By Kevin McGruder and Claude Johnson
If one walks along Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard (aka Seventh Avenue) in Harlem today, they will see, for the first time in over 90 years, a vacant lot on the east side of the thoroughfare between West 137th and West 138th Streets.
The stained glassed windows on the west side of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, not seen from Seventh Avenue since the construction on that parcel of land in 1922 of the Renaissance Theatre & Ballroom, are now visible.
That historically important structure helped usher in the decade-long period of African American cultural and artistic flourishing, which at the time was known as the New Negro Movement. Those years eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance period, and while many mistakenly believe that the building was named after the era, it was in fact the other way around.
The Renaissance was one of the few social venues in Harlem designed, financed, built, owned, and operated by African Americans. Constructed by the Sarco Realty Company under the ownership of West Indian entrepreneur William Roach, the first stage of the project, which would eventually become a block-long entertainment complex that included stores and a theater, opened in 1921 at the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 137th Street. The theater hosted live orchestra performances of jazz, ragtime, and blues music, theatrical stage productions, and, of course, the latest in photo productions, or silent moving picture plays. “This theatre should appeal to your sense of racial pride,” its grand opening announcement proclaimed.
The ballroom portion of the complex opened in 1923, up the block at Seventh Avenue and West 138th Street, and immediately became popular as a hub for community events. Over the years it was the site of parties, fundraisers, assemblies, political rallies, dance marathons, wedding receptions (e.g. that of David and Joyce Dinkins in 1953), and formals. College formals held at the Renaissance Casino, in particular, were immortalized in a 1949 poem by Langston Hughes.
And, naturally, since it was a ballroom, the site hosted all kinds of balls—debutante, cotillion, masquerade, and more—which featured music by live orchestras and house bands. Among the complex’s house bands were those of notable bandleaders Vernon Andrade and Fletcher Henderson. The construction of this ballroom opened a door for another kind of ball—basketball.
Black Hoops Mecca
Harlem had become the mecca for black hoops in the early 1910s, thanks to local African American teams like the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the St. Christopher Club, which featured Paul Robeson, the New York All Stars, the New York Incorporators, the Commonwealth Big Five, and the Spartan Braves. They played for more than a decade at the Manhattan Casino, a Jewish-owned 6,000-capacity dance hall, beer garden, and picnic grounds on Eighth Avenue at West 155th Street. Locally, the Manhattan Casino was the best, the most convenient, and the most affordable basketball venue north of Madison Square Garden. Fordham University, City College of New York, and Columbia all used it regularly, and the Public School Athletic League staged its high school city championships there.
Its proprietor, a saloon entrepreneur named Eddie Waldron, was well-loved by black basketball team owners and promoters because he was consistent, reliable, and friendly, and by black Harlemites in general because The venue during the 1910s hosted iconic events such as performances by James Reece Europe, rallies by Marcus Garvey and Ida Wells, parties by Madame C.J. Walker, and fundraisers by Bert Williams, which helped plant and nourish important seeds of black culture that would soon blossom.
By the dawn of the Prohibition Era in 1919, the Manhattan Casino had become known as “The People’s Pleasure Palace” and “Waldron’s Palace of Mirth.” But that soon changed. To compensate for lost alcohol sales, Waldron was forced to jack up his basketball court rental fees. It escalated from $50 prior to Prohibition, to $200 the following year, to $500, a desperate amount, in 1922. This caused a mass exodus of African American business and culture, and the following summer the Manhattan Casino, by then in receivership, was repossessed by the Dollar Savings Bank of New York City.
Birth of the Rens
Among those most affected was Robert “Bob” Douglas, the owner of the Spartan Braves basketball, a national title contender, who now had to find a new home court. Douglas, a native of St. Kitts, did not have to look far. He reached out to the fellow West Indian owner of the Renaissance Ballroom, newly opened in 1923, and asked if he could use the dance floor as his home court. In return, he offered to name his team after the ballroom.
And that is how the New York Renaissance Big Five were born.
And that is how the Renaissance Ballroom, which gladly welcomed all of the Manhattan Casino’s displaced business, became Harlem’s mecca of African American cultural, social, community, and entertainment activity.
