A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Renaissance Casino and Ballroom Complex in Harlem: Another Tunisian Tile Installation Headed for Demolition

A 1920s photo of the Renaissance Casino. (Photo: Collection of Columbia University)

In 2007 the non-profit Abyssinian Development Corporation, which had ties to Rev. Calvin O. Butts’ Abyssinian Baptist Church, helped defeat the proposed landmark designation for the historic Renaissance Casino complex in Harlem. According to Christopher Gray, “Sheena Wright, the chief executive of the nonprofit development company,...contended that landmark designation would ‘basically kill the project.’” (Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: A Harlem Landmark in All but Name”, The New York Times, February 18, 2007; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/18/realestate/18scap.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print) The Abyssinian Development Corporation had plans to build apartments on the theater property and restore the Renaissance Casino.

"The Renaissance Complex, as the [2007 Abyssinian Development Corporation] project will be dubbed, will be designed by award-winning architect Max Bond. When redevelopment is complete, the 196,000 sq. ft. Renaissance Complex will include: 112 home-ownership units providing the first of its kind for neighborhood residents, 27,000 square feet of cultural and much needed performing arts rehearsal space, 10,000 square feet of commercial space, [and] 10,000 square feet of community space." (https://uptownflavor.wordpress.com/2007/03/22/renaissance-groundbreaking/; Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)

Also in 2007, Lisa Kersavage of the Municipal Art Society testified at the Landmarks Designation Hearing in favor of landmark designation for the Renaissance Theater and Casino. Ms. Kersavage testified, in part, that “The question before the Commission today is whether these buildings are eligible for designation as landmarks, and clearly they are. As one committee member put it, these buildings comprise one of the 'dearest sites in Harlem,' and are a cultural touchstone for Harlem. [...] Both the Ballroom and Casino played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance. Owned and operated by African-American entrepreneurs, they were Harlem’s first entertainment complex where movies, theater, dancing, and sports could be enjoyed. Major films featuring all African-American casts, banquets, award ceremonies, major musical talent, and the Renaissance Five basketball team, all contributed to the reputation of the complex into the 1960s. In short, the buildings are eligible for designation based on their cultural and historical significance.” (Testimony of the Municipal Art Society Before the Landmarks Preservation Commission By Lisa Kersavage, Municipal Art Society Regarding the Designation of the Renaissance Theater and Casino 2341-2349 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard January 16, 2007) 

Part of the ground floor interior of the Renaissance Ballroom building in January 2015. The question now is if the building is too deteriorated to be restored as part of an overall development plan.

On the other hand, in 2007 “the New York Landmarks Conservancy, one of the city’s major preservation organizations [,...] endorsed the demolition of only the theater portion [...of the complex. It] is rare to have a preservation organization speak against any landmark proposal.” (Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: A Harlem Landmark in All but Name”, The New York Times, February 18, 2007; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/18/realestate/18scap.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print) In fact, the political line-up to speak against landmarking was impressive to say the least. “...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.” (http://mrmhadams.typepad.com/blog/2014/11/african-american-history-for-salepart-one-the-renaissance-casino.html

A 1920s photo of the Renaissance Ballroom showing the West 138th Street and part of the Seventh Avenue facades.

“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.” (http://mrmhadams.typepad.com/blog/2014/11/african-american-history-for-salepart-one-the-renaissance-casino.html

This was the first theater in New York that was built and owned by African Americans, and it was the first theater in New York where African Americans were allowed to sit in the Orchestra. “The block-long 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. [...A]rticles 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.” (Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: A Harlem Landmark in All but Name”, The New York Times, February 18, 2007; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/18/realestate/18scap.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print

The Renaissance Ballroom in January 2015 showing the West 138th Street facade and part of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. facade.

The West 137th Street facade of the Renaissance Theatre in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Ken Roe and Cinema Treasureshttp://cinematreasures.org/theaters/12575/photos/36848)

What’s left of the Renaissance Casino as of January 2015, showing the West 137th Street facade and part of the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd. facade.  Rev. Cavin O. Butts’ Abyssinian Baptist Church is in the right background.

“Even in its current condition, the beauty of the Islamic inspired architecture designed by Harry Creighton Ingalls, still shines through.” (http://untappedcities.com/2014/09/02/inside-the-abandoned-renaissance-theater-and-casino-in-harlem/) A frieze of tile panels with "Middle Eastern" designs runs just below the roof line on both buildings. Courses of brick, also under the roof line, were said to evoke Islamic architecture.

