Nobody Asked Me, But… No. 127: Hotel History: Hotel Theresa: the “Waldorf of Harlem”

1. Hotel History: Hotel Theresa

The Hotel Theresa opened in 1913 on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem and closed its doors as a hotel in 1970. It was built by German-born stockbroker Gustavus Sidenberg to the designs of architects George and Edward Blum. The Blum brothers were trained at the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and they designed a full-blockfront all-white apartment hotel 13 stories high with 300 rooms. Like its façade, the newly-opened Theresa had an all-white clientele and staff for its first twenty-eight years. In 1940, reflecting the changing population of Harlem, the hotel accepted all races, hired a black staff and management and became known as the “Waldorf of Harlem.” The Hotel Theresa was integrated when most mid-Manhattan hotels wouldn’t accept blacks. They could perform at the clubs, hotels and theaters but couldn’t sleep in the hotel rooms or eat in the hotel’s restaurant.

Black Americas most famous stars- Josephine Baker, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Count Basie- had to go to Harlem for a night’s sleep. For many blacks the existence of the Hotel Theresa’s rooms, bars and swank shops was regarded as a sign that they had finally arrived, at least in Harlem.

Seventh Avenue and 125th Street was called the Great Black Way. The neighborhood contained the Salem Methodist Church; the studio of James Van Der Zee, Harlem’s most famous photographer; the African Memorial National Bookstore; the mafia-owned Diamond Jewelry Store; the M. Smith Photo Studio; the Apollo Theater; Blumstein’s Department Store; Frank’s Restaurant; Harlem Opera House; Oscar Hammerstein’s Play House; Hartz and Seamon’s Music Hall; the Cotton Club; Mike’s Place; Savoy Ballroom; Nest Club; Smalls Paradise; The Club Baron.

In 1940, the following announcement appeared in the New York Age:

Harlem Hotel Seeks Negro Trade; Picks Manager: The Hotel Theresa at Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, which catered to white patronage for several years, has changed its policy as of March 20 and will cater to both races, under Negro management with a Negro staff, according to an announcement by Richard Thomas, publicity manager of the hotel. In carrying out its new policy for the accommodation of Negroes and whites, the Gresham Management Company, operators of the Theresa, appointed Walter Scott as the hotel’s manager. Extensive renovations and improvements of the service and facilities of the hotel have been undertaken. A staff of 80 persons has been employed.

The African American General Manager Walter Scott had been the business manager at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street. A graduate of New York University and a World War I veteran, Scott had worked as a bellhop, partner and waiter on the Hudson River Dayline boats. Early in April 1940, Scott and his wife Gertrude and their sixteen year-old daughter, Gladys moved into a six-room suite on the tenth floor.

In 1941, heavyweight champion Joe Louis attracted 10,000 fans when he stayed at the Theresa after a victory at the Polo Grounds. Soon thereafter, entrepreneur John H. Johnson was a guest at the Theresa when he started a new pocket-size magazine called Negro Digest and, in 1945, Ebony which was followed by Jet in 1951. After splitting with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X rented offices at the hotel for his Organization of Afro-American Unity.

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By Stanley Turkel

Harlem’s decades-old Mart 125 building on road to rebirth

Mart 125 will soon experience a rebirth.

Mart 125,on West 125th Street.

Mart 125,on West 125th Street.

The 67,000-square-foot eyesore on 125th St. near Frederick Douglass Blvd., which has been vacant for more than a decade, will soon house three journalism and documentary filmmaking media-related organizations, a Harlem visitors center run by NYC & Co. and ground floor retail that could include a restaurant, according to officials at the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone.

The latest proposal for the single-story building was made public by the 125th St. Business Improvement District this week.

“The site is the last city site on that corridor,” said Hope Knight, chief operating officer for the empowerment zone. “It’s creating a home for an emerging creative sector in Upper Manhattan.”

Knight would not say which organizations are moving into the space.

The empowerment zone has teamed with local architect Roberta Washington Jonathan Rose Companies, a real estate policy, planning, development and investment firm, to help with the plan.

Why is the Harlem Apollo Theater so important?

The Apollo began life as a venue for burlesque shows

The Apollo began life as a venue for burlesque shows

It launched the careers of James Brown and the Jacksons, and now the Apollo Theatre is celebrating its 80th birthday. A star-studded gala including appearances by Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole and Doug E Fresh took place at the venue earlier this week – but how did the venue become so important to soul music?

