Thursday, August 23, 2012

The 1916 Chalif Normal School of Dancing -- No. 163 West 57th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1904 the 29-year old Louis Harvy Chalif arrived in New York City ready to teach ballet.  Born in Odessa, Russia, he had become a master at the art of dance.  A year later he opened the Louis H. Chalif Normal School of Dancing, even while he was dancing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet between 1905 and 1906, where he was assistant ballet master.

In 1910 Chalif retired from dancing to devote his energies entirely to teaching and writing books on dance.  His wide repertoire extended far beyond ballet—he was skilled in folk, Balkan, ballroom, classical, esthetic, character, national and interpretive dance.  The sole area the conservative instructor shunned was modern dance.
Louis Harvy Chalif in 1920 -- photo The Chalif Text Book of Dancing: Greek Dancing (copyright expired)
And yet Chalif recognized that the art of dance was not static.  He wrote “Dancing is a changing and a growing art.  Whoever regards it as finished will add nothing to it.  We believe that anyone who gives his best thought to it has a chance of adding his bit to its progress, as well as of making a guess at the dancing of the future.  In any case, study incessant, ambitions never satisfied, are the proper discipline and the privilege of every artist.”

Chalif demonstrates a dance maneuver -- photo The Chalif Text Book of Dancing: Greek Dancing (copyright expired)
By 1914 Chalif was ready to construct his own building to house not only his school but his family.  He purchased two structures across from Carnegie Hall at Nos. 163 and 165 West 57th Street.  The instructor did not have to look far to find his architects—the office of George and Henry Boehm was in the same building as Chalif’s school at No. 7 West 42nd Street.   Demolition of the existing 57th Street buildings began in 1916 as The American Contractor announced plans for a 5-story brick, stone and terra cotta residence and school.   The projected cost, as filed by G.A. and H. Boehm, was $110,000.

Construction began in April and was completed eight months later.   The architects covered the façade above the Dover marble base with striking terra cotta ornament, fabricated by the Federal Terra Cotta Co.   Inspired by the Italian Renaissance and Mannerism styles, the decorations reflected classical iconography of the theater:  masks, lyres and faces; as well as griffins, urns, rosettes and other images.  American Architect and Architecture praised the adept blend of materials.  “The Chalif Studios…are an example of conspicuous success in the harmonious relation of pale ivory marble and gray manganese brick with polychrome terra cotta for ornamental enrichment.”  Good Furniture magazine said “The new Chalif building on 57th Street has a golden charm that is all its own.”

Terra cotta images of the theater--lyres and Greek masks--coexist with urns, skulls and griffins -- photo by Alice Lum
Chalif’s building was designed to produce added income through rented space for private events.  The street level housed the reception foyer, paneled in wood.   On the second floor was the grand ballroom, while on the third was the banquet hall that was connected to the large catering kitchen in the basement by a service elevator.   The “gymnasium floor” was on the top floor, covered by an iron and glass ceiling supported by a steel-trussed roof.  The entire fourth floor was reserved as an apartment for Chalif and his family.

Bricks of slightly different shading were laid in a diamond pattern -- photo Architectural Forum 1917 (copyright expired)
Louis Chalif described his new  building in his own words in one of his many publications.  “All instruction is given in the home newly erected for the Chalif School (as well as for select rental purposes) opposite Carnegie Hall.  It is a six-story, fire-proof structure, containing four halls, elevators and every convenience.  It possesses a remarkable beauty of design and coloring, both without and within, where the furnishing too is of the most artistic.  The classes are most often held in a delightful Roof Parlor, where light and color combine to inspire but not outshine the dancers.  Altogether the building is unparalleled for its purposes in America, and a striking evidence of the success which this school has met with through giving the best instruction.”

The first floor reception area was wood-paneled with crystal chandeliers -- photo Architectural Forum 1917 (copyright expired)
In what Chalif called the “Temple to Terpsichore” the master not only taught young girls, but teachers.   Luther Gulick hired him to teach dancing to New York public school teachers who then used the art as “physical culture” instruction in the schools.   An advertisement in Theatre Magazine listed a few of the classes available.  “Graded classes and private lessons in Greek, Interpretive, National, Classic, Character and Toe Dancing…Special attention given to pupils preparing for the stage.”  The ad did not forget to mention that “Three beautiful ballrooms are to rent for dances, recitals, weddings, etc.”

