The music store now known as Casa Amadeo opened as Casa Hernán­dez in the Bronx, New York, just pri­or to the large post-World War II Puer­to Rican migra­tion to New York City. When the Unit­ed States direct­ed all its invest­ment in Puer­to Rico’s sug­ar sec­tor, the divest­ment in Puer­to Rico’s labor-inten­sive cof­fee and tobac­co sec­tors left many work­ers unem­ployed. Between 1950 and 1960, 500,000 indi­vid­u­als (about 20% of Puer­to Rico’s pop­u­la­tion) migrat­ed off the island. The pri­ma­ry des­ti­na­tion was New York due to exist­ing ship­ping routes, and lat­er, the fre­quent air trav­el that oper­at­ed between San Juan and New York. Ear­li­er, East Harlem had become New York’s largest Puer­to Rican com­mu­ni­ty by the 1930s. El Bar­rio (the neigh­bor­hood) as it came to be known, was usu­al­ly the first stop for migrants arriv­ing from the island. By the late 1940s and ear­ly 1950s many Puer­to Ricans moved north­ward to the south­ern por­tion of the Bronx, rel­a­tive­ly close to el Bar­rio and made acces­si­ble by the many sub­way lines that tra­versed it. Soon the South Bronx was to become the largest Puer­to Rican com­mu­ni­ty in the city.

Cur­rent store­front of Casa Amadeo. Pho­to­graph by Kathy Howe, cour­tesy of New York Office of Parks, Recre­ation and His­toric Preservation

Against this back­drop, the sto­ry of Casa Amadeo begins in East Harlem. Vic­to­ria and Rafael Hernán­dez migrat­ed to New York City and were to become key play­ers in the bur­geon­ing Latin music scene. Born in Aguadil­la to poor Afro-Puer­to Rican tobac­co work­ers, Rafael, Vic­to­ria and their broth­er Jesús all became accom­plished musi­cians. Rafael became part of James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry “Hell­fight­ers” mil­i­tary band (the famous African-Amer­i­can reg­i­men­tal band that toured through­out Europe and is cred­it­ed with intro­duc­ing jazz there). In 1919, he, Vic­to­ria, and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers moved to New York City. In 1927, Vic­to­ria opened Almacenes Hernán­dez, pos­si­bly the first Puer­to Rican-owned music store in New York City. Locat­ed on 1724 Madi­son Avenue between 113th and 114th St., the store sup­port­ed her fam­i­ly and gave Rafael time to write music–he would become one of the most pro­lif­ic and well-known com­posers in Latin Amer­i­ca. In Novem­ber 1939 Vic­to­ria and Rafael sold Almacenes Hernán­dez to Luis Cuevas, a record pro­duc­er from Puer­to Rico. In 1941, they opened their sec­ond music store, Casa Hernán­dez, in the Bronx at 786 Prospect Avenue. The store­front is locat­ed in a ground floor com­mer­cial space in the Man­hanset apart­ment build­ing, where Vic­to­ria resided and where Rafael stayed when he was liv­ing in New York City. Vic­to­ria gave piano lessons to bud­ding musi­cians in the neigh­bor­hood. Rafael, though he moved to Mex­i­co, spent peri­ods of time resid­ing at the Man­hanset with his sis­ter, so the store con­tin­ued to be a gath­er­ing place for musicians.

Music stores were inte­gral ele­ments of the bur­geon­ing Latin music scene in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, con­tin­u­ing through the 1950s “mam­bo era” and the lat­er devel­op­ment of sal­sa. Musi­cians went to the record stores look­ing for orches­tras and con­jun­tos (musi­cal groups) that were in need of instru­men­tal­ists. Music stores such as Casa Amadeo also became gath­er­ing places for musi­cians, know­ing they could find work either from record com­pa­nies look­ing for ses­sion play­ers or from band­lead­ers look­ing for instru­men­tal­ists. The major record com­pa­nies, such as Vic­tor and Colum­bia, depend­ed on store own­ers to act as “mid­dle­men” in obtain­ing musi­cians for record­ings and to gauge the com­mu­ni­ty’s musi­cal tastes as to what might sell: and some record stores pro­duced records right on the premis­es. To help ease the dif­fi­cul­ties of being trans­plant­ed from Puer­to Rico, record stores, along with insti­tu­tions such as home­town social clubs, were places where new migrants flocked to hear and buy the sounds of home. In today’s world of imper­son­al mega-music stores, Casa Amadeo retains many of the orig­i­nal fea­tures from its hum­ble begin­nings and con­tin­ues in the tra­di­tion of pro­vid­ing music for the com­mu­ni­ty, act­ing as an unof­fi­cial “archive” for musi­cians search­ing for the best selec­tions of songs for their albums, and pro­vid­ing a gath­er­ing place for musi­cians and fans from around the city. Casa Amadeo is one of the few phys­i­cal­ly intact spaces that remains rep­re­sent­ing the hey­day of the Bronx Latin music scene.

Inte­ri­or of Casa Amadeo today.
Pho­to­graph by Kathy Howe, cour­tesy of New York Office of Parks, Recre­ation and His­toric Preservation

Archi­tec­tural­ly, the Man­hanset Build­ing in which Casa Amadeo is locat­ed is a sig­nif­i­cant rep­re­sen­ta­tive exam­ple of ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial archi­tec­ture in New York City. Built in 1905, the Man­hanset is notable as an exam­ple of Neo-Renais­sance style archi­tec­ture. The design of the build­ing reflects a pre­dom­i­nant use of Renais­sance forms and details includ­ing a rus­ti­cat­ed stone base at the first and sec­ond sto­ries, accen­tu­at­ed main entrance porch with Corinthi­an columns, three-dimen­sion­al stone carv­ing, and promi­nent sheet met­al cor­nice with paired scroll brack­ets. The pop­u­lar­i­ty of this style was influ­enced by the prin­ci­ples of the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the archi­tec­ture of the 1893 World’s Colom­bian Expo­si­tion in Chicago.

Casa Amadeo is sig­nif­i­cant because it embod­ies the his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of Latin music in New York City and its role in the Puer­to Rican migra­tion expe­ri­ence. Vic­to­ria Hernán­dez, the store’s founder and sis­ter of one of Latin Amer­i­ca’s great­est com­posers, Rafael Hernán­dez, sold the store in 1969 to musi­cian and com­pos­er Mike Amadeo, the son of pop­u­lar Puer­to Rican com­pos­er Titi Amadeo. The store is rec­og­nized by musi­cians and music his­to­ri­ans as a site sig­nif­i­cant in the his­to­ry of Latin music in the City: and as the old­est Latin music store in New York City, Casa Amadeo’s sto­ry is a micro­cosm of the Puer­to Rican expe­ri­ence in New York.