The shining lights of the Apollo sign are a beacon for tourists rushing through 125th street in central Harlem.

But to understand the Apollo’s past is to understand the struggles of Harlem itself.

Designed by New York architect George Keister, it began life in 1913 as a burlesque theatre, restricted solely to white patrons.

Stevie Wonder was a young teenager when he first performed at the legendary venue

Stevie Wonder was a young teenager when he first performed at the legendary venue

In 1932, though, burlesque was banned by New York’s mayor. The venue languished for two years, during which time it fell into disrepair, before theatre impresario Sidney S Cohen took on the lease, renaming it The Apollo, after the Greek God of music.

This was at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance – a cultural, social, and artistic explosion amongst the African-American middle class, which had strong links to the civil rights movement.

Cohen decided the Apollo would be the first theatre to allow black people to perform, at a time when African-Americans were forbidden from entering most theatres in the US.

Billy Mitchell has worked at the theatre for nearly 50 years and is now the in-house historian

Billy Mitchell has worked at the theatre for nearly 50 years and is now the in-house historian

Billy Mitchell, affectionately known as “Mr Apollo” has been here on and off for 49 years. He started running errands for the Apollo back in 1965, when he was 15 years old. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Now he’s the in-house historian and tour director.

“I started meeting all the stars that were performing here,” he says.

“Imagine, I saw Stevie Wonder when he was 15. Eventually, I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers. Michael was nine years old when they first came and performed on the Amateur Night.

“And there was James Brown, who I met and who convinced me the importance of getting a good education.

“He kept asking how my grades were going. He would give me money if the grades were taking off. He convinced me to raise my hand in class if there was a time the teacher was teaching something I didn’t understand.”

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Select Bus Service to Launch on 125th Street in May

larger trafficHARLEM — The harsh winter delayed the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street but the controversial service is slated to run from May 25, according to the Department of Transportation.

The service was supposed to launch in April but was delayed because of bad weather, according to DOT spokesman Nicholas Mosquera.

“[T]he very harsh winter had an impact on DOT scheduling, as it did on many city agencies, and we proceeded with the project as soon as resources and materials allowed,” said Mosquera.

The paint used for the red bus lane and other markings can only be applied when temperatures are consistently warm. Work on the striping is now underway.

The M60 bus to LaGuardia Airport will be the only one of the four bus lines along 125th Street to make a reduced number of stops — six along 125th Street. Passengers pay at a terminal before boarding the bus to help speed the trip.

Under the setup, there will be dedicated bus lanes from Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue. The bus lanes will be camera-enforced and left turns will be restricted at Lexington Avenue and Fifth Avenue to improve traffic flow.

The DOT and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent a year gathering feedback from residents and riders along 125th Street, including conducting walking tours.

But when the agencies unveiled their plan, Community Boards 10 and 11 and State Sen. Bill Perkins criticized it, saying that the concerns of residents about parking and making other 125th Street bus lines part of the Select Bus Service were ignored.

Saying they couldn’t come to an agreement with residents, DOT canceled the plans in July. In October, the agency announced that the proposal, largely unchanged from initial DOT and MTA concessions, would once again move forward.

The M60 is the most-used bus line on 125th Street. More than 9,600 of the 32,000 passengers who use the four bus lines on 125th Street use the M60, according to MTA data.

The majority of riders use the bus for cross-town travel, and just 10 percent use it to get to LaGuardia. The changes could reduce bus travel times on 125th Street by 18 percent, according to the MTA.

By Jeff Mays on April 29, 2014 7:23am

Waterbridge Capital Pays $37 M. for East Harlem Development Site

Waterbridge Capital is in contract to purchase three contiguous properties located at the southeast corner of 125th Street and Park Avenue in East Harlem for $36.8 million – across the street from Bruce Eichner’s planned 80/20 residential project at 1800 Park Avenue.

125The properties, at 1815 Park Avenue, 1801 Park Avenue, and 110 East 125th Street, combine for a gross buildable area of approximately 210,220 square feet, and development plans call for a mega retail center with a high-rise residential condominium.

“We were very successful in assembling a five parcel mega site with measurements that are not comparable to any other site along the 125thStreet corridor, aside from Vornado’s recent sale across the street at 1800 Park Avenue,” said Lenny Sporn, who represented both sides of the transaction with Ariel Tavivian and Yair Tavivian, who make up the Tavivian Sporn Team at Douglas Elliman.

