Thursday, August 7, 2014

Savigny Hall -- No. 229 Lenox Avenue

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /
Following the extension of the elevated railroad into Harlem in 1872 the area around Mount Morris Park saw rapid development.  Along the west side of Lenox Avenue a long, two-block string of neo-Grec brownstone-clad rowhouses rose.  Their regimented uniformity would be broken when No. 229 Lenox Avenue made its appearance as the century drew to a close.

In contrast to the highly vertical proportions of the its older neighbors, the three story and attic home with its bowed front had a portly appearance.  The seemingly squat personality of the design was added to by the low stoop and the oversized dormers protruding from the steep mansard roof.

The peculiar house would have a rocky beginning.  In April 1902 it was lost to foreclosure with $31,484 due on the mortgage.  It was purchased by the City Real Estate Company, which quickly resold it to Mary B. Hughes in October for $29,500 – about $771,000 today.

Hughes, too, would not hold on to the property for long.  The 25-foot wide house was sold to Francis Stevens, who sold it to the Theadela Realty Co. in May 1910.  That firm sold the house to W. H. Devoe.  The rapid-fire comings and goings of owners and residents were about to come to an end, however.  On Saturday, March 2, 1912 The Sun reported that the “four story American basement dwelling” had been purchased by the Harlem Social Club.  The newspaper noted that the club “after alterations, will occupy the house.”

Contractors J. Braunstein & Co. set to work renovating the residence into a clubhouse.  It was most likely at this time that the apartment building-like entrance was added.  What had been a somewhat amusing townhouse was now a battle of disproportionate and unrelated elements.  The decorative pseudo-balcony at the second floor threatened to sit on the quoined framing of the arched windows of the parlor level.  The first floor, with its new overblown entrance, was even more out of alignment with the upper stories than it had been.  The cost for the remodeling was $1,285.

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

For years the social club rented its assembly area, called Savigny Hall, for social events of the area's highly-Jewish population.  In 1917 the bar mitzvah reception for young Kurt Stahl was held here; and in June 1922 Mr. and Mrs. Emil Kreiger hosted a reception for their daughter Stella, who had become engaged to jeweler Louis Sternberg.  Group events were held here as well. On February 18, 1921 The Academy of Podiatry held a dance in the Hall.  Couples paid $1.50 for tickets.

By 1922 the Odd Fellows leased rooms here as well.  The “Charles Dickens” chapter met on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month; while the “Lyric” chapter met on the first and third Thursday.

In 1927 the Munz family was well known within The New York Times delivery organization.  Michael Munz had been employed by the newspaper for 25 years and had risen to foreman of mail deliveries and drivers.  His two brothers, Max and Sigmund were both employed in the mail department; and his son Harold worked as a roto etcher.

The extended Munz family attended a wedding at Savigny Hall on May 1, 1927.  While dancing at the reception that followed, 49-year old Michael Munz collapsed from a heart attack.  Before a physician could respond, he was dead on the dance floor.  “The wedding celebration was at once abandoned,” said The Times the following day.

By the time the Great Depression arrived, the Lenox Avenue neighborhood had changed.  The social club and reception hall were no longer attracting dances and receptions.  Instead it was being used by theater and dance groups.

Hemsley Winfield had created the New Negro Art Theater Dance Group in the 1920s.  In 1932 plans were laid for a series of programs called The Midnight Theater of the Negro Dance to be staged here.  According to author John O. Perpener in his African-American Concert Dance, the performances were scheduled to begin on Christmas day that year and continue every Sunday night.

The series was canceled, however, when Winfield’s company instead was signed to appear in The Emperor Jones at the Metropolitan Opera.  A year later director J. De Witt Spencer was using the space for play rehearsals.

The quirky building with its wide-flung past took another turn in 1937 when it was acquired by the Great Hood Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.  On June 19 The New York Times reported “It will use the building for religious services after it has been renovated.”

The dormers wear pediments that are about one size too large.  photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

Hood Memorial A.M.E. Zion remained in the building until 1951 when it moved to No. 160 West 146th Street.  The former house at No. 229 Lenox Avenue became home to the Walters Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.  Finally, in 2011 the building was renovated one more time.  Today it is used as a public non-commercial art gallery for the community. 

The pudgy house-turned social club-turned rehearsal hall-turned church-turned art gallery looks much as it did following the Harlem Social Club’s 1912 modifications.  Ironically, it is its idiosyncratic proportions and mismatched elements that make it delightful.

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