Some of the many New York Rens stars who played for owner Robert Douglas, with a headline of perhaps their greatest single accomplishment—winning the inaugural World Championship of Professional #Basketball in 1939. There were 10 such world championships in all, through 1948, and #AfricanAmerican teams won three of the them. Which three? #newyorkcity #nyc #harlem #worldchamps #blackfives (Clockwise: Zack Clayton, Robert Douglas, Fort Wayne Sentinel newspaper headline, John Isaacs, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, George Crowe.)
Douglas then instituted full-year, guaranteed, exclusive player contracts, making the Rens the first black-owned, all-black, fully professional basketball team. In the three decades prior to the formation of the NBA, the Rens dominated all of basketball, including the best white teams. During the 1932-33 season, they won 88 straight games in 86 days. In 1939, the Rens also won the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball, besting America’s ten top-ranked all-white teams. The 1932-33 squad collectively, and several of its players individually, as well as team owner Douglas, have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Aristocrat of Harlem
Just after the demolition of the property began on March 30, 2015, its newly vacated lot, encircled by an 8-foot tall green wooden construction wall and security fencing, contained mountains of unrecognizable rubble—twisted metal, crushed concrete, broken bricks, and other debris—all that is left of the building once considered to be the real estate anchor of Seventh Avenue and which was fondly known as “The Aristocrat of Harlem.”
The Renaissance Ballroom thrived as a hot spot well into the 1960s, even after the demise of the New York Rens in 1949, and was managed all of those years by the team’s former owner, Douglas.
The Renaissance complex closed down in the 1970s, stood abandoned for a time, and was subsequently purchased by a white real estate speculator who leveraged a very favorable loan from Ensign Savings Bank. When that bank went under during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s, the federal Resolution Trust Company, formed to auction off the assets of the various defunct banks, disposed of Ensign and all of its assets, including its mortgages, which included the mortgage on the Renaissance buildings.
Abyssinian Baptist Church
It was at this time that the property’s prominent neighbor, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under its pastor the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, became interested in acquiring the historic buildings. They assembled a group of Harlem-based business people (including Ed Myers, Thelma Goodrich, George Weldon, Lee Dunham, Matt Brown, Herman Lee, and Curtis Mills, most of whom are now deceased) who each put up around $25,000 to create an entity called the Renaissance Complex Redevelopment Corporation (RCRC). Meanwhile, the church had established a real estate arm in 1986, the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), to help develop various other properties in Harlem. This entity was incorporated in 1989.
To pave the way for the acquisition, Abyssinian Baptist Church then loaned $100,000 to ADC, to be loaned to RCRC, and with this capital church officials under the direction of Rev. Butts asked federal lawmakers and agency executives, including Congressman Charles Rangel, it is said, to see if the Resolution Trust Corporation could extract the Renaissance mortgage from the bulk auction of its assets, an action that would make the mortgage available to be sold at an individual auction. The request was granted, and after an auction at which it was the only bidder, RCRC became the owner of the property in the early 1990s. Also, since ADC technically served as an advisor partner to RCRC on the Renaissance complex development, it therefore was eligible to receive a federal Office of Community Services Grant to hire an architect to develop plans. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, ADC used these plans in attempts to secure an operator for the building.
During the intervening years, while hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world flocked to Abyssinian to attend church services and view Harlem culture on display in the form its outstanding choir, the public, including community residents as well as church congregants, fully expected ADC to preserve and restore the Renaissance property. That’s because this is what church officials repeatedly stated.
“This theatre should appeal to your sense of #racial pride,” its grand opening announcement in 1921 proclaimed. This historically important structure helped usher in the #AfricanAmerican cultural and artistic flourishing that became known as the #HarlemRenaissance period. Many mistakenly believe that the building was named after the era, but it was in fact the other way around. The #ballroom portion of the complex opened in 1923 and became the #NewYorkRens’ home court until the team folded in 1949. #basketball #blackfives A video posted by Black Fives (@blackfives) on
They even developed an annual fundraiser 1995, called the Harlem Renaissance Day of Commitment Leadership Breakfast, to “celebrate the history, culture and indomitable spirit of the Harlem Community,” and which cultivated an association with the historically and culturally important value of the Renaissance buildings. The most recent breakfast, held in June 2013, was “attended by over 600 of New York’s most influential business, civic and political leaders,” according to reports, and was “an opportunity for ADC, its longtime partners, friends and constituents to come together and celebrate more than two decades of extraordinary accomplishments that have contributed to the electrifying revival of the Harlem community, and to spark new strategies for future growth.”
