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Loss of Lenox Lounge Puts Spotlight on Historic Preservation in Harlem

By Jeff Mays | January 8, 2013 8:51am

HARLEM — When word spread that Lenox Lounge might be closing, no one thought that the iconic Art Deco signage that has been used in hundreds of movies and photo shoots would be stripped away.

"Everyone thought it was landmarked," said Henrietta Lyle, chairwoman of Community Board 10.

But the spot where Billie Holiday sang, and Miles Davis and John Coltrane blew their horns, wasn't protected at all.

Owner Alvin Reed Sr. took down the signage, the red-paneled facade and other interior elements such as the famed Zebra Room to move to the lounge's new location two blocks away after he lost the space due to a doubling of the rent.

"It's a terrible warning of what can happen in a place so culturally rich that has so little in [the] way of landmark protection," said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem preservationist and historian who also serves as a community cultural associate for state Sen. Bill Perkins.

Just last year, the Lenox Lounge was included in Community Board 10's first-ever comprehensive preservation plan. The plan called for many new historic districts and individual landmarks, but it has not yet received official approval.

According to the report, only 3.6 percent of Central Harlem is protected under the designation of a historic district, compared to 26 percent for the Upper West Side and 10.6 percent for all of Manhattan.

There are only two historic districts in Central Harlem, but the board believes there are enough landmarks to justify up to nine districts.

"There's so much history and culture, which has been overlooked," Adams said.

There was a shock in the neighborhood when the Lenox Lounge sign and the paneling came down. Passersby stopped and stared. Confused-looking tourists gazed up at the outline left by the removal of the sign. It was like the building, at 282 Lenox Ave. between 124th and 125th streets, was hiding in plain sight.

Restaurateur Richard Notar has applied for a liquor license to open a restaurant and jazz club at the Lenox Lounge site, but all the old decor will move to the lounge's new location.

Tyreta Foster, a lawyer for Reed, said he owns trademarks on the Lenox Lounge sign, along with the red paneling out front and the Zebra Room.

"It wasn't landmarked," Foster said. "The sign will go back up and the Zebra Room will return," at the lounge's new location at 333 Lenox Ave., just two blocks from the original location.

"Lenox Lounge will always be Lenox Lounge," Foster added.

Others aren't so sure.

"It won't be the same," Adams said. "Imagine tearing down Ford's Theatre where Lincoln was shot and moving the box. No one would buy that as a commemoration of Lincoln's life. It's wrong."

The removal of the historic elements from the Lenox Lounge is just the latest in what preservationists say is the continued destruction of significant cultural icons in Harlem as the neighborhood faces the pressures of gentrification-driven development.

Other landmarks that have not survived include Smalls Paradise on the corner of 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. It is now occupied by a school on the upper levels and an IHOP on the ground floor.

The Rodney Dade Funeral Parlor on 132nd Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard was the site of many funerals for African-American dignitaries, including  singer and comedian Florence Mills and tap dancer and actor Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. The neo-Gothic exterior was preserved but the parlor was converted to an apartment, Adams said.

There are also plans to replace the long-vacant Renaissance Ballroom and Casino with apartments. Owner Abyssinian Development Corporation fought landmark status for the casino.

"This is a damned shame, that's what it is," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, about the loss of the Lenox Lounge.

"People have been asking the question of why this continues to happen in Harlem for 20 years, so this is nothing new," Bankoff added. "I can't apologize for 30 years of negligence."

Given the historic nature of Lenox Lounge, Bankoff said it might have qualified for rare interior landmarking status, in addition to the exterior.

Adams said he believes the lack of historic districts and landmarks in Harlem goes back to the false sense that no one in the neighborhood cares about landmarking. Because of the social and economic issues facing many Harlem residents and the lack of a local preservation group, Harlem has been easy to overlook, advocates said.

"It's easy to say people don't care about these esoteric issues of preserving heritage and culture because people have all kinds of pressing issues in their lives, but that's not true," Adams said.

"You ride the bus and you hear people who are not rich or educated at Harvard say: 'Look at them tearing down that building. That's the kind of thing people go to Europe to see. We have it here and they are tearing it down.'"

Historically, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has concentrated its efforts below 96th and 14th streets, Bankoff said. But with the proposal by Community Board 10, that's beginning to change.

Under the plan, Harlem's two relatively small historic districts would be expanded. The two districts were established while the legal justification for historic districts was still being challenged, so they were limited in scope, Adams said.

The Striver's Row historic district could be expanded from as far south as 135th Street and as far north as 140th Street under the proposal.

Syderia Chresfield, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, said plans for the district expansion are moving forward but important locations would still be left out of the proposal that's under consideration, including Lenox Lounge, jazz club Minton's Playhouse and Graham Court, which was commissioned by William Waldorf Astor.

The expansion proposal is now entering its third year, which worries Chresfield.

"We may lose landmarks," she said.

Other areas considered for historic districts include 130th to 133rd streets, between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, where 190 row houses were built before the turn of the 20th century.

The area is considered one of the first examples of row house neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and also has the distinction of being one of the first Upper Manhattan neighborhoods to be occupied predominately by African-Americans.

Individual landmarks such as the Blumstein's building on 125th Street, now occupied by Touro College, and the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library at 124th Street, would also be protected. Rucker Park, the well-know basketball mecca, would be declared Harlem's first scenic landmark.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is seriously considering the proposals, a representative said.

"We’ve been working closely with community representatives and have determined that there are potentially eligible historic districts within the community board," said Elisabeth de Bourbon, the commission's spokeswoman. "The requests are under active consideration, and we plan to continue our outreach to the community this spring."

Bankoff said he sees reason to be hopeful.

"There will still be a Lenox Lounge in Harlem," Bankoff said. "It's not a perfect solution but things do change."

Chresfield said she felt a pang of physical pain as she walked by the shuttered Lenox Lounge last week. Until more areas are protected, the group has a plan.

"We would lay down in front of a construction site," said Chresfield. "We can't allow it to happen again."