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Iconic Doll Company Madame Alexander Quietly Shutters Harlem Headquarters

By Farran Powell | December 21, 2012 7:12am

HARLEM — Madame Alexander, the toy company whose iconic dolls were favorites of little girls long before Barbie, has quietly shuttered its Harlem headquarters after a half a century.

The storied doll maker, which made the first licensed dolls of popular characters and celebrities, closed its museum and "doll hospital" at 615 West 131st St., after it was bought out by a Midtown-based toy manufacturer.

"We have moved. Please note we are not yet open to the public, including the company store, doll hospital or birthday parties. We'll let you know when those are back in business — expected in 2013," read a message on the Madame Alexander website, which was purchased by Kahn Lucas Lancaster, Inc. in June.

 Beatrice Alexander Behrman, creator of the Madame Alexander doll line, stands in front of Brooklyn department window display of her dolls. 
Beatrice Alexander Behrman, creator of the Madame Alexander doll line, stands in front of Brooklyn department window display of her dolls. 
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Brooklyn Children's Museum

Kahn Lucas did not return requests for comment.

The closure of the longtime doll factory — which neighboring tenants said took place in late October — has shined a spotlight on the treasured, nearly forgotten American toy. 

The company, known for its rosy-cheeked dolls with intricate tailored details, was founded by Beatrice Alexander Behrman, daughter of Russian immigrants, who started making the dolls in 1923. Behrman moved her doll factory to Harlem's manufacturing area from Kips Bay in the mid-1950s for cheaper rent.

The company evolved into one of Harlem's largest private employers, according to the New York State Urban Development Corporation. Doll historians said the company had up to 650 employees in the 1960s.

The company once manufactured all its dolls at the 131st Street building, with some parts made in The Bronx and White Plains. But production shifted overseas in the 1990s, historians said.

Still, the doors to the Harlem headquarters remained open for designers, seamstresses and other doll artisans. The space accommodated a Madame Alexander doll museum, a small store as well as the doll hospital, which acted as a repair shop.

"The museum in Harlem borrowed dolls from our collection and Madame Alexander donated quite a few to our collection." said Sandra Vanderwarf, a curator at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, as she paged through reference materials on the museum's doll collection.

"It was a definitely a destination for people to visit from out of town and for people here."

The highly collectable dolls fashioned after famous women and fictional characters like Alice in Wonderland and Scarlett O'Hara declined in quality with mass production in the 1990s after Behrman passed way, Vanderwarf said.

"When she passed, the quality of the dolls decreased significantly," she said, "so there has not been much for us on the collection side."

The museum's building is owned by Columbia University, which purchased the deed to the old Harlem manufacturing plant in 2007 after more than two decades of leasing, according to the New York City Department of Finance.

The structure had been slated to be spared from Columbia's $6.4 billion Manhattanville Project, a development that will extend the university's facilities from 125th Street to 133rd Street between Broadway and 12th Avenue.

"The Madame Alexander Doll Company recently vacated the sixth floor and we have possession of the floor, which is in raw condition and unoccupied," said Victoria Benitez, a spokeswomen for Columbia University's building facilities.

Iman Issa, a grandmother of two 9-year-olds who manages the Studebaker Cafe on the ground floor of the old doll headquarters, said she was deeply saddened by the closure.

"I know the people who worked there," said Issa, who bought her daughters Madame Alexander dolls, "amazing people who put their hearts and souls into the dolls. The amount of work put into those doll…it's a shame."