Many feel it is especially galling that the annual fundraising event even uses the name “Harlem Renaissance” and features “prestigious The Harlem Renaissance Awards” that are bestowed to schoolchildren, in light of the church’s role in the destruction of the very symbol of the actual Harlem Renaissance.
Meanwhile, it is only because of the influence of ADC’s stated preservation and restoration vision that the Renaissance Ballroom property was not protected as a New York City landmark. In 2007, arguing that building a high rise residential structure above the theater portion of the complex would allow the ballroom section to be saved and redeveloped, ADC with Rev. Butts as its chairman organized a contingent of high profile city officials and private individuals, who successfully persuaded the New York City Landmarks Commission to remove the ballroom from its list of buildings under consideration for landmark protection.
The former New York City mayor David Dinkins and its Comptroller Scott Stringer backed Abyssinian’s request at the time. According to the news website DNAInfo, neither Dinkins nor Stringer responded to inquiries about their help in waiving the ballroom’s landmark status. Nevertheless, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, “Abyssinian officials advocated against landmarking the property, but indicated that they would preserve some of the facade, according to Landmarks Preservation Commission testimony from the time.” Subsequent proposed design renderings bear this out.
The theater portion was demolished in anticipation of these plans, however, the economic downturn at the end of the last decade prevented the project from going forward.
In the spring of 2014, RCRC quietly sold the Renaissance property for $15 million to a real estate investment group called BRP Development. By chance, a city blogger noticed that an application for a demolition permit had been filed for that site along with new architectural plans and renderings for a new building to take its place. Until this was announced in a Wall Street Journal article in late 2014, the public had no reason to believe that ADC and the property’s successor owner would not fulfill the commitment to restore the historic site.
We do not know what led to the decision to sell, nor how BRP, a black-owned firm, was selected. The fact that BRP’s managing partner, a veteran real estate investor named Meredith Marshall, is a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church congregation, and that his firm is backed by $75 million of Goldman Sachs capital, were most likely very important factors.
Backlash and Futility
News of the sale and imminent demolition of the Renaissance Ballroom resulted in a huge outcry from the community residents. Sparked by prominent Harlem architectural historian Michael Henry Adams, who was arrested during the first weekend of protest for allegedly disturbing peace as he shouted “Save Harlem Now!”, activists rallied for preservation. Their efforts included weekly demonstrations at the site, with Lindy hop performances (the art form was born at the Renaissance Ballroom), over 4,500 petition signatures, multiple op-ed columns, newspaper and online articles, videos, letters, presentations by historians, and social media promotions.
Some were outraged that BRP would have the audacity to call their replacement building the “Renny,” a term of endearment once reserved only for those with the most intimate connection to the original structure, a nickname now co-opted. These concerned citizens lobbied politicians, reached out to prominent celebrities, educated passers-by, and spoke at community board meetings. Unfortunately, all of these efforts would eventually prove to be futile.
At the first community board meeting, a false narrative emerged in defense of Abyssinian’s role, namely that community residents had had decades to act, but did not, while ADP had continually poured money into the property. “When Abyssinian owned the building they invested more than $5 million to restore it,” said Blondel Pinnock, chief lending officer at Carver Bank, which loaned Abyssinian the money, as reported by DNAInfo. “The millions were spent on renderings, back taxes, and partial demolitions; after the market crashed no investors were willing to come in,” Pinnock reportedly said.
