Wonderful World,” with half the trumpeters on the Armstrong House upstairs terrace and the other half of the Armstrong Center balcony (with Faddis playing one of Louis’s Selmer trumpets). Here’s a video of this moment–along with a little second line playing by Calvin Johnson’s Native Son–as shot by Dominick Totino:

One week later, 52 years to the day, we made that little kid in the baseball uniform’s sign come true and opened the Louis Armstrong Center to the public! Now that you know this seemingly long but actually brief history of how we got here, visit and book your tickets to see the Armstrong House and the Armstrong Center today, just as Louis and Lucille would have wanted it.

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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