Made of fragile earthenware, many of the tiles are now chipped and broken, and some are missing altogether. At the time I became aware of these tiles, in December 2014, the identity of the tile maker was not known. I had recently posted an article about Jacob Chemla, his sons, and their Tunisian pottery which supplied tiles to American architects from the 1910s through the 1930s. I asked a group of people who are members of the Tile Heritage Society, the Friends of Terra Cotta, the American Art Pottery Association and members of the Chemla family to help identify the tile maker. I also went to the Renaissance complex and took photos of the buildings and tiles.

The scars can be seen on many of the tiles, but it can be difficult to see them because of the condition of the tiles.

Close-up photos of the individual tiles show three “scars” on the face of each tile in the shape of an equilateral triangle. The "scars" were left by the small stilts of a tripod used to separate the tiles during firing in the kiln. The tile designs are reminiscent of tiles manufactured from the 1880s through the 1930s by Jacob Chemla and his sons in Tunisia. There were two Chemla family tile companies with showrooms in New York City during the 1910s and 1920s--the Tunisian Tile Company and the African Tile Company, which later became Les fils de J. Chemla, Tunis. Members of the Chemla family, who will soon publish a book about the family’s potteries, have said that if these tiles had the tell-tale scars, they were made by Jacob Chemla and his sons. 

Glazed pottery for wall decoration dates to at least the sixth century B.C.E. in the area of the Middle East occupied by the modern states of Iran and Iraq. By eighth century C.E. the technology and taste for ceramics and tile manufacture had extended along the  northern coast of Africa and across the Strait of Gibraltar to al-Andalus, the Moslem empire in Spain.  The Iraqi tiles decorating the walls of the Mosque of Sidi Ukba in Kairuan in Tunis, built between 817 and 838, is evidence of the spread of interest in tiles. (R.L. Hobson,  A Guide to the Islamic Pottery of the Near East, British Museum, 1932, p. 95 and http://islamic-arts.org/2012/the-uqba-masjid/)

"Despite the diversity implied in its geographic spread and thousand year duration, the history of Islamic pottery has an inherent unity. [. . .] the widespread use of four basic decorative elements also contributed to this phenomenon.  The Islamic potter employed abstract vegetal forms (one of the most popular was the arabesque), calligraphy, figural iconography, and geometric patterns.  (Marilyn Jenkins, Islamic Pottery: A Brief History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. XL, No. 4, Spring 1983, p. 3)  In addition, much of Islamic decorative arts are characterized by horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces, with surfaces densely ornamented with convoluted motifs.

The Chemla tiles on the the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom are dominated by vegetal motifs, by far the most common decorative device in Islamic art. (see Figures 1, 5-13)  The saz leaf, a curving, feathery plume popularized on 16th century tiles from Isnik, Turkey appears in a small and simplified version on Figures 6 and 13.  From the saz leaf, the palmette evolved. (Figure 7)  Flowers--a simple daisy (Figures 1, 5, and 13) and a more stylized blossom (Figure 1, center), the carnations in Figure 11 and flowers formed by the edges of the tile in Figure 6--were frequent motifs.  Animals are rare in Islamic design compared to vegetal motifs, and the fantastically plumed bird in Figure 1 is unusual.

Geometric motifs are well represented on these tiles.  Sixteen identical tiles depicting floral figures (Figure 2) are arranged to form X shapes and octagons.  The circular corner ornaments on Figure 3 are formed from quarter circles on adjacent tiles.  Figure 4, also composed of sixteen identical tiles, forms a very typical interlaced star-shaped figure which attests to the Islamic fascination with mathematics.

The blue and white palette that dominates much of Islamic ceramics evolved from an interplay of style, technology, and natural resources resulting from trade between the Middle East and China.  Cobalt from Persia, first imported to China in the early years of the fourteenth century, led to the development of Chinese blue and white porcelain whose designs in turn influenced Islamic design.  Early Islamic copper-based glazes established an enduring taste for turquoise evident in these twentieth century tiles.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Figures 9 & 10

Figure 11

Figure 12

Figure 13

This is the fifth building in the New York City area that has utilized Tunisian Tile Company tiles as ornamentation, and it is the only installation that still has the original tiles. Many probably can be restored or saved, but they will first have to be removed professionally to avert further damage. 

