In the late 19th and early 20th century, all over America, low rise entertainment complexes equipped with theatres, restaurants, meeting rooms and dance halls arose. One of Harlem’s most famous, the Renaissance Casino, provided the backdrop for the area’s most elegant dances and exciting sporting and political events. By the 1990s it had so deteriorated that it was used as a setting for Spike Lee’s crack den from hell in the movie Jungle Fever. But just before this occurred, it had been identified as one of a ‘list of 25’ buildings which the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission determined should represent their “opening salvo” in providing Harlem with landmarks protection equal to that of the rest of Manhattan.
Three weeks ago today, on Tuesday, January 9th, an unprecedented delegation of Harlem residents descended on the Landmark Preservation Commission. The reason for this well-connected group which was headed by the prominent attorney Gordon Davis who formerly served as NYC Parks Commissioner and which included the Rev. Calvin O. Butts in his role as founder of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, David Dinkins, former mayor, City Council member Inez Dickens and at least a dozen others as well as letters of support for non-designation from the Borough President Stringer, former Borough President C Virginia Fields, Columbia Planning Dept., and UMEZ, was most unusual. In a neighborhood where some have complained that relatively few buildings have been protected and recognized as city landmarks, especially compared to more prosperous neighborhoods downtown, they demanded that the Renaissance Casino should not be designated as a landmark under any circumstances.
Extending along Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. from W. 137th Street to the southeast corner of West 138th Street, the Renaissance was built in two stages. The theater of the two-story structure to the south was completed in 1922 while the ballroom built atop a billiard parlor, shops and a Chinese restaurant was completed two years later. Designed by notable theater architect, Harry Creighton Ingalls, the Renaissance Casino and ballroom is a subtly distinguished work most notable for its frieze of polychrome Hispano Moresque style glazed tiles. Quite apart from the architectural niceties, however, the true significance of the complex lies in its remarkable history.
In Harlem, where African Americans first moved in great numbers over 100 years ago at the beginning of the last century, there were very few opportunities to erect new buildings. By the end of the 1890s most building lots had already been covered by handsome row houses, complementary apartment buildings, and an array of distinctive houses of worship. Built by a partnership of African American businessmen, members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association which urged African Americans to support Black owned businesses, the Renaissance was unique.
It had been forecast as early as 1918 when the real estate and business guide published plans for an astonishing, ambitious million dollar “new Negro social center”. This plan called for a massive building designed by Arne Delhi that was to include a roof garden, restaurant, banquet hall, bank, dance hall, barber shop, Turkish bath and a 150’ by 60’ swimming pool. When the Van Astor Company, Inc., presided over by William H. Butler, was unable to realize this elaborate scheme by 1919, a new project took shape. This was Mamie Smith’s open air dance hall designed by pioneering black architect Vertner Tandy. Covered by a colorful canvas canopy this structure at night was described as appearing like a gigantic lampshade.
Like Garvey, the builders of the Renaissance were immigrants to New York from the Caribbean. William H. Roach, who ran a real estate business, was born in Antigua. His partners Cleophus Charity, the president of the Renaissance, and Joseph H. Sweeney, the treasurer, were from Montserrat.
If 1920s Harlem had come to be regarded as something of a Black Mecca (a contemporary described it, “our own black city as big as Rome”), the Renaissance fulfilled a ready demand for a venue appropriate for hosting mass meetings, sporting events and organizational dance. From the start it was a setting for all of “Harlem’s most important parties,” recalls 97 year old, Isabelle Washington Powell, who reminiscences “all the best dances were at the Renaissance•the Comos, which had been a club in Brooklyn for over 100 years, even they had their parties there. So did the Urban League, the NAACP, the Girlfriends, the Debutantes•that group was founded by Leila Walker, the Guardsman and the Gay Northeasterners.” In addition to the groups that Mrs. Powell remembers, the Renaissance also hosted innumerable dances sponsored by the much smaller social groups playing a ubiquitous role in African American social life during the first half of the 20th century. Among the sporting events held here which included bicycle races, marathon dances and prize fights, the most famous undoubtedly were those of Harlem Renaissance basketball team which played exhibition games on the dance floor using portable hoops. America’s first African-American professional basketball team, the Renns as they were popularly known, were virtually undefeated over a 40-year history in contests with other famous African American teams, like Chicago’s Harlem Globetrotters, as well as much rarer matches with white teams.