Mr. Eichner’s site, purchased for $65 million plus conditional brownfield credits, will include 70,000 square feet of retail space.

“We’re expecting a complete change in the climate along 125th Street,” Mr. Sporn said, noting the need in the area for a mega retailer in the vein of Macy’s – which is rumored to be looking along 125th Street.

“This could be an amazing space for something like that,” he added, though the site might incorporate everything from retail to office space, affordable housing to condominiums.

The portfolio is centrally located just by the 125th Street subway station for the 4, 5 and 6 trains as well as the 2 and 3 trains, providing both east and west side access. Also nearby are new neighborhood additions Red Rooster and Sylvia’s Soul Food, along with Raymour & Flanigan and The Apollo Theater.

The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2014.

By Al Barbarino 12/19 7:30am

Harlem business owners say National Urban League will put them on the street

Civil rights group plans big building for housing, headquarters and a museum  about The Struggle. But locals are worried about their own struggle.

Massamakam Tounkara, owner of Kaarta Imports, fears he may lose the space he has rented for 20 years if the National Urban League moves forward with its development project.

Massamakam Tounkara, owner of Kaarta Imports, fears he may lose the space he has rented for 20 years if the National Urban League moves forward with its development project.

A world renowned civil rights group’s plan to turn a row of small businesses  in Harlem into a lustrous new headquarters and black history museum would  trample on the very small business owners whose life stories could themselves be  in the museum, foes say.

The plan by the National Urban League – backed by Gov. Cuomo and Mayor  Bloomberg – would replace an underutilized parking lot and a string of  businesses on 125th St. between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards  with a 400,000-square-foot, $225 million complex comprising a new HQ for the  progressive group, housing, the city’s first civil rights museum, and retail  space for national chain stores.

But it’s all built on the backs of some longtime businessmen and women who staked their lives on the once-seedy strip.

The National Urban League has its own vision for a new headquarters at 121 W. 125th St.

The National Urban League has its own vision for a new headquarters at 121 W. 125th St.

“These are decent hard-working entrepreneurs who have invested in this  neighborhood when no one else would … and now they’re going to be treated like  used Dixie cups?” said state Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem).

The business owners say they were offered help to relocate and were invited to apply for a $250,000 loan, but they don’t want to leave.

“It was a blessing for us thinking we made it to 125th St., our mecca,” said  Joseph “Joe Fish” Benbow, manager of the family-owned restaurant Fishers of Men  II, which opened on the Main Street of Black America six years ago. “My dream  was to be here and finish the race with my family.”

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By      / NEW YORK DAILY  NEWS

It’s Official: Harlem Needs More Hotel Rooms

victoriatheatreharlemAfter years of red tape, a new development at the site of Harlem’s old Victoria Theater on 125th Street finally got the go-ahead earlier this year. Danforth Development Partners and Exact Capital have enlisted  Aufgang & Subotovsky architects to design a major mixed-use project that will include a cultural arts center, retail space, 229 apartment units, and a 210-room Cambria Suites hotel.

Construction was said to be starting around now, but when we stopped by the other day it was difficult to gauge what, if anything, was going on behind that facade. The complex certainly will see a lot of work before it rises to its slated 26 stories — completion date is penciled in for June 2016.

In timely news, at the Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference last week, DNAinfo reports, Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, said a study his group paid for showed that Harlem was short by 1,500 hotel rooms, and that even future growth in the hotel industry doesn’t match demand. We’d certainly agree; Harlem is a great area but, besides the Aloft Harlem a couple of blocks from the Victoria, there’s nothing for visitors who might want to spend the night here — after an evening at, say, The Apollo Theater.

While we’re certainly pleased to hear that the new Cambria Suites will absorb a fraction of that unmet hotel room need, we would love it if we could get a few of the hipper brands uptown too. With all of the culture and history on offer in Harlem, how about a funky boutique chain that would honor the location? A Kimpton Hotel, perhaps, even a reasonably priced Hotel Indigo; or how about Ace Hotels bringing their live music series up to Harlem?

We may be dreaming, but are seriously in agreement about the need for more Harlem hotel options. The area deserves more than just a passing visit.

Midweek November rates at the Aloft Harlem start at $239.

October 30, 2013 at 8:47 AM | by

Faster bus service coming to Harlem after all

Just three months after New York City’s transportation department nixed a plan to bring faster buses to Harlem’s 125th Street corridor, the plan has been resurrected.

