As a young girl in Portland, Ore., Renée Watson immersed herself in the words of Langston Hughes, discovering that his poems about black identity mirrored experiences in her own life. Since moving to Harlem more than a decade ago, she has often walked by his old home — a three-story brownstone on East 127th Street with cast-iron railings and overgrown ivy.
The author spent his final 20 years, and wrote some of the most notable literary works of the Harlem Renaissance, in this house. It was designated a historic landmark in 1981. Yet in recent years, the property has remained empty. A performance space opened in 2007 but closed when the tenants were evicted about a year later. In 2010, the current owner listed the house for $1 million but found no buyers.
With her neighborhood experiencing rapid gentrification, Ms. Watson, 38, an author and poet, felt that too many crucial landmarks of the Harlem Renaissance, like Mr. Hughes’s home, were disappearing or going unnoticed.
“It feels like, whether it’s intentional or not, our stories are being erased,” Ms. Watson said.
So, after a year’s worth of planning, she began to preserve the legacy of the house herself. She began a nonprofit organization, persuaded the owner to let her lease and renovate the brownstone, and started raising the money necessary to do so.
If she can successfully open Mr. Hughes’s home and maintain it as a public space, it would be a notable feat, especially in New York City, some preservationists say.
“That’s a pretty remarkable mission-driven desire to preserve a place,” said Seri Worden, senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I do think it’s rare, and it sounds like it’s working.”
In a city brimming with famous homes and buildings, there could be a historic landmark on every block. Across the five boroughs, more than36,000 properties are designated landmarks by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Mr. Hughes’s former home is one of these properties, meaning the building’s exterior cannot be altered without approval from the commission. But since the brownstone is a privately owned home, the public cannot step inside to the space where Mr. Hughes’ creativity flowed, unless a new owner or tenant decides to convert it to accommodate that use.
With rents and mortgage costs soaring in the city, a small preservation group or nonprofit group like Ms. Watson’s must often confront almost insurmountable financial obstacles in order to buy, preserve and maintain a property.
“It’s one of the greatest challenges facing historic preservation today,” said David Ehrich, a former banker who has led many efforts to preserve the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. “The cost of historic preservation is almost out of reach.”
Ms. Watson envisions using Mr. Hughes’s home as a gathering space for young artists, tied to a nonprofit she is starting for emerging writers.
In June, the homeowner agreed to lease and eventually sell the brownstone to Ms. Watson’s organization as long as its members could raise the money. Ms. Watson took to crowdfunding and raised more than $87,000, which she says is enough to cover the first six months of rent and renovation costs. She plans to sign the lease later this month.
Ms. Watson would not say how much the owner was asking for an eventual sale. Similar homes nearby have sold in the last several months for about $2 million.
Several famous New York City homes have been converted into museums — such as the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens — but many were sold or donated to the city. Other efforts have failed or stalled because of a lack of funding, resources or cooperation from the building’s owner.
Some historical preservation advocates, like Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts, emphasize the importance of a homeowner’s right to keep a home private, even if it is a historic landmark.
Moreover, many existing house museums across the country have struggledto maintain budgets and build attendances. A house museum, Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel argues, might not be the most effective way to teach the public about a historic figure.
“I care more about who did what in that building,” she said. “I care more about his ideas than his furniture.”
Ms. Watson’s efforts are still a gamble. Like any nonprofit, her collective will need to continue fund-raising in order to sustain the home, she said. They also hope to bring in additional revenue by renting out rooms to artists and authors for events and book launches.
What makes Ms. Watson’s approach unique, Ms. Worden said, is the fact that she does not simply plan to make it a house museum, but rather is creating a space for educational and creative programs.
“House museums are really challenging,” Ms. Worden said. “We do have to think bigger about some of our historic sites.”
In Queens, Bob Singleton, the executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, has tried for years to raise money to buy the Steinway Mansion, an elaborate Italianate villa once owned by the Steinway family, of the piano company.
When the house went on the market in 2011 for the first time in decades, he formed a group called Friends of Steinway Mansion, but they failed to raise enough money.
In 2014, the mansion and the surrounding lots were sold to its current owners, who bought the property as an investment. Warehouses and storage units have been built on the nearby land, but the mansion has remained vacant.
Sal Lucchese, one of the property owners, said he would “absolutely entertain” an offer to turn the mansion into a public space, but so far, Mr. Singleton’s group and others have not had the means to do so.
Beyond the financial costs, Mr. Singleton said the zoning and renovating logistics involved with converting the mansion into a community center required support from local elected officials, which he did not yet have.
“You need every component in the community on board for this,” Mr. Singleton said. “Unless you have that, everything else is moot.”
For a different group on Long Island, acquiring a historic home was just the beginning. In 2006, local advocates persuaded the Town of Huntington to buy the dilapidated home of the jazz artist John Coltrane and convert it into a museum. But largely because of a lack of funds, it has taken about a decade for the foundation in charge of the home to make progress on its renovation.
The Friends of the Coltrane Home hope to open the house to the public by late 2018, said Ron Stein, the group’s president. Yet it is still unclear how the museum will raise money to maintain itself.
“The challenge though, is not just saving the house,” Mr. Stein said. “It’s trying to find a workable, sustainable economic plan for the house.”
“It’s not a one-and-done situation.”