So it turns out that the history of the old Harlem Casino, 124th Street and 7th Avenue, is more complicated than I had thought. When we last visited this location, in my post of March 27, I concluded that (contrary to my previous assumptions) it was probably not really the oldest theatrical building left standing in Manhattan. But the other day, while researching something else, I came across an item in the June 11, 1889 issue of the New York Times, referring to the “laying of the cornerstone of the new West End Theatre at the northeast corner of Seventh avenue and One Hundred and Twenty-fourth street.” Of course, this is the exact corner of the former Harlem Casino/Loew’s 7th Avenue/present-day Greater Refuge Temple. I recalled how, during my earlier research of this building, I had been puzzled by the fact that a permit for new construction had been issued in 1889. Now it was starting to seem as if my original belief had been correct all along, and that the building had indeed been used as a theater before becoming the multi-purpose entertainment facility, the Harlem Casino.
That’s when the story began to get strange. After that initial laying of the cornerstone, during a ceremony which apparently took quite a bit of time (the Times reported how one of the speakers, a Harlem judge, “spoke from notes, and each time he stopped to consult them the army of small boys yelled at the top of their shrill voices, in the joyful hope that he had finished”), everything went wrong. The theater’s manager, owner, and backer (“projector,” in the parlance of the day), one A.H. Wood, ran out of money soon after, with the Times explaining that he was waiting to receive “$200,000 from his father-in-law in Detroit.” The father-in-law was a well-to-do fur merchant named Louis Bresler, who at one point expressed his “utmost confidence” in the integrity of his son-in-law, Wood. Then the 68-year-old Bresler died unexpectedly after an illness of just a few weeks. Another son-in-law of Bresler, a lawyer named Aaron Kahn, accused Wood (our friend the theater owner) of killing the older man by poison – presumably so he could get a share of the inheritance money.
But it gets odder still. It turns out that A.H. Wood, who had built upon his self-perpetuating myth by designating himself “Napoleon” Wood, the theatrical wunderkind, was really named Charles Hahr, or Charles Morris, a known forger who had somehow managed to marry into a prominent family. Evidently he was never indicted for poisoning his father-in-law, but in 1891 he and his twin brother were arrested and charged in a string of burglaries. At the time it was also discovered that Charles Hahr/A.H. Wood was the same man police were seeking in a series of unusual cases involving blackmail. Hahr’s practice was to observe trials-in-process at the police courts and wait for any information one of the parties would not want to make public. Then he would visit the party at his or her home, pretending to be a reporter who would expose the nasty details unless a payment was made. Usually he asked for $100 but was willing to accept whatever he could get. Once, he blackmailed someone for ten cents. After serving time in prison, Hahr/Wood returned to the city and again got arrested and sent to jail for extortion. This time his ploy had been to pay Harlem children to skip class, then to visit the parents of the children. Pretending to be a truancy officer, he would promise not to bring forth charges if they gave him money. After that he disappears from the historical record.
The West End Theatre, meanwhile, stayed unfinished. Only the foundation had been built. Eventually, a two-story market was put on top of it, and then, in the middle 1890s, the Harlem Casino – which, as we discussed earlier, became the Loew’s 7th Avenue and, later, the Greater Refuge Temple. So what can we conclude? That the building at 124th Street and 7th Avenue represents the oldest theatrical foundation in Manhattan!
Incidentally, in 1902 a theater with the name “West End” was indeed constructed, on 125th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue. That building, a real beauty, still exists today as LaGree Baptist Church.