But these claims and figures were vigorously disputed by many in the room. Questions were raised, some of which had been asked in an extensive Village Voice exposé, entitled The (Very) Earthly Pursuits of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, about the controversial business dealings of Rev. Butts and the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
In addition, the factual history of the church’s continual promise to preserve and restore the site was repeated passionately, as community residents related how their collective trust of Rev. Butts, Abyssinian, and ADC gave no one any reason to question their moves or “come up with alternative solutions.”
What Will Be
An 8-story residential tower, complete with a parking garage, 18,000 square feet of street-level retail space, and a 24,000 square foot community area, will soon rise from the rubble of the Renaissance Ballroom. When completed, the structure, which reportedly will cost $70 million to build, will contain 134 apartments, including market rate and “affordable” units.
When preservation activists and community residents saw the first proposed design renderings, they recoiled, finding them so unremarkable as to be completely unacceptable. They then pressed BRP to at least incorporate the façade of the original Renaissance into the base of the new building, as was done with the Audubon Ballroom and Small’s Paradise buildings, two other historically significant sites.
But that request did not move BRP, whose principals cited the irreconcilable structural instability of the exterior, a contention that remained in dispute right up until demolition began. “In earnest, if the facade could be saved we are the group to save it,” said BRP managing partner Marshall, as DNAInfo reported. “It just can’t be saved. When you go to the doctor you don’t want to hear bad news but when you get bad news you have to deal with it.” Not exactly the case with serious procedures, where patient advocates and physicians agree that one should always seek a second opinion. It was clear in the meeting and subsequently that BRP never sought nor, apparently, desired any alternative perspectives.
However, the real estate developer did make one concession. They altered the original generic design of the façade of the building to include elements “inspired” by the original ballroom.
The re-design addresses some of the aesthetic concerns regarding BRP’s original design, but, sadly, contains nothing of the old building. Visitors to Harlem and future residents will have no idea as to what “The Renny” refers.
As a last resort, preservation activists made one last appeal to the developer, asking for them to revise the first and second floors of the new building to reflect the original look of the Renaissance Ballroom, even if no original materials were going to be used. They suggested and requested arched windows on the second floor, and a setback or different colored bricks above the second floor to aesthetically separate the tower from the lower original ballroom exterior, much like the first wave of design renderings. This would have enabled more passers-by to understand and appreciate that the new structure is rising from the literal and figurative foundation of the old one, the one that a small group of black investors in the early 1920s had designed, financed, built, and run, and which had served Harlem for decades. But this last-ditch appeal also failed to persuade BRP.
Meanwhile, throughout this process, there has been no mention of the historical and cultural importance of the site by Rev. Butts. People seem to believe that he wants to retire soon, and that he wants a $12 million education center that will be constructed by BRP on the lot between the new apartment tower and the church to be his legacy. That lot, which is the former site of the historic Harlem YWCA building, was purchased by the church in 1960. In recent years the YWCA structure was demolished and the lot was transferred to ADC, which then, according to property ownership records on file with the City of New York, seems to have sold it to BRP in May 2014 for $5 million.
In summary, the Renaissance Ballroom and Theatre, previously on two real estate lots, were sold to BRP for $10 million, while the lot between the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the ballroom was sold for $5 million, to reach to $15 million price tag for the total property. The combination, previously contained on three separate lots, has now been merged into one large lot.
If this lot consolidation is a legacy, then the price to pay was the destruction of three historic Harlem buildings: the Harlem YWCA, the Renaissance Theatre, and the Renaissance Ballroom.
Are There Lessons?
How could such important community assets, such national treasures, be destroyed? What are the lessons? How could it have been avoided? What can we do to prevent something like this from happening again?
Coinciding with any possible lessons, we feel that there are some powerful ironies at play here. The fact that this long term plan and ultimate demolition were carried out under the auspices of a black church. The reality that a black-owned real estate development company that could have made a difference, instead ultimately pulled the plug. The observation that the church seems to have established a powerful culture of silence among its congregants, when the Bible, in Ephesians 4:15, says, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Should the lesson be that we ought to not trust prominent African American church leaders? That we ought not trust closed-door dealings that involve our national treasures? That we ought not trust black-owned real estate companies to appreciate historically and culturally priceless properties? That there is a high price to pay for a congregation’s silence?
