Picking up where we left off last week, we’re trying to determine whether or not the Greater Refuge Temple at 124th Street and 7th Avenue, formerly the Loew’s Seventh Avenue movie palace (formerly the Harlem Casino) is really the oldest theater left standing in Manhattan (for more about the building, see last week’s post). My first surprise during the course of research this week was a New York Times article dated September 18, 1910, which described the Casino as having been “converted into a theatre.” The article goes on to state: “All that remains of the old casino are the facades on Seventh Avenue and 124th Street and the old roof over the ballroom.”
So what WAS the Harlem Casino, exactly, if not a theater? Using the Library of Congress amazing full-text newspaper database covering the years 1880 to 1910, I did an “exact phrase” search for “Harlem Casino.” One of the first articles I found was in the New York Sun, in a reference to a boxing match held at the Casino. But in a later article, from 1887, I realized that this was actually a different Harlem Casino, located on 126th Street and Second Avenue.
I now realized I would need to pin down, as closely as possible, the date of the 124th Street Harlem Casino’s construction, in order to search properly. For this I went to the BIS (Buildings Information System) section of the NYC Department of Buildings website. Here, visitors can search for the construction and alteration history of city buildings, according to borough and address. “NB” stands for “New Building.” For 2081 Seventh Avenue (the actual address of the Casino/Loew’s Theater/Greater Refuge Temple site), the “NB” key indicates that permits for new construction were issued in both 1889 and 1890. Given the space of time between the issuance of a permit and the actual completion of a building, it could be estimated that the Harlem Casino likely opened for business around 1891.
Armed with this info, I went back to the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site. I found a 1901 article in the New York Tribune that references the “new Harlem Casino” and lists the 124th Street location: “it was the first function to take place in the ballroom, which was handsomely decorated with palms and flowers.” This didn’t fit with the date of construction on the BIS site, so I began to wonder if the Harlem Casino was called something else before 1901. Going back to the New York Times historical database, I found an 1896 article that describes the “Harlem Casino” as being sold, and uses the 124th Street and Seventh Avenue address. So perhaps the Casino closed for a period and reopened prior to 1901 under different management.
But my larger question – that of determining whether or not the Harlem Casino could be classified as a theater – was soon answered by an article in the New York Daily Tribune dated June 7, 1903 (also accessed through Chronicling America). The article surveys a range of fun local escapes New Yorkers can make during the summertime, in lieu of an out-of-town vacation (I love the argument it posits, “New-York is a fine summer resort,” because we’re still saying the same kinds of things today!), and offers the first really detailed description I’ve found of the Harlem Casino: “The restaurant and a large reception hall are on the main floor, while the banquet rooms and ballrooms are on the second floor…In the basement are four standard bowling alleys, which are rented out to clubs on different evenings…During the coming summer a new stage will be built in the large hall.”
A later article from the Tribune, date June 14, 1908, lists the Harlem Casino under its “Theatrical Directory,” and features a photo of a performer from a production there of “Die Lustige Witwe” (The Merry Widow, of course, was a sensation at the time, and this section of Harlem was largely German). I also found an old postcard image of the Casino, dated 1904. Still, the Casino does not appear to have been a theater in the conventional sense. From the research I’ve uncovered, it seems that it would be more appropriate to describe the Casino as a multi-purpose reception and entertainment facility that, on certain occasions, offered theatrical performances as part of a diverse range of events.
What this means is that I was incorrect in believing the Harlem Casino/Loew’s Theater at 124th Street and Seventh Avenue is the oldest theatrical building in Manhattan, since the Harlem Casino was not technically a theater to begin with, and the Loew’s history of the structure did not begin until 1910. We’ll have to keep researching this topic, but for now it seems as if Manhattan’s oldest legitimate theater is the current New Victory on West 42nd Street, which began construction as the Republic in 1899.