The second floor Grand Ballroom -- photo Architectural Forum 1917 (copyright expired)
The ballrooms were rented for a variety of purposes.  On February 17, 1918 The New-York Tribune announced that because of the unexpected demand for tickets, the “entertainment which was to have been given at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Webster Herrman, 85 East Seventh-ninth Street, on Tuesday evening, for the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men” would be held at the Chalif studio.   In 1921 the Third Roosevelt Anniversary Ball was held here, as was a dance hosted by the girl marines of the Semper Fidelis Post.

Louis Chalif stands alone on the sidewalk in front of his newly-completed building -- photo NYPL Collection
Louis Chalif was incensed and offended when in 1919 the Board of Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church banned dancing in its Book of Discipline’s amusement laws.   When the Board convened in Atlanta the following year in November, Chalif fired off a letter.  “We shall continue to urge the abolition of these blue laws,” he wrote, complaining that at the Methodist General Conference in May the group “ostrich-like, by agreement, refused to discuss this question outside of private committee, and even retained a ban on the circus.”

The Grand Ballroom would later be turned into an auditorium with stage and mezzanine -- photo Architectural Forum 1917 (copyright expired)
Whether Methodist Episcopalians were allowed to dance or not, Chalif continued to instruct and many of his students would go on the stellar careers.   The great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova wrote “I admire your energy and your work.”  Among his students were budding movie stars Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, Buddy Ebsen, Marion Davis, Alice Faye, Ann Sothern and Mae Murray.  Rita de la Porte, who would become a major dancer at the Metropolitan Opera studied here, as did Alice Cannon who went on to become assistant ballet mistress at Radio City Music Hall.

In 1933 Louis Chalif left his Temple to Terpsichore to move to Rockefeller Center’s International Building.  A year later the 57th Street building was lost to the Harlem Savings Bank through foreclosure.  The grand building saw a quick succession of varied tenants—the Galy Russian Art Gowns store, Vanity Fair Theater Restaurant and Georgian Hall until 1937 when it became vacant. 

The Chalif Building stood empty for five years during which the Harlem Savings Bank altered the grand ballroom into a theater with a mezzanine and stage.  The Dover marble ground floor was remodeled at the same time with an arcade and iron balcony.  In 1942 the building was purchased by the Federation of Crippled and Disabled, Inc.  The organization provided artificial limbs and appliances such as braces and crutches to the disabled and aided them in finding jobs.

photo by Alice Lum
Then in 1946 the spacious halls heard music once again.  Carl Fischer, Inc., one of America’s premier music publishers, bought the building in February.  The firm established its retail store on the ground floor and held recitals and other musical events in the auditorium, renamed Carl Fischer Concert Hall, and in Chalif’s “Roof Parlor,” now called the “Carl Fischer Sky Room.”  Here, during the 1950s, a series of events called the New Music Concerts featured premiere productions by composers like Benjamin Britten and John Cage.

The building was sold once again, in October 1959, to CAMI Realty Corp., a branch of the Columbia Artists Management, Inc.   The firm, which managed renowned orchestra conductors, opera singers and instrumentalists, hired architect William E. Lescaze to renovate the building.  The four year renovation included the remodeling, again, of the street level façade.

CAMI continued to use the second story auditorium, now known as Judson Hall in honor of Arthur Judson, for recitals.  Not only an artists’ agent, Judson managed the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.  But things did not end well for him and Columbia Artists.

photo by Alice Lum
A rift occurred in 1963 that ended in an ugly separation.  The New York Times reported “Mr. Judson and Columbia Artists Management did not part on the best of terms, and shortly after he left, he sent word that he wanted his name removed from the façade of the company’s building.”  The second floor auditorium was renamed again; this time to CAMI Hall.

Through the doors of No. 163 West 57th Street passed musical artists as varied and well-known as Jose Carreras, Wynton Marsalis and Luciano Pavarotti.  CAMI represented stage and screen personalities as well, including Harrison Ford and Lauren Bacall.

After having been remodeled several times, the street level façade was restored in 1983.  Columbia Artists removed the modernist exterior and recreated the original Dover marble façade in Indiana limestone.  The lost terra cotta band course was replicated as closely as possible to the original.

photo by Alice Lum
The building is now home to IESE Business School’s research center which focuses on global business, media and entertainment.  The international organization also houses its executive education programs here.

Despite nearly a century of varied uses, Louis Chalif’s colorful Italian Renaissance school building is little changed.  Passersby ogling the imposing Carnegie Hall would do well to turn around and take in the Temple of Terpsichore as well.

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