Development and redevelopment are natural parts of urban life, but the current destruction underway in Harlem will in all likelihood result in a generic neighborhood that is historically and culturally indistinct. There are some people who think that this is an admirable goal, but in reality, if achieved, Harlem developers will have “killed the goose that laid the golden egg.” Millions of tourists visit Harlem to appreciate its rich cultural heritage, which includes the structures that were its most important venues. Without those vintage Harlem sites, what will tourists come to see? Why would they not venture elsewhere, to more authentic parts of the city?
In addition, for Harlem residents, the question raised by the destruction of the Renaissance Ballroom is this: What power do folks have over what happens in the community where they live? This is a question that has significance throughout New York City, where the wealth of real estate developers provides them with disproportionate influence on public officials and with the media, which ultimately drowns out the voices of citizens in those developing neighborhoods.
In his 1903 masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois reflected on the unique contributions that people of African descent have made to American culture, noting that in the United States, black culture has been an “oasis in the desert of dusty dollars and smartness.” In many ways Harlem, “the wellspring of Black culture,” has played this role in New York City and throughout the country.
The Renaissance Ballroom was a beloved site. Folks trusted a prominent black church that had taken up the mantel of preservation to do what it said it would do. What happened next—its sale and demolition—is seen as the betrayal of a community. It feels like a disaster, a catastrophe—like the sinking of the Titanic, for black culture. Except that this building can never be brought back from the murky depths.
On the other hand, history never changes—only what we do with it. So our mission changes now, too, into one of celebrating and honoring this past, at every opportunity.
Toward that end, we kept visiting the demolition site, to pay our last respects and to work through the grief of this loss. We were not alone. Residents and random passers-by who were unaware of the project stood in shock and disbelief, unable to comprehend how this could have happened, unable to contain their emotions at the sight of the empty lot.
Many of these individuals were members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s own congregation. One church congregant wrote to us, on condition of anonymity, “I felt really sad when I notice it was gone. Its same feeling I had when the world trade buildings came down.” When asked if they wished to remain unnamed because of what they believed Abyssinian might say or do, they replied, “Yes, I been a member for over 20 years. I’m involved in a lot of the church ministries. Mostly mentoring and ushering. It’s my spiritual home and family.”
Not even the demolition workmen were immune to the visceral, palpable sense of sorrow. One of the union foremen was kind enough to let us examine the site and gave us a fragment of the original tile that he found in the rubble. He allowed us to retrieve several bricks. Our goal is to give one of them to each of the direct descendants of the New York Renaissance Big Five basketball team. What else is there to give them? These would be the historic structure’s proverbial last remains. But that would require more than several bricks. One time, we arrived at the site at the same moment as representatives from BRP. They explained they were there to retrieve bricks, with the intention of re-creating a section of the wall in the building’s future community room. We explained that we would love to get some more of them, perhaps a dozen or so, and were told that this might be possible. We even helped them to understand how to tell apart the original bricks from the modern day replacement ones, facts which they apparently took to heart in spades a couple of days later.
In this saga, the bricks themselves have a historic past, each telling their own story, reminiscent of the lyrics from the Broadway musical, Jesus Christ Superstar: “If every tongue was still the noise would still continue, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.” Most if not all of the originals, easily identifiable by the names of their manufacturers stamped into the center of each brick, were produced in the late 1910s and early 1920s in the Upper Hudson Valley, a gorgeous part of the New York State that was once a hotbed of the brickmaking industry, due to the favorable nature of the indigenous clay in that region.
We are grateful that the effort to preserve the history of this historic set of buildings was started years ago, long before their demolition began. Long before the bricks. Today, from a variety of resources, one can find references and articles about the Renaissance Ballroom and about the New York Rens and their players, including John Isaacs, who, ironically, was posthumously elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame just weeks before the demolition of his former home court.
Keep up the good work. Keep the vision. Keep the faith. It makes a difference. Make history now.
Kevin McGruder is Assistant Professor of History at Antioch College. He was Director of Real Estate Development at Abyssinian Development Corporation from 1991-1996. Claude Johnson is Founder & President of The Black Fives Foundation.