Born in Akron, Ohio, Michael Henry Adams is a writer, lecturer, historian, tour guide, preservationist, connoisseur, epicurean and activist, living in Harlem.
LAST CALL: WHO’S TO BLAME FOR DESTRUCTION OF THE LENOX LOUNGE?
How did this happen? Demolition is underway on Harlem’s iconic Lenox Lounge, created in 1939. By Friday, the legacy of New York’s only surviving Art Deco nightclub will be erased forever.
Just a short while ago, a year before it closed, the Lenox Lounge was included in Community Board Ten’s “Comprehensive Preservation Plan”, prioritizing an array of new historic districts and individual landmarks. Apparently, this plea was not persuasive.
In a neighborhood noted for distinctive architecture, inside and out, the Lenox Lounge was so special, it became a favorite choice as an atmospheric setting for top location scouts. For fashion shoots, music videos and for TV and Hollywood the best made their way here. Madonna’s “Secret”, the remake of “Shaft”, starring Samuel L. Jackson, “American Gangster”, a pilot for “Mad Men”, and an episode of New York “Undercover”, are but a few among hundreds of productions employing the Lenox Lounge as a memorable background. Might not so much attention to have been successful in moving the Landmarks Commission to act?
Most people assumed for aesthetic significance alone that the streamlined edifice, boldly featuring a facade of crimson enameled steel, framed in chrome, centering on an octagonal picture window, had long ago been protected by the city’s Landmarks’ ordinance . Instead, like so many architectural relics which embodied the cultural greatness of black Harlem, it was fated to face the wrecking ball.
Smoky’s Bar and Grill was an earlier casualty on Lenox Avenue.
Smalls’ Paradise Night Club, with the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn, were the big three of Renaissance era Harlem attractions.
Established by Edmund Smalls and later sold to basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, Smalls’ was the only one which was black owned. Even so, well before Lenox Lounge. each met a similar fate.
The interior, richly appointed with bronzed mirrors, stenciled walls, indirect lighting, with frosted glass fins, intricately tiled floors and a ceiling upholstered with tufted scarlet leatherette, should have become one of New York’s most distinguished interior landmarks. Nor does the Lenox Lounge’s exceptional design, take into account the bar’s standing as an important jazz venue, Luminaries like Lady Day, Miles Davis and boogie-woogie organist Ron Wynn each contributed to a cultural luster for which it also easily merited recognition.
Somehow it remained overlooked. Unlike the Upper West Side where at least half of the buildings are designated landmarks, or Greenwich Village, with 2/3’s protected, fewer than 5% of Harlem buildings are landmarked. Along with places like Washington Heights, Inwood and most areas of the Bronx, Harlem lags far behind the city’s more affluent, largely landmarked, communities.
But, as only the latest structure resonate of African American history lost in the wake of gentrification, it’s clear that the Landmarks Preservation Commission are not the only culprits in this calamity of indifference.
According to Pascal Lewis, who lives nearby on 123rd Street and owns with his wife Dani, the Harlem Wine Gallery, “Apathy towards black heritage, in the form of old buildings, is widespread. It’s messed up, really too bad.” he told me while negotiating with the head of the demolition crew. A Lenox Lounge habitue, Mr. Lewis hopes to rescue what remains of the ravaged building’s sign, a faint rusting ghost of a thing, with random holes for missing, once flashing neon outlined letters. “When you’re talking about the destruction of Harlem, inactive elected officials, greedy developers, people too discouraged to vote, you name it, there’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Harlem local, Alvin Reed hardly seems a likely vandal. Indeed, the retired postal worker and police officer seemed to be something of a visionary. Starting out with his late wife, then working with his son, Reed operated the Lenox Lounge, from 1988 to 2013, a quarter century. He was excited by the prospect of restoring live jazz to the lounge’s flamboyant Zebra Room in the back. And, in the same way that owning the old Post estate helped to give President Trump standing in Palm Beach, Reed exulted in how owning the lounge, helped to root him firmly in the center of the history of Harlem cool.
The space he managed was housed in one of a pair of adjacent late 1880’s brownstone tenements. Around 1900, when the buildings at 284–288 Lenox Avenue were altered to include the ground-floor store that would one day turn into the Lenox Lounge, the upper floors were removed. This truncating distinguished them from the remainder of matching structures in the row with four floors each. Carl H, Ahrens Fine Groceries and the West End Tavern first occupied the shop front.