In a press release to reporters sent late Friday afternoon, the D.O.T. announced that the new service will launch in April 2014, “speeding the commutes of more than 30,000 bus passengers who travel on 125th Street routes daily.”

125th Street Joseph A via Flickr

125th Street Joseph A via Flickr

“Using dedicated bus lanes, consolidated stops and allowing passengers to pay before boarding the bus, the streamlined service will improve one of the borough’s most-used local bus routes, reducing congestion and providing faster, more reliable connections throughout Harlem and with LaGuardia Airport,” says the release.

Earlier this month, I reported that local leaders were hoping the plan would be resurrected before the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure.

“We still have until late December, right?” State Senator Adriano Espaillat told me at the time. “This is just one more item. And starting it now is probably not a bad thing, particularly before the holiday season, when you have a lot of shoppers who want to buy on what is a very busy commercial artery.”

Here’s the full release:

New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast and State Sen. Bill Perkins today announced that M60 Select Bus Service (SBS) will launch in April 2014, speeding the commutes of more than 30,000 bus passengers who travel on 125th Street routes daily. Using dedicated bus lanes, consolidated stops and allowing passengers to pay before boarding the bus, the streamlined service will improve one of the borough’s most-used local bus routes, reducing congestion and providing faster, more reliable connections throughout Harlem and with LaGuardia Airport. DOT and MTA conducted more than 50 meetings with the community and elected officials over the last year, and following extensive outreach to address specific concerns with the community this summer, the project is now proceeding with support from local elected officials, including Sen. Perkins, State Sen. Adriano Espaillat and City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. DOT also announced streetscape improvements planned for 125th Street, including the planned installation of the city’s first City Lights—62 attractive and energy-efficient new LED street lights from Morningside Avenue to Fifth Avenue using $500,000 in funding from Assembly Member Keith Wright. The project will also bring the City’s new pedestrian way finding system to 125th Street, with maps at all 12 SBS stations, and equipped with real-time bus arrival information and new parking spaces will be established along parts of 124th and 126th streets. DOT and MTA will continue to advise the community and inform them of details as the project moves forward.

“With new businesses and historic destinations drawing record numbers of visitors to the heart of Harlem, 125th Street has never been more dynamic, yet congestion has kept buses at a standstill,” said Commissioner Sadik-Khan. “By bringing dedicated bus lanes and speeding up boarding times, SBS will provide a lifeline to thousands of residents and visitors and bring world-class streetscapes to one of the world’s most famous streets.”

“The 125th Street corridor is a vital thoroughfare for Harlem residents and businesses alike,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast. “I’m glad we will be able to improve service for our customers while still maintaining commercial loading zones for businesses in the area.  Select Bus Service will speed up bus service by as much as 20 percent on the M60 where half of the route’s  boardings and alightings happen right on 125th Street.”

“I am happy to announce Select Bus Service will come to the 125th Street corridor after a thorough community task force vetting which included the residents, businesses, disabled communities and the local community boards,” said Senator Perkins. “I am satisfied that this a service that will be of benefit to the community and look forward to its successful use by my constituents and the community at large. However, the task force and I will continue to monitor its progress and share input with DOT as this service moves forward.”

“I’m very pleased that the DOT has been able to bring a home a project we’ve long awaited,” said Assembly Member Wright. “The new lighting, the first of its kind in New York City, will bring much added value to the commerce along our busy corridor. The 125th Street BID, led by Barbara Askins, deserves to be commended for its perseverance.”

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It’s Harlem of the future — Bloomberg style

Mayor envisions destinations for tourists, tech geeks and science nerds.  Residents and some pols fear more gentrification.

Is this a scene from the Meatpacking District? No, it’s how the intersection Amsterdam Ave. near W. 125th St. will look within the next decade, according to developer Janus Property Company.

Is this a scene from the Meatpacking District? No, it’s how the intersection Amsterdam Ave. near W. 125th St. will look within the next decade, according to developer Janus Property Company.

A new “Grand Central Station” for Harlem. A biotech center. A jazz museum. A  new home for a national civil rights organization. A massive brewery and  pub.

It’s all part of Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for 125th St. — circa 2025.

The Bloomberg administration hand-picked developers to move into empty  city-owned eyesores in hopes of turning the Main Street of Black America into a  cross between Silicon Valley and Manhattan’s chic Meatpacking District.
The National Urban League has its own vision for a new headquarters at 121 W. 125th St.

