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Long-Defunct Gay Lodge Given New Life Uptown

By Nigel Chiwaya | May 27, 2014 6:23am
  Hamilton Lodge, a popular destination for gay men in 1930s Harlem, has been revived by two uptowners.
Hamilton Lodge Revival
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A parking lot is all the remains of the Rockland Palace, which Steinman said was torn down in the 1960s. (Before photo: Father and Mother Divine. After: DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya)

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Two uptown residents are reviving the legacy of a long-defunct black social group that held extravagant drag balls in Harlem 80 years ago.

It's been decades since prohibition put an end to the Hamilton Lodge drag formals at the Rockland Palace on West 155th Street, but Hael Fisher and David Steinman have brought back the group's name for a series of weekly meetups in Washington Heights.

The new Hamilton Lodge, in its second month of operation, is a weekly mixer for upper Manhattanites held Thursday evenings at the Red Room Lounge at 1 Bennett Ave. 

And while the lodge's events aren't nearly as lavish as the ones held in the 1920s and '30s, Fisher said the goal is still the same to give uptown's gay community another space to gather and mingle.

"We wanted to pay homage to that heritage, said Fisher, 40. "We wanted to create a space that promoted that identity and connected the community of today with what happened in the past.

"It's an occasion where people can come together and meet their neighbors and have good conversation."

Fisher, 40, and Steinman, 41, began organizing the event in early April after growing tired of trekking down to the West Village or Hell's Kitchen to grab a couple of drinks.

And although the duo notes that uptown has its share of gay bars — from the Morningside Heights' suite on Amsterdam Avenue and 109th Street to Inwood's Le Boy on Dyckman Street near Nagle Avenue — there's still a large section of Harlem and Washington Heights that is left out, especially after the April closing of the popular Washington Heights bar No Parking.

"There's a void that we're trying to fill," Fisher said.

To do that, Fisher and Steinman — both members of the Harlem and Heights Historical Society — went back into the history books and took inspiration from the Hamilton Lodge of the Harlem Renaissance, which operated not far from the Polo Grounds in the Rockland Palace at 208 West 155th St. 

New York's drag balls were given national exposure by the 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning." But Harlem's scene was on fire long before the film, Steinman and Fisher said, and Hamilton Lodge was one of the foremost locations in the neighborhood where people came to listen to big bands and see the area's thriving LGBT community.

"You had a large majority of drag queens and what we now call gender-queer pushing the boundaries," Fisher said.

"And you had a lot of white onlookers who came up from the West Village to be a part of this."

"It was in public," Steinman said. "It was protected by the police." 

The contemporary Hamilton Lodge hasn't thrown a formal gala as part of its six events, but the organizers have worked to keep the festive spirit alive. Drag performer Sir Honey Davenport has made two appearances, and the room is decked out with the works for artists that supported Harlem's gay community during the 1930s, like Tallulah Bankhead.

The drive to keep the historical significance alive is important to Fisher and Steinman, who say most weekly attendees did not know the story of the lodge or the Rockland, which was torn down in the '60s and the space turned into a parking lot.

"Harlem contributed so much to the gay community, and it's been so overlooked," Fisher said.