Mr. Reed only closed Lenox Lounge after a dispute with his landlord, Ricky Edmonds. Even in a region where residential rents have escalated by 90% over the past decade, Reed says he was shocked by a purported 100%, rent increase, from $10,000.00 to $20.000.00. Mr. Reed’s demise was due to more than a rent raise, my friend journalist Kia Gregory informed me. “He owed serious back rent and was trying to sale his business, but negotiations fell through.”
Mr. Edmond’s rent escalation seems to have been related to interest expressed by Richard Notar, a managing partner of the Nobu Japanese restaurant chain, in leasing the storied space. No sooner had Reed’s lease expired and the next day, Mr. Notar signed on. On the strength of the actor’s Buttermilk Drop bakery in New Orleans, Notar sought to collaborate with Dwight Henry from “12 Years a Slave”. Ultimately this enterprise, as if cursed, ended with reports of an eviction notice bring posted at the Lenox Lounge, alleging that Mr. Notar too now owed back rent.
What Reed did in response to his rent hike, some view as a stark indictment. Many under such circumstances might fantasize about somehow getting back at the property owner whose dictates are so central to their well-being, to somehow make the ‘man’ feel something of their own anguish. But few have ever done what Reed did.
At the stroke of midnight, as his lease expired, with December 31, 2012, noisily turning into the first day of 2013, he ordered a waiting crew of men to rip-out and remove every banquet and each light fixture to a waiting truck. The bar, neon signs, doors and even the sheet-metal façade were also taken, whisked away, three blocks to a one-time beauty parlor. Here an unvanquished, an unapologetic Reed swore the Lenox Lounge, phoenix-like, incorporating the very authentic artifacts he’d appropriated, would be triumphantly reborn, and within the year!
To this day, even after conceding that replicating the Lenox Lounge is but a fanciful dream that’s far beyond him. Alvin Reed seemingly has no remorse about his actions. Certainly he does not view them as fundamental to the demolition of the building and history he still claims to love. A few years ago, at the height of a controversy, with the specter of two Lenox Lounges emerging, one white-owned, the other owned by an African American old-timer and each far less than what had once been, Mr. Reed, revealed that he had obtained a trademark of the Lenox Lounge name in 2011.
This was just part of his justification. Through his lawyer, Tyreta Foster, Reed maintained that all the fixtures he’d taken, fell under the terms of an asset purchase agreement, signed when he first bought the bar business.
For stripping the Lenox Lounge bare, Reed was sued by his landlord, for $25,000,000.00. However much he felt entitled to what he’d taken, a New York Supreme Court judge disagreed, ordering that he give most of it back. To no avail. Even as Reed failed to open his new Lenox Lounge incarnation, Richard Notar, after first insisting he’d devise a new name, but otherwise, would reinstate everything, just as it had always been, moved on, weary of the conflict. His Jazz supper club will instead open on 125th Street before long, sources say.
Meanwhile, last autumn, applications were filed for a four-story, 18,987-square-foot Lenox Lounge replacement. A rather banal box-of-a-building, is to rise across from the equally mundane new Whole Foods Store. Staten Island-based Gambino-LaPorta Architecture are the designers. The French cosmetic company, Sephora are said to be lined up to occupy retail space on the first two levels, below two of offices. Cashing in on a killing, Mr. Edmonds is no more. In his place, an anonymous, East Side LLC, in Midtown is said to be the property owner now.
Certainly a big part of what made Alvin Reed feel within his rights to plunder the fixtures and fittings of the Lenox Lounge, was the nearly year-long $600,000.00 renovation he undertook in 2000. Using $150.000.00 of his own cash, obtained, he told me, from refinancing his house, Reed also secured a $450,000 loan from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, the development corporation created by the federal government in 1994, under the paternal auspices of Congressman Charles B. Rangel.
For all their fine efforts attempting to jump-start Harlem entrepreneurs, the Empowerment Zone’s record. so far as sustaining Harlem’s architectural heritage, is highly dubious.
“Seeking to capitalize on the fabled legend of black Harlem, as a governmental agency, one might expect that the EZ would seek the synergy of any other available government funding sources.” explains Ronald Melichar, a thirty-year Harlem resident, retired from a career working on community planning for the city.
“ With those guys offering assistance to Minton’s Playhouse, the Casablanca Bar and the Lenox Lounge, upgrading Harlem entertainment institutions of this magnitude, the Federal Investment Tax Credit, available for rehabilitating income-producing properties found to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places,to me that would seem to be a no-brainer!”
