Monday, February 19, 2007

A Harlem Landmark in All but Name

This article was in the NY Times this weekend. It explains the history of the Renaissance Theatre and Casino, a property very near our beloved St. Nicholas Park.

Original Article Here

THE two-story Renaissance Theater and Casino on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard is architecturally unassuming but particularly significant, because unlike most of Harlem, it was built by blacks, not whites.

But last week, the Abyssinian Development Corporation — whose 10-year-old plans to build apartments and restore the casino structure recently took on new urgency — successfully defeated landmark designation, which would have created intolerable delays, it said.

Sheena Wright, the chief executive of the nonprofit development company, which is associated with the Abyssinian Baptist Church, contended that landmark designation would “basically kill the project.”

The blocklong Renaissance complex dates to 1920. That’s when William H. Roach, an immigrant from Montserrat who owned a housecleaning service, bought the northeast corner of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue, now known as Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.

Property records are not explicit, but it appears that Mr. Roach, working chiefly in partnership with his countryman Joseph H. Sweeney and an Antiguan named Cleophus Charity, built the Renaissance Theater there in 1921.

Two years later, the partners added the Renaissance Casino, with a second-floor ballroom, at the 138th Street corner of the block.

The 900-seat theater first showed silent movies, apparently with stage acts, but was soon converted to talkies. The casino was used for public meetings, like a 1923 anti-lynching meeting held by the N.A.A.C.P., and it was also the home court of the Harlem Renaissance Big-Five, the black professional basketball team known as the Harlem Rens.

The architect for the complex, Harry Creighton Ingalls, designed a deceptively simple work in tile and brick, “inspired by the Islamic architecture of North Africa,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The casino, at the north end, is slightly higher, with a second floor of large windows and an attic level of openings alternating with patterned squares of colored tiles. It is a sophisticated but rather mild work.

There is no evidence that the Renaissance complex was meant to be anything but a simple business venture, but perhaps that was the point. According to Michael Henry Adams, the Harlem historian, articles in The New York Amsterdam News indicate that Mr. Roach and other principals were followers of Marcus Garvey, who promoted black self-sufficiency and business enterprise.

In his book “When Harlem Was in Vogue” (Oxford, 1989), David Levering Lewis describes the Renaissance as one of the places where “the cream of Harlem would unlimber with the Charleston and Black Bottom.”

The Renaissance closed in 1979, and the Abyssinian Development Corporation bought it in 1991.

Four years later, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of the church, told The New York Times that he expected to start the restoration of the ballroom by the end of 1995. “People have got to have a place to laugh, sing and dance,” he said.

The Abyssinian Development Corporation’s plans did not come together until last year, but for them to go forward, it had to get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to retract a proposal, dating to 1991, to designate the Renaissance complex a landmark.

The development corporation’s plans involve replacing the Renaissance Theater with a 13-story apartment house but saving the exterior of the northern part of the complex. This would be incorporated into a larger performance, ballroom and community space reaching all the way back to the church, to the east on 138th Street. The old Y.W.C.A. building between the two would be replaced.

Abyssinian has secured important backers: David N. Dinkins, the former mayor; Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president; and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, one of the city’s major preservation organizations.

The conservancy has endorsed the demolition of only the theater portion, but it is rare to have a preservation organization speak against any landmark proposal.

For now, the Renaissance complex has the aspect of a romantic ruin. Perhaps half the tiles have fallen off, and the words “Chop Suey” are just visible on an old Chinese restaurant marquee projecting from the theater building.

The soft tapestry-brick facade is so wet that fields of moss are growing straight up, like spring grass on the prairie.

As the Renaissance project moves forward, no one has spoken up for the little Y.W.C.A. building on 138th Street, even though the shifting colors of its brick — orange, rust, yellow and purple — seem to warble like a bird’s song.

Built in 1931 and designed by Joannes & Marlow, it is a perfect little gem of side-street architecture, all the more so because there is little in Harlem like it.

The lower section, with its faceted bays weaving in and out, shows a clear awareness of German and Dutch Expressionist architecture. The parapet is a double row of bricks set in soldier courses, with the long side oriented up and down. The bricks are laid on intermittent, undulating mounds, and thus look like a marching column going up and down a hilly landscape.

This is the one building whose demolition was never in doubt.


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