Ceremony Honors Man Who Wanted to Turn His Historic Home Into a Gallery
HARLEM — Frank Hall never spent a single night in the landmarked Harlem townhouse on Strivers' Row that he purchased in 2011 and was planning to use as his home, an art gallery and salon.
"That was his dream. It was going to be the Frank Hall Institute of Art, a private salon where he would host people who loved the arts," said his longtime friend Warner Wada, a photography professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
The 1891 townhouse, once owned by Will Marion Cook, the most prominent African-American composer and musician of his time, was to be the next to last stop for Hall's collection of African art, Moroccan tapestries, rare Bedouin feast plates and 13,500 architectural postcards from the United States and the Middle East.
Even after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, Hall would visit the townhouse on 138th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and check on the renovations, even moving some of his 1,000 African statues to the space. He swept the stoop and made small talk with neighbors.
But every night Hall would head back to the one-bedroom apartment on 61st Street that was bursting at the seams with his collections, the same one he had moved into the week President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Hall succumbed to the cancer on Feb. 3. Now, as Hall's family executes his will, including the sale of his beloved townhouse, some of his dreams are coming true.
The British Museum has agreed to accept 350 of Hall's Middle Eastern architectural postcards, including some from the Syrian city of Aleppo, which was badly damaged during the recent conflict.
There are talks with the Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding his Bedouin plates, which are no longer handmade in rural Syria, said Wada.
On Nov. 17, another of Hall's close friends and the executor of his estate, Carl McCaskill, 60, chief branding officer for the Soul of the South Network, will host a memorial ceremony at the townhouse, fulfilling Hall's final wish that his planned new home be a place for the discussion of art and culture.
"He wanted to live here and be a part of Harlem," said McCaskill, who owns a landmarked townhouse on 139th Street. "I'm trying to create this legacy for my friend and let his friends and family experience the house the way it was meant to be experienced."
Hall, a lifelong bachelor, was born to an affluent family in the suburbs of Detroit. His father made his wealth in the automobile industry and sent his son to study at the University of Detroit. Hall also spent time in Greece apprenticing under an architect there.
He moved to New York in the 1960s and worked for various architectural firms while teaching at the College of Staten Island. Some of the most significant work of Hall's career came helping to restore historic homes in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.
Soon, Hall would turn most of his time to collecting art. He had already traveled through the Middle East amassing hundreds of textiles. Wada said Hall had also collected 14,000 architectural postcards, including some rare ones from places such as Syria, Lebanon and Israel. And then he fell in love with African art.
"When I first met him he only had one African mask and he had brought it on Third Avenue, which had a lot of antique stores back then," said Wada.
Now, the townhouse on 138th Street is filled with African artifacts that workmen getting the house ready for sale work around.
"I feel his presence here. He loved this house," said Diane Kolde, 53, a comptroller and Hall's second cousin and goddaughter who recalls him buying her an Italian oil painting for her sixth birthday.
For almost 20 years, friends and family say, Hall searched for a house to hold and display his growing collections. Upstate New York and the Detroit area were options, but when Hall found the Strivers' Row townhouse, he fell in love.
"He was thrilled. He called me up and told me to look up this house on the computer," Kolde said. "That it was historically significant made it even better."
Hall paid $1.5 million for the house and it's now on the market for $2.5 million, according to listing agent Tony Johnson, a real estate attorney with offices in the South Bronx.
"This house has the kind of spirit that people would be attracted to when they think of Harlem," Johnson said. "It has over 100 years of history and the historical value of art and culture."
No one is sure why Hall chose not to sleep in the house. It was habitable with heat, water, electricity and a working bathroom.
Some family members think it was the noise and the dust of the ongoing renovations that kept Hall from being at least an overnight guest in his own home while others believe Hall grew too sick to climb the brownstone's three stories.
McCaskill and Wada say Hall was a bit of a perfectionist and didn't want to move in until his collection of "old friends," as he called them, were moved to their new home.
Pat Gardner, Frank's cousin, who says they were as close as brother and sister, stood on the steps of the townhouse recently and held back tears as she reminisced about Hall. The artist said she and her family traveled from California and Michigan to see the townhouse.
With its central staircase, stained glass windows and large rooms, the house was even more beautiful than in the pictures. They decided to sleep there overnight, but had to leave when the dust began to get to them.
"That saddest part is that he never slept here," said Gardner. "That's why we slept here for him."