Private parties were another feature of the Renaissance. Among the countless wedding receptions held here was that of Joyce and David Dinkins, a half century ago • making former mayor Dinkins’ recent testimony imploring that the Renaissance not be land- marked all the more poignant. One wonders if he realizes how disillusioning it was for the black creators of this wonderful building to be foreclosed during the Great Depression and see their dream taken over by whites? Within a matter of days, the new owners dismissed the African American workers, projectionists and ticket takers, and replaced them with an all-white staff. And, while the Renaissance continued to be a venue for jazz greats like Fletcher Henderson, Cootie Williams, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, something definitely had been lost at the “Renny”. For Joseph Sweeney this loss was so great that within weeks of losing control of the Renaissance, he went home to his dwelling on 136th St., locked himself in, and turned on the jets of his gas stove. His funeral, presided over by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Just four years ago, Harlem’s Community Board 10 passed a unanimous resolution that was dispatched to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It urged that on an emergency basis ten local landmarks be designated immediately. Included were Thomas Lamb’s Victoria Theatre, Small’s Paradise nightclub building, the Blumstein’s department store, the Eisenbaum building, the Lee Brothers building, the Hotel Olga (Harlem’s leading black owned hotel from the 1920s to 1937 until Hotel Theresa finally admitted blacks), the Marion Building, the Harlem YWCA buildings, the Harlem Hospital Nurses and Administrative building and the Renaissance Casino. Just one month ago, the Eisenbaum building was demolished. Additional plans are now afoot that would see the Harlem Hospital building and the YWCA buildings destroyed, as well. As for Small’s paradise, it formed the centre of a controversy when Abyssinia Development Corporation gutted the old night club and replaced it with an International House of Pancake while building a 4-story public high school atop the original 1920s two story building.
The proposal for the Renaissance Casino site offered by the Abyssinian Development Corporation is similar to that carried out for the former Small’s Paradise. Retaining the external walls of the Renaissance complex, a 14-story steel and glass luxury apartment tower designed by J. Max Bond of Davis, Brody, Bond & Associates would be erected over the theater portion. For good measure, in order to expose the side wall of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Harlem YWCA Trade School Building designed in 1933 by the Modernist architect Francis Y Johannes would be razed. If the Renaissance Casino is one of Harlem’s most signifigant Renaissance era landmarks then so too are the three Harlem YWCA buildings which over the years have played host to and trained such luminaries as Zora Neale Huston, Lena Horne, Mary McCloud Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurmond.
As Mrs. Powell recalls, “the cafeteria at the Y was the most popular lunch spot in Harlem. “Everyone went there, honey, even Adam and me, because you could get a good meal without having to pay a lot of money”.
Ironically this plan which would so diminish the Renaissance Casino Ballroom and Theater is also directly analogous to another proposal that was put before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday, January 9th, as well. This plan calls for the creation of a steel and glass tower built over the Parke Bernet Galleries building at 980 Madison Avenue.
Like the Renaissance Casino, the Galleries is a low masonry structure but unlike Harlem, Eastside residents came out in great numbers to denounce what they regarded as a sacrilege. Everyone from Tom Wolfe, the author, to representatives of the City’s leading preservation organizations considered Sir Norman Foster’s modernist tower as an inappropriate intervention for an undisputed landmark. Amongst the surprises of Tuesday, January 9th, was the testimony of some of these same representatives of the city’s foremost preservation groups concerning the Renaissance. Having reviled the tower proposed to surmount the Parke Bernet building, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Historic Districts Council endorsed the tower proposed for Harlem, recommending that only the Northern portion of the complex be landmarked so that the theatre section can provide a base for the new 17-storey luxury apartment tower.