“The EZ didn’t lift a finger to protect these places, or to get that “free” money either. Really I shouldn’t joke, that’s tax dollars. Harlem people, we pay taxes. But you can count on two hands the number of times that people here have ever utilized this tax break for preserving historic buildings.”
There’s a wonderful photograph, taken Harlem great Otis C. Butler in 1920, commemorating the eve of prohibition, entitled, “The Last Drink”, In it, a crowd of men are gathered at the edge of the mahogany bar, in the establishment that came to be known as the Casablanca. Stained glass transom lights, cut glass cabinet fronts, framed portraits of show girls and boxers, mounted animal head trophies — -all these period elements survived at the Casablanca until the Empowerment Zone funded the pizzeria that swept it away, in turn replaced by the restaurant Chez Lucien.
Contacting the New York State Historic Preservation Office, asking why this space had not been protected somehow, I was told that they had relied on the EZ to make an assessment and that the EZ had found it to be ineligible for National Register listing.
Living around the corner in the first few years of the Twenty-first-Century I got to know the Lenox Lounge pretty well. My Friend Cris McRae produced an LGBTQ party there Tuesday nights and I took to inviting a select group over for breakfast after closing time. What fun we enjoyed there. Dancing one soft summer’s night, to Brandy’s and Monica’s “The boy is Mine”, each animated couple, moving seemingly, in unison, as if we were all a part of some marvelous tableaux vivant, I was partnered with my beautiful, graceful friend Dotson Webster. That brief dance is one of my happiest memories.
What a difference the renovation made. Nothing there, including toilets and urinals had changed since 1939. Some of the cracked bathroom facilities, were literally held together with silver duct tape, and around the perimeter of the washroom’s compact space, the tiled floor was stained with what seemed to be, 50 years of poor arming from men who refused to sit down. In the Zebra Room stood an ancient Steinway grand piano of circa 1885. Rather more recent, incongruous profiles of Nubian maidens, left over from a TV commercial taping, hid what survived of the room’s faux hide wall covering.
The great care Mr. Reed’s architects, Yui & Bloch took, was impressive. They told me, with pride and pleasure, how, although it would cost slightly more, they’d persuaded their client to reproduce the bronze-colored mirror, originally specified for behind the bar, as opposed to using the more common peach colored mirror also popular in the 1930s. Few would appreciate so subtle a difference, but they felt obliged to be respectful of such a fine building.
As time move on, things soured. The bathroom’s newly tiled floors, exactingly matching the old one, gained a new brown ring as smelly and wide as the old one. Equally distasteful, was a passive aggressive hostility one sensed. Cris’ party grossed in one night, nearly as much as the Lounge’s other patrons spent the entirety of the week’s other six nights. Alvin Reed was happy enough for cash from gays, but came to resent the gay identity his establishment was gaining in the media.
Others have their own mostly fond memories of Harlem’s wonderful Lenox Lounge. There’s a great one in Jeremiah Moss’s poignant new book “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost It’s Soul.”
“In the winter of 2013 I sat in the Lenox Lounge for the last time, drinking a drink. The bar was quiet, as it always was on the few visits I’d made, the late-afternoon sun going low and golden, streaming across the wide-open space of the vacant lot across the way, a weedy field that would one day be crammed with condos and chain stores. But, for now, wilderness. At the bar, older black men sipped bottles of beer and talked softly, eyes on the football game playing overhead. A few couples, mostly mixed-race, sat in duct-taped booths sipping neon-vibrant cocktails and eating fried catfish, lazily reading their newspapers. The bartender explained to a couple of white tourists exactly what made the Lenox Lounge so special. “All kinds of people come in here,” she said. “All ages and ethnicity. On any night you can find a doctor, a lawyer, sitting next to some guy with no teeth.”
The bar felt easy. A slowed-down neighborhood joint decked out in faded glamor.”
I have yet to nail down the identity of the gifted designer responsible for the glory that was the Lenox Lounge. But, there’s no doubt about it, the key place glamor played in establishing its appeal.
No matter before or after the renovation, that’s how i will recall it, through it’s considerable élan, a grand dame who seemed immortal, killed unexpectedly, by adverice and bias.
But I’ll remember as well, Simeon Bankoff’s memory about loss, that so well puts into context all that razing the Lounge means: “This is a damned shame, that’s what it is,” said, Simeon who serves as executive director of the Historic District Council .
“People have been asking the question of why this continues to happen in Harlem for 20 years, so this is nothing new,” he added. “I can’t apologize for 30 years of negligence.”
Never miss a story from Michael Henry Adams, when you sign up for Medium. Learn more