Saturday, May 7, 2022

The 1891 Madison Hall -- 1941-1943 Madison Avenue

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

In 1889 the area known as Harlem north of the city had transformed from farms and estates to a growing suburb of New York City.   Wealthy merchants relocated here, like Thomas Henry Newman and his wife, Alice.

The Newmans moved into a fine home at 7 East 124th Street in 1879.  Alice came from a well-respected family and The New York Times would late mention, “her father [was] Dr. George Swinburne and her mother a member of the old Draper family of this city.”  She took a special interest in charitable causes in the rapidly-developing Harlem neighborhood, including the Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital at 127th Street and Lexington Avenue; the Harlem Young Women’s Christian Association; and the Woman’s Exchange.  In addition she organized the Harlem Relief Society.

Harlem had money.  But to rival society downtown it needed culture.  In 1889 Alice Newman organized the Harlem Philharmonic Society which gave its first concert on December 19.  Without a concert or music call, the orchestra borrowed the auditorium of the Young Men’s Christian Association on West 125th Street.  That alone was a problem.

The New York Times reported “The orchestra is a small one, as the hall will not accommodate a large body of players, and the works chosen for performance must necessarily be such as can be treated by a small band.”

The problem would be solved within two years when the parcel of property wrapping around the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 125th Street became available.  The New York Times later recalled on September 3, 1911, "Twenty-one years ago William Martin, a well-known citizen of Harlem, leased the property...He improved it by the erection of Madison Hall, which he expected would be a valuable venture."  On November 29, 1891 the newspaper announced “the Harlem Philharmonic Society will give its first concert at Madison Hall, Madison Avenue and 125th Street on Thursday evening.”  

The L-shaped Madison Hall wrapped around the existing corner building.  The new mixed-use structure encompassed an auditorium for concerts and lectures, and meeting rooms.  Three stories tall, it replaced two Italianate rowhouses of a generation earlier on the narrower, Madison Avenue side.  A “happy mixture of styles,” the yellow brick fa├žade was trimmed in carved stone.  Thin, two-story brick pilasters with stylized Corinthian capitals fit snugly between paired openings at the second and third floors.  Above it all, on both elevations, were overblown pressed metal cornices capped with round-arched pediments.
Romanesque details peacefully coexist with Eastlake elements -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

One of the upper floors was used by the Masonic Bunting Lodge, No. 655.  Here, on February 8, 1892, the members celebrated the lodge’s 25th anniversary.  In the meantime, the auditorium was a popular setting for lectures.   That year in November and December alone there were nine with far-ranging subjects like “Dust and Diseases,” “Empire of the Czar,” “Life Bright and Dark Sides of Hospital Life“ and “Some Curiosities of Music.”

Harlemites may have been disappointed to read in The New York Times on February 19, 1893 that “Mrs. Annie Besant’s lecture in Madison Hall, One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street and Madison Avenue, to-night will be a farewell one.”  Mrs. Besant was headed to London.  Her final New York lecture would be “Modern Progress and Theosophy” and The New York Times promised “some interesting events in modern history will be touched upon, with significant Theosophical explanations.”

Madison Hall enwrapped the corner building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Madison Hall was used for political and community meetings, as well.   On May 31, 1893, The New York Times reported that residents intended to protest the decision not to extend an elevated railroad to the area.  “The citizens of Harlem and the annexed district are in a state of indignation over the action of the Rapid-Transit Commissioners in refusing the offer of the Manhattan Elevated Road to extend its roads, and they will hold a mass meeting on Friday at 8 o’clock P. M. in Madison Hall…and enter a vigorous protest against what they consider to be arbitrary action.”

The following year, on October 27, 1894, the auditorium was the scene of an enthusiastic Anti-Tammany meeting.  The next day The Sun reported that the mass meeting was attended by “the anti-Tammanyites of the Twenty-sixth Assembly district, the German-American Union of the Twenty-fifth district, and the Italian-American Reform Club.”

A month later, Professor E. Stone Wiggins plastered posters throughout the neighborhood announcing his upcoming appearances at Madison Hall.  He promoted himself as “the Canadian astronomer and weather prophet, who has gained great renown by his weather prophecies.”  He booked Madison Hall to “discourse to the Harlemites on ‘The Cause of the Deluge’ and ‘Mars, Where Man Came From,’” as reported in The New York Times on November 14.

But the second night of his appearance came and went without an appearance by Professor Wiggins.  Insulted by the community’s tepid response, he had left town.  “He sent a little note to Proprietor Martin of Madison Hall saying that from the slim attendance of the night previous and the evident apathy shown by Harlemites to know whence they came compelled him to give up his lectures.”  The newspaper summed up its article saying “But the question with the ushers and the ticket takers is not ‘where man came from,’ but ‘where money is coming from.’”

