One of the pitfalls of writing about history comes when you know something too well. Dates, events, and figures seep into the memory and, over time, become fixed. It’s easy to forget to reexamine the original source material, or to take another look at information you’ve long held as factual. As in life, what you hold closest to heart is sometimes the easiest to overlook.
For years I’ve carried around the belief that the former Loew’s Seventh Avenue Theater (now the Greater Refuge Temple), on the corner of 124th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, is the oldest theatrical structure in Manhattan. But now I realize that I’ve never verified this through solid historical research. Here is what I know (or at least, what I believe I know): Loew’s Seventh Avenue was created around 1910 out of the shell of the old Harlem Casino, a theatrical and entertainment complex that dated to the 1880s or 1890s (when this section of Harlem was a sedate middle-class enclave populated largely by German families). It remained in operation until the lean Depression years of the 1930s, and then eventually became a church.
In the middle 1960s it was modernized with the colorful façade it bears today (visible in the right portion of the top photo; sadly, the delicate building to the left has now been completely resurfaced for use as a Verizon store). It’s hard to know how much architectural detail remains hidden inside Greater Refuge Temple today, as the auditorium is dominated by a pod-like ceiling that looks like something from a 1960s science fiction movie. However, if you walk around to the 124th Street side of the building, you’ll see a small remnant of the original Harlem Casino structure. It rises like a tower alongside the decorative building next door.
So, if we use the original Harlem Casino construction date as a starting point, is the former theater at 124th and Seventh Avenue truly the oldest in Manhattan? Are there any structures which might have been used as theaters that can be said to predate it? What other details can be uncovered to flesh out its history? This week I hope to find out.