Renaissance Theatre

2343 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard,
New York, NY 10030

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Renaissance Theatre

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Opened as a combined vaudeville and motion picture theatre in c.1920, its location is on the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 137th Street. It was also known as the Renaissance Casino Theatre as it formed part of the Renaissance Casino complex which took up the entire block between 137th & 138th Streets. It consisted of the theatre on the 137th Street corner and a ballroom at the 138th Street corner.

The Renaissance Theatre was the first black controlled theatre in New York (the manager in 1921 was William C. Roach who was African-American) and it is listed in Film Daily Yearbooks 1930-1933 and 1940-1955 as being a “Negro theater” catering to African-American audiences.

It had disappeared from listings in F.D.Y. by the mid-1950’s but could have continued as a movie theatre until c.1975. In 2006, the building was derelict, unused and decaying rapidly. It was subsequently demolished.

Contributed by KenRoe

Recent comments (view all 16 comments)

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on June 19, 2006 at 3:45 am

Thank you, KenRoe.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on June 19, 2006 at 4:15 am

Here’s a vintage street scene that shows the building in the background: www.i8.photobucket.com/albums/a18/Warrengwhiz/harlemrenn.jpg

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on June 19, 2006 at 5:49 pm

I have been to re-visit the former Renaissance Theatre again today. I can now confirm that the former Renaissance Ballroom is still extant (as mentioned by EdSolero on his June 17th posting) and the two seperate buildings are divided by a narrow alley. Both buildings are still in a poor condition and boarded up. In my posting of 7th May, I stated that the Renaissance Ballroom has been demolished (which is incorrect) and I apologies.

LostMemory; The photograph of the Renaissance Ballroom you posted a link to on your first posting on 7th May 2006 was a view looking down 138th Street from the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard(Seventh Avenue), which in my May 7th posting ,I mistakenly thought was a view along Seventh Avenue (again please accept my apologies). I took a photo today from the same position and will post it here soon, together with several more current views of the buildings.

Lotus123
Lotus123 on February 7, 2007 at 5:30 pm

Renaissance Theater and Casino – What is a Casino?

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 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
Renaissanceâ€"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
Debutantesâ€"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 â€" 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
luxury tower.

Michael Henry Adams

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on February 17, 2007 at 5:27 pm

This article appears in the Real Estate section of the Sunday NY Times and discusses some of the history of the Renaissance Theater and Casino as well as the plans to restore the Ballroom as a community center while demolishing the theater portion in favor of a new apartment tower.

The article follows up nicely on Michael Henry Adams' post of Feb 7th regarding the NYLC recommendation that only the Northern portion of the complex be landmarked in order to facilitate the redevelopment. In fact, the owners of the site, The Abyssinian Development Corp, have defeated landmark designation entirely. Even without LPC protection, the Development Corp states that while its plans call for the demolition of the theater building, it will save the exterior of the Casino and incorporate it “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.”

The article includes a vintage photo of the Casino and a present-day view. Alas, the theater portion is not depicted at all.

Yves Marchand
Yves Marchand on November 22, 2007 at 2:08 pm

We visited the buildings two weeks ago and the already gutted theater was being demolished. The ballroom is in really advanced state of decay and almost nothing remains from the original architecture inside.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on February 19, 2010 at 8:24 pm

That article Ed Solero linked on February 17, 2007 says this closed in 1979. Is it possible it was still showing movies then?

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on September 5, 2011 at 7:53 pm

For Colored people…

http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/RenaissanceTheatre.html

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on September 6, 2011 at 7:52 am

Wow. Built by “colored money.” That clipping is a little time-capsule, eh?

iatse311
iatse311 on June 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/view/search?QuickSearchA=QuickSearchA&q=+Renaissance+Theatre&search=Search

Vintage pic

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