Harlem’s prodigious growth, accompanied by the eventual extension of the elevated trains, resulted in a lack of school buildings as the turn of the century neared.  In 1898 the city rented “temporary school premises” for Public School 24 at No. 1941 Madison Avenue.  The city paid an annual rental of $4,500—about $125,000 today.

The school would remain in the building for at least two years and it was here, according M. Jordan's letter to The New York Times decades later, that the first school orchestra was formed.  Interestingly enough, when the first school orchestra concert was given here it was conducted by Dr. Henry T. Fleck.  Fleck had been the conductor of the Harlem Philharmonic Society when it gave its first concert in the building in 1891.

Now, the building's owner, the Star Realty Co., made significant changes.  On August 13, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Guide noted, "Plans are nearing completion in the office of Ambrosius & Herzog...for improvements to the old Madison Hall...The building will be remodeled into a theatre, at a cost of $50,000."  The alterations would cost the equivalent of $1.5 million today.

Trouble came to Madison Hall on December 15, 1907.  Police did a Sunday sweep of music halls, saloons and dance halls that day.  The New-York Tribune reported “Only four excise arrests were made in Harlem, although many of the saloons were doing a big business…Theodore Tisch had a dance in Madison Hall, at No. 1943 Madison avenue.  The police found about twenty couples there, and arrested Tisch.”

More shocking to New Yorkers than dancing on Sundays was the Ferrer School of Socialism or “Modern School” that established itself in the Madison Hall building in 1910.  Founded by Spanish anarchist Francesco Ferrer, who had been executed in Spain a year earlier, it was highlighted in the Report of the Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities filed on April 24, 1920.

The report denounced the school, saying “Morality, such as we understand it to be, has no place in their scheme of things...[G]reat stress is laid upon the explanation of the sex functions in classrooms where these boys and girls are herded together.”

Harry Kelly, of the school, described it differently.  Saying that teaching at the Ferrer School wasn’t called anarchism, he called it “liberalism.”  Insisting flatly that the public school system in America was “wrong,” he explained “Discipline never is allowed to figure.  Discipline might work some great injury to the child’s mind.  ‘Let ‘em be natural’ is the slogan that again crops up.  The child must stray into school quite naturally and not urged by any fear of being late.”

Flag-waving Americans were taken aghast when he said “if we taught the children patriotism and that this country is better than any other country we would be blanked hypocrites.  There are millions of people in other countries being taught just the same thing.”

The school continued here, also offering free lectures and discussions like “Debate on an Amnesty for Political Prisoners in America,” until June 30, 1919.  At that point, according to the State report, “the activities of this Committee drove it out of business.”

In the meantime alterations had again been made to Madison Hall.  The street level was converted to retail space and in 1910 owner William A. Martin leased the store to Harriet Cadugan, “for a number of years.”

In the building in 1911, along with the Ferrer School, was the Consolidated Building Trades Employers’ Association of New York City had its headquarters.  In December 1915, the Knights of Pythias signed a two-year lease for two floors in the building, and established its Unique Lodge No. 310 here.  The lodge added PYTHIAN HALL in pressed metal to the cornice.

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The Pythian and the Ferrer members must have made odd bedfellows.  On February 4, 1918, the Knights celebrated their golden jubilee.  The New-York Tribune noted “during the exercises here, which will be addressed by prominent men, a note of patriotism will be sounded in behalf of the 517 members of the fraternity who are in training camps or in France.”

The building, now known as Pythian Hall, continued to be used by fraternal and labor organizations.  In the early 1920's it was home to the Middle Atlantic Circuit of the Locomotive Engineers, as well as a lodge of the Odd Fellows.

By 1941 the retail store had been renovated as Matt’s Bar and Restaurant.  Upstairs a ballroom opened in the latter half of the century.  An even more dramatic change would occur in 1992 when the Pilgrim Cathedral of Harlem was established at street level.  When the religious group moved on to No. 15 West 126th Street under Bishop Charles J. Reed, the former Madison Hall soon became home to the National Action Network of Rev. Al Sharpton in 1996.  Sharpton renamed the second floor “ballroom” the House of Justice and used it for press conferences and Saturday morning rallies.

It all nearly came to a fiery end on January 22, 2003.  The New York Times reported “The Harlem ballroom where the Rev. Al Sharpton has held court for six years, preaching civil rights and excoriating politicians who raised his ire, was destroyed yesterday morning by fire.”  The electrical fire began on the second floor and before it was extinguished nearly gutted the top two floors.

Today the ground floor is home to shops and restaurants while upstairs is the Israelite Church of God and Jesus Christ.  According to William B. Helmreich in his The New York Nobody Knows, “A chart of the twelve tribes of Israel identifies congregants with various current peoples, including the Haitians, Negroes, West Indians, Mexicans, Seminole Indians, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans.”

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The beleaguered building still retains much of its early 20th century cast iron storefront.  Above, other than replacement windows and a good amount of rust and grime, little has changed.  It is a fascinating relic of the developing days of Harlem when a wealthy woman felt the need for a symphony orchestra. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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