Support Voiced for Designation of Central Harlem District

Central Harlem West 130-132nd Historic District. Image credit: LPC.

164-building potential district characterized by 19th-century residential architecture, and cultural and political history.            Landmarks held a public hearing on the potential designation of the Central Harlem West 130-132nd Historic District at its meeting on April 17, 2018. The district is composed of the block interiors on 130th, 131st, and 132nd Streets between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. The district includes approximately 164 buildings, chiefly built during a brief period of development in the final decades of the 19th century. The speculative rowhouses were constructed in architectural styles appealing to the middle class of the period, primarily Neo Grec, interspersed Queen Anne, Renaissance Revival, and Romanesque Revival. Landmarks Executive Director Sarah Carroll stated that the proposed designation had come about through Landmarks’ study of properties associated with African-American history and the civil rights movement.

The proposed district retains its architectural cohesiveness, presenting nearly uninterrupted block fronts of brick and brownstone.

Though characterized by rowhouses, a few churches, commercial structures and apartment buildings would also be included in the district. Eleven buildings constructed after 2000 would also fall within the district’s boundaries.

Landmarks voted to add the item to its calendar on December 12, 2017.

Originally marketed to the white middle and upper-middle class, African Americans began moving to the area after the turn of the century, and by the 1920’s it was a middle-class African-American neighborhood. Though built as one-family residences, many of the building came to house cultural, artistic, and civic activities. Residents included musicians like Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime,” and jazz musician and composer Eubie Blake. The district remains home to the New Amsterdam Musical Association, founded in the early 20th century, and the nation’s oldest African-American musical association. Before its demolition in 2014, the Lafayette Theater stood in the district, where musicians such as Duke Ellington and Chick Webb performed, and where Orson Welles’s all-African-American production of Macbeth took place.

The neighborhood also is significant in the history of social activism. Friendship Baptist Church, at 144 West 131s Street, had NAACP members among its congregants, and was instrumental, along with its associated Friendship House, in helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

A representative of Manhattan President Gale Brewer spoke in favor of designation, saying the proposed district “holds tremendous social, cultural, and political significance,” as well as “obvious architectural merit.” Shana Harmongoff, from the office of State Senator Brian Benjamin, also offered “full support” for designation.  A representative of Community Board 10 endorsed designation but said Harlem would still be disproportionately unprotected, and Landmarks should study more districts and properties in the area.

Valerie Bradley, President of Save Harlem Now, said the district deserved immediate protection for its “outsized role” in the cultural political and social history of the City and the country, and for its remarkably intact 19th-century architecture. Bradley asked Landmarks to consider other historic districts and individual landmarks in the area, as the neighborhood was facing increased development pressure that was compromising its cultural and architectural integrity.

Architect and former Landmarks Commissioner Roberta Washington, an area resident, testified that the buildings in the proposed district “reflect the lives of centuries of residents,” representing not necessarily the lives of the wealthiest Harlemites, but the community’s mainstream, the working class and the struggling. Washington noted that in themed-20th century, many of the buildings in the district were used as single-room-occupancy dwellings, and the history of these Harlem residents should be commemorated.

Resident John Reddick spoke of how the demolition of the Lafayette Theater had galvanized the community and spurred interest and action in preserving historic buildings and fabric. Arthur Brown, Vice President of the New Amsterdam Musical Association, speaking in support of designation, said that Harlem was the likely the most famous neighborhood in the world, largely because of the musical icons that called it home, and discussed how the Association had helped him, as well as many other musicians, in his art and life.

Representatives of the Historic Districts Council, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Society for the Architecture of the City, and Landmark West testified in support of designation.

Guy Meeker, owner of a parking garage at 161 West 132nd Street, asked that the property be excluded from the designation. He said the garage “has a lot of problems with it” and he wished to avoid the increased costs of performing external work under Landmark designation. He said he intended to continue operating the property as a garage, and increased financial burden would necessitate raising prices for his customers. Meeker’s attorney, Eleanore Martins of Akerman LLP,  Meeker said the garage was not consistent in use or typology with the district’s prevailing residential architecture and related better to the avenues that the midblock buildings that formed the rest of the district. Martin said excising the buildings, at the edge of the proposed district, would not detract from the historic district’s sense of place. A representative of an unidentified management company said the designation should be limited to “places of exceptional interest” sparing property owners form “heightened costs” and “scrutiny of routine repairs.”

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said the Commission would continue to seek ways to “celebrate the City’s diversity,” and stated that “our work in Harlem is not over.” Srinivasan closed the hearing and announced that the Commission would vote on the district’s designation on May 29, 2018.

LPC: Central Harlem West 130-132nd Street Historic District, Manhattan (LP-2607) (April 1, 2018).


By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law.)


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