But even for this, it may be too late. The current owner of the property, BRP Development Corporation, plans to totally demolish the buildings with some lip service to saving the tiles. "In October, BRP Development Corporation acquired the site for $15 million and shortly after filed permits to raze the building in its entirety. Now, the site's former owners, Abyssinian Development Group, are the main supporters of lobbying for the building's preservation. Abyssinian had planned to restore the building in part, integrating its facade into the base of the structure that would house a ballroom, restaurant, and 500-seat theater, with a new addition of condos on top, but fell short of moving forward due to financial constraints. Now, BRP plans to raze the building that's been abandoned for three decades to create room for "The Renny," a 134-apartment building with 17,500-square-feet of retail space, an education center, and a performance space. The [New YorkTimes elaborates that for many, BRP's insistence on demolishing the structure represents another of the city's failures to preserve Harlem's disappearing culture." (Zoe Rosenberg, "Razing Harlem's Renaissance Ballroom Is 'Cultural Genocide'", New York Curbed, December 22, 2014; http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2014/12/22/razing_harlems_renaissance_ballroom_is_cultural_genocide.php)

Harlem Renaissance Ballroom redevelopment proposal, rendering by Rickenbacker + Leung.

One writer has shown a number of proposed renderings of the site that would have retained parts of the facades that are now slated for total destruction, as well as a rendering of the current BRP proposal: "What Could Have Been: Harlem Renaissance Ballroom, 2351 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard" by Stephen Smith, http://newyorkyimby.com/2014/11/what-could-have-been-harlem-renaissance-ballroom-2351-adam-clayton-powell-jr-boulevard.html.

The Renny--the one that will be built, rendering by GF55.

“'It should have been landmarked,' said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy… . But in 2007, the conservancy sided with Abyssinian in saying that the building should not gain landmark status. Looking back, Ms. Breen said, 'Maybe it’s a lesson.' But at some point, she said, preservation comes down to economics. 'And is someone willing to invest to put it all together, and to what use?' she said. 'It’s a shame to see it deteriorate like that.'" (Kia Gregory, "In Harlem, Renaissance Theater Is at the Crossroads of Demolition and Preservation", The New York Times, December 19, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/nyregion/in-harlem-renaissance-theater-is-at-the-crossroads-of-demolition-and-preservation.html)  

A petition is being circulated to halt the destruction of the Renaissance Casino. Below is the petition and a link to the signature page:

This petition will be delivered to NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

Halt the Destruction of Harlem's Historic Renaissance Casino

The golden era of the Harlem Renaissance was said to have been from 1918 to 1930. The vibrant expression of all art forms reached a crescendo during this period, with bold statements being made by Blacks in music, literature, visual arts, dance and sports. Where Blacks were excluded from participation in the mainstream manifestations of the arts, they created their own relentlessly raucously expressive modalities.

The Harry Creighton Ingalls-designed Renaissance Casino located at the intersection of 138th Street and Seventh Ave (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd.) was commissioned in 1920 and completed in  1922 by three eastern Caribbean immigrants. It's birth was co-temporous with the rise of Renaissance Arts movement. Over its 60 year "lifespan" it played host to every mid century manifestation of African American culture,most notably as displayed by the Rens Big Five, a litany of Big bands, performers and  intellectuals of every stripe from Zora to Dubois who all had their voices heard in this revered structure.

It has lain fallow for 35 years, and now stands poised for the wrecking ball. Despite it's incontrovertible historical value, it was denied landmark status in 1991 and again in 2007 due to intense political pressure exerted upon the process by well connected Harlem real estate interests.

""THE RENNY" IS A LANDMARK WITHOUT LANDMARK STATUS, and to destroy it would be an egregious cultural assault against the Harlem community. There are no "do-overs", that was the painful lesson that issued from the destruction of Penn Station.

Mr. Mayor, we ask that you invoke any and all powers at your disposal to halt the ill-considered development plan; and initiate a conversation about how this historical treasure (or elements from it) might be preserved and integrated into any construction taking place on this iconic cultural footprint.

To sign:



I would like to thank decorative arts historian Susan Ingham Padwee for her insight and help with the section about Islamic pottery and tile motifs.