Future of historic Harlem ballroom debated

Community group claimed landmarking would hinder responsible development plans. On January 16, 2007, Landmarks held a hearing on the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, comprised of two buildings at Adam Clayton Jr. Boulevard and West 137th Street in Harlem. “The Rennie,” as it was known, was designed by architect Harry Creighton Ingalls and built in stages between 1920 and 1923. One of the first entertainment complexes in Harlem, and one of the largest African-American owned enterprises in the city, the Renaissance hosted theater, sports, and private events. Prominent artists like W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes graced its stage, as did the Harlem Rens, a team in the basketball equivalent to baseball’s Negro league. Inspired by Islamic architecture, the Renaissance features decorative brickwork modeled on North African tile murals and terra cotta ornamentation. The building currently lies in a state of extreme disrepair, with trees growing out of the partially caved-in roof.

The Abyssinian Development Corporation, a non-profit community development organization, owns the Renaissance. Chaired by Calvin Butts, pastor of the nearby Abyssinian Baptist Church, the development corporation hopes to transform the building into a cultural and commercial center designed by architect Max Bond. Included in the project would be a 17-story residential tower containing affordable and market-rate housing. Abyssinian would demolish the adjacent, non-historic YMCA building to open views of the Church’s spire and would build a glass arcade to shelter parishioners before and after services.

Calvin Butts, testifying at the hearing, claimed Abyssinian would restore the original architectural details, but if Landmarks designated the building, their renewal plan could not go forward. Butts stated that the “life or death of a critical community development” lay in Landmarks’ decision.

Former mayor David Dinkins also testified for Abyssinian. Dinkins held his 1953 wedding reception at the Renaissance and brought his photo album to the hearing. Dinkins testified that while he was dedicated to safeguarding historic structures, and commended the sponsors of designation, there was a “dire need for affordable housing” in Harlem, and Abyssinian’s plan would enhance the structure while making it into a viable economic entity.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer testified that “landmarking is not always the best way to ensure preservation,” and Abyssinian’s project had “the potential to be an important catalyst for improvement of this area of Harlem.”

Preservationist groups seemed torn between supporting designation and the Abyssinian’s goals. Lisa Kersavage of the Municipal Art Society urged Landmarks to designate, but also to allow Abyssinian’s plan to go forward, suggesting that the ballroom be saved. The Historic District Council’s Ed Kirkland admitted that the testimony swayed him, and he renounced his submitted opposition to the project, but requested that Landmarks not let go of oversight of the building’s fate by removing it from consideration. Kirkland suggested that Landmarks solely designate the building containing the ballroom, not the casino where the planned tower would be built. Roger Lang of the Landmarks Conservancy supported designation and Abyssinian’s entire project.

Landmarks Commissioner Robert B. Tierney closed the hearing without comments from commissioners.

Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, 2341-2349 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard (LP-2218) (Jan. 16, 2007).

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