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

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