HARLEM HISTORY, UP IN FLAMES: SHAMEFUL DESTRUCTION ON SUGAR HILL!
To most people in Harlem, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, William Defoe and others involved in making “ Motherless Brooklyn”, have a lot to answer for.
Scheduled for release next year, the movie’s crew were shooting here late last Thursday night, when disaster struck. Yellow and scarlet, raging flames and acrid black smoke, engulfed historic 773 St. Nicholas Avenue, an elegant row house built in 1896.
One of ten imposing four-story, brick and stone, bow-fronted dwellings, with Italian Renaissance details, it was designed by Frederick P. Dinkleberg. Part of the Sugar Hill Historic Landmark District, it’s one of a remarkable group of houses on the west side of the avenue, between 148th-149th Streets. They stand in marked contrast to the modest walk-up apartment buildings in the next block north, where a young Norman Rockwell lived.
By 1930 at least two, at each end, were owned by Trinidad native Dr. Charles N. Ford, a dentist. The proverbial penniless immigrant, following a stint as a construction worker on the Panama Canal, working by day, he’d attended the New York University School of Dentistry at night. In time he founded the United Mutual Life Insurance Company while investing heavily in Harlem real estate. In the late 1940’s, Rose Morgan, the future wife of Joe Louis, leased the corner house at 148th Street from Ford for her innovative beauty spa.
This history is all compelling enough. But what attracted the film folks was not exquisite architecture or even Rose Morgan. The lure instead was number 773’s renown as a jazz venue.
For from around 1965 until closing, in 2011, this was the setting of St. Nick’s Pub, owned by Earl Spain.
Before the pub, starting in 1950, the intimate space had been a fashionable and early, gay spot, the Pink Angle. “Only the uninitiated give a second glance to young men gazing longingly into each others eyes…” related brand new Ebony Magazine.
Proceeding the Pink Angle, starting about 1940, noted stride pianist, Charles Luckeyth Roberts, his wife attending the cash register, operated Luckey’s Rendezvous. Boasting a stellar clientele, it too was “gay friendly”. One attraction was classically trained waiters, who sang arias and ballads while delivering drinks. Among them was Juanita Hall, aka ‘Bloody Mary’ from “South Pacific”. How Harlem loved knowing she was black and not Polynesian as most of white America imagined. Clifton Webb, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Billie Holiday, Adam Clayton Powell and Tallulah Bankhead all came here. This was where the coolest sophisticates in the world headed to hear the likes of Art Tatum and Marlowe Morris.
Before the 1940’s, 773 was Bowman’s Grill.
From circa 1935–1940, it did business as the Poosepahtuck Club. Named for a New York Indian tribe it featured blues singer Monette Moore with jazz revolutionary Joe Jordan as house pianist.
As the Fujiyama Tavern, then Club Fujiyama, opened around 1929, the low long room was mostly a popular place to host parties.
Whatever the club here, invariably it only truly came alive “after hours”!
Starting in 1990, despite a perpetual fog of cigarette smoke, how I loved to come and chill, drinking in old-time Harlem. Wonderful Laurel Watson, the jazz great I first heard in the Village, at Five Oaks, lived nearby and performed here often, memorably belting out, “He’s Your Man, But, He Comes to See Me Sometime”. Masterful instrumentalists Bill Saxton and Patience Higgins, leading a trio or a quartet were also marvelous. Due to both I came to love the tune, “Can’t Get Started”.
Beyond such legends, it was “guest artist”, who sat in, who most often gave one a surprise. There were many, inasmuch as in addition to neighborhood regulars, St. Nicks’s drew in bus-loads of international tourists. You met people from around the globe. And when some unassuming and placid Japanese businessman removed his coat, loosened his necktie and opened his shirt collar, Dr. Jekyll-like to sit at the drums, watch out! More often than not, a wild-man was liable to appear,
Retaining faded red and white striped aluminum awnings outside, for the movie, a new sign emblazoned “Red Rooster” was affixed to the aperture over the entrance. So it was that this hallowed shrine to African American music and culture, was recast as yet another movie set.
At first deemed not to be life-threatening, last week’s blaze killed Michael Davidson, a father of four. It also injured two other members of Harlem’s Engine Company 69.
Now, with the City Building Department backing the FDNY assessment, that the destroyed building and it’s intact facade pose a danger to public safety, this tragedy has become a compounded loss, on every level.
It’s more than likely that the incompatibility of a late 19th-century house, with early 20th-century wiring and the power needs of modern movie lighting, played some part in this catastrophe. An investigation is incomplete and and as of yet, is inconclusive. Ironically, part of the argument for destroying what had survived, was to be able to better explore what happened.
The burnt house and its bulldozed facade join a long roster of hallowed Harlem monuments to African American attainment. How many have been razed during the short 33 years I have lived here? Small’s Paradise Nightclub, the Lafayette Theatre, the Casino Renaissance, the Ubangi Club, which started as Connie’s Inn. the West-End Theatre, the Church of the Master, Minton’s Playhouse, the National Black Theater, which was the original Studio Museum of Harlem, St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, the Audubon Ballroom and Theatre, where Malcolm X was murdered, Child’s Memorial Church, from which Malcolm was buried when every other church turned his bullet riddled body away, the Rodney Dade Funereal Home, where Madame C. J. Walker, her daughter A’Lelia, boxer Tiger Flowers and other giants lay in state, the Pabst Music Hall lobster palace, where Sigmund Romberg was in the orchestra, that latter became the Kress Five and Dime Store, where the Harlem riot of 1935 commenced, Harlem Hospital’s splendid neo-Georgian main building, Emory Roth’s superlative Temple B’nai Israel and so many more : large and small, there have been such numerous senseless demolitions in Harlem.
How did 773 St. Nicholas Avenue become yet the latest? Even before that’s been resolved, this time at least, Harlem knows where fault lies and who is responsible for putting back, what’s been taken away. Blame mostly goes to the movie makers. But what of the Landmark’s Preservation Commission, who have no structural engineers and defer to the Building Department? Oddly enough, they have no policy as to the terms of a contract made concerning a designated landmark. Neither a film company, nor an Air BNB client is required to faithfully restortore a destroyed landmark in case the unexpected! With tax arrears and property liens galore, the owner bears some responsibility for this tragic mishap as well.
Unfortunately, blame for black Harlem’s broader, incremental erasure, both in terms of people and buildings imbued with our history, that rest elsewhere. Every villain is not white. Culprits include both elected officials, busily self-dealing while passing the buck and profiteers, seeking ever greater gentrification. Both are despoilers, with shame, beyond measure.