The National Urban League has its own vision for a new headquarters at 121 W. 125th St.

Mega-developer Scott Metzner, head of Janus Property Company, beat out 16  competitors in the bidding war for one of the biggest projects — converting the  dilapidated 280,000-square-foot former Taystee Bakery factory into a new-age  home for startups, eateries and shops.

“It’s Harlem’s turn to move into the 21st century,” said Metzner.

Janus is spending around $500 million on 11 buildings between Amsterdam Ave.  and Morningside Ave. — part of an effort to turn west Harlem’s so-called  “Factory District” into a mini-Dumbo.

“For the first time in 100 years this will be an active neighborhood again,”  Metzner said.

The Metro-North station on 125th St. is a mess. The city envisions a “Grand Central Station” for uptown.

The Metro-North station on 125th St. is a mess. The city envisions a “Grand Central Station” for uptown.

The “Factory District” idea came from a 2008 rezoning of the 125th St.  allowing the construction of towering condo and office buildings in lieu of  low-rise mom-and-pop shops.

Then the city’s Economic Development Corporation decided which abandoned  properties could serve as upper Manhattan’s startup meccas.

“Harlem’s growth and evolution will ensure it becomes one of New York City’s  premier destinations for generations to come,” said Economic Development  Corporation President Kyle Kimball. “The arts, culture, science and industrial  sectors of Harlem will continue to thrive.”

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East Harlem Merchants to Pay Homeless to Tackle 125th St. Trash Problem

New East Harlem Merchants Association Trash Plan

New East Harlem Merchants Association Trash Plan

HARLEM — For more than a decade, neighbors have complained about the hundreds of homeless people who gather at a bus stop at Lexington Avenue and 125th Street to commute to shelters on Ward’s Island, blaming them for contributing to the garbage overflowing from the trash cans.

Now a Harlem business improvement district is hoping to employ some of the 700 to 900 homeless people who ride the M35 bus to help clean up the mess, recruiting local property owners to contribute to a fund to pay them to keep the area clean.

Kwanza Smith, executive director of the New East Harlem Merchants Association, has reached out to the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless to develop a program to hire homeless men to clean the area. When she brought the executive director of ACE New York to the corner he said it was one of the filthiest he had ever seen, Smith said.

“We are sensitive to the fact that these men are homeless. We want a plan for them,” Smith said.

The goal is to raise $75,000 to employ eight people to clean the area between Fifth and Second avenues, between 124th and 126th streets, five days a week.

So far, the association has raised almost $16,000 with an online fundraiser and by reaching out to local businesses, asking them to donate $3,000 a piece.

Property owners such as Artimus, 125th Street Gateway Ventures —  for whom Smith works — Wild Olive Market, Blumenfeld Development Group and the Northern Manhattan Nursing Home have contributed to the fund.

Despite tremendous development in the area, including a Pathmark and co-ops, cleanliness has not kept pace with the improvements. A recent cleanup effort by 60 volunteers collected 50 bags of garbage filled with food containers, paper and cigarette butts.

“This has been going on for years. People who walk up this street feel like the neighborhood is one big trash can,” Smith as she stood next to one of the overflowing trash cans. “We’ve had all this development over the past 10 years so this area shouldn’t look like this.”

Kwanza Smith, executive director of the New East Harlem Merchants Association, knows that by the time sanitation trucks ...

Kwanza Smith, executive director of the New East Harlem Merchants Association, knows that by the time sanitation trucks …

At 3:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon the four trash cans at the corners of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street were all filled to the brim. Smith warned that by the time sanitation trucks arrived the next day, the trash would be blowing around the streets.

“Today isn’t even that bad,” Smith said.

The merchants association is also trying to get more frequent trash pick-ups and larger trash cans.

The neighboring BID, the 125th Street Business Improvement District, has street cleaners, but its boundary ends at Fifth Avenue. The group is in the planning phases of  a river-to-river expansion, said President and CEO Barbara Askins.

Askins said having a cleaning crew has made a big difference further west on 125th Street.

“This is a step in the right direction because businesses want to see an organized effort to address the problem,” Askins said. “People are not willing to invest in an area that is dirty.”

When a pizzeria at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street closed recently, Smith said a conversation with the owner revealed that the trash and general environment of the area contributed to their departure.

“It’s hard to maintain a business on this end of 125th Street,” she said.

By Jeff Mays on September 23, 2013 6:48am | Updated on September 23, 2013 6:48am