Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Harlem Club - Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street

On June 22, 1889, as the Harlem Club's new headquarters was nearing completion at the southwest corner of Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street, the Record & Guide opined "In composition and in detail we scarcely know of a more creditable recent building."  It could also have been described as imposing.

Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, June 22, 1889 (copyright expired)

Well-to-do Victorian gentlemen were expected to hold at least one membership in a high-end social club.  As Harlem evolved into a vibrant suburb, its new residents found themselves inconveniently far from the club district, which was around 75 blocks to the south.  In 1879 "some of the most prominent gentlemen who reside in the upper part of the City," as described by The New York Times, formed the Irving Club of New-York, and in 1881 acquired an existing residence on Fifth Avenue near West 127th Street for its clubhouse.  The New-York Tribune later explained "There were clubs and meeting places in the Harlem district at that time, but they lacked the qualities of the good clubs in the lower part of the city." 

Five years later the name was changed to the Harlem Club.  Its membership, which had risen to 100 by now, was composed, according to a newspaper "principally of bankers, brokers, lawyers, and merchants."  The Harlem Club listed as its purpose "to cultivate friendly and social intercourse among its members, and to further and advance by means of concentrated action, matters of public welfare in the upper section of the City."

By 1888 the membership had more than tripled to 340 and, according to the New-York Tribune, the clubhouse "was too small and not attractive, and offered few club features for the younger element."  A committee was formed on January 14 that year to consider a more commodious and impressive clubhouse.

On September 8, 1888 The American Architect and Building News published an understated, one-line announcement that architects Lamb & Rich had completed plans for a four-story "brick club-house" with a projected cost of $50,000.

A terra cotta sunburst decorates the blind arch and delightful stone leaves parade along the upper frieze.  The Record & Guide described the black tiles as "japanned." 

Now, nine months later, the Record & Guide assessed the completed structure.   Hugh Lamb and Charles Alonzo Rich had created a hulking Romanesque Revival structure of brick and stone, with touches of Queen Anne thrown in.  The critic could find little to criticize, saying for instance "Over each wing is a dormer in metal, of rather fantastic but effective design, relieved against the steep roof of dark japanned tiles..." and noting that "The gabled roof would have been uncouthly large if it had occupied the whole width of the central division.  The awkwardness is happily got over by the clever and effective introduction of a broad chimney on each side."

The actual costs, including the expensive furnishings, draperies, carpetings and such, had risen to $150,000--nearly $3.9 million in 2017.  On June 14, 1889 The New York Times reported "The house is equipped in the latest style.  In the basement are bowling alleys and kitchens; on the first floor parlors and a library; on the second floor billiard rooms and a cafe; and on the third and fourth floors three private dining rooms and ten chambers."  The "chambers" were sleeping rooms.  Not only did out of town members need a place to stay, but so would those briefly in town on business from their summer residences.   The room, said the newspaper "are furnished in a manner that leaves nothing to be desired."

A long balcony, now lost, graced the second floor and stocky iron lampposts flanked the entrance.  photo via
The New-York Tribune was more detailed, describing the first floor as having "a handsome reception room, a large drawing room, and back of these a cosey reading room with great easy chairs and comfortable lounges and handsome wall decorations.  In the hall stands a great stuffed bear, which was killed by the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia when he hunted big game with Buffalo Bill."

An antique tall case clock graced the entrance hall (above).  Masculine oak furniture in the library complimented the mantelpiece.   New-York Tribune, February 2, 1902 (copyright expired)

The Harlem Club opened its new clubhouse on June 13, with a reception for men-only.    It would be another six months before women would get a peek inside.  On December 13, 1889 The Times reported that the evening before "the wives and daughters and sisters of its members had their first chance to inspect the beauties of the new domain of their male relatives."

Although women's visits were restricted, a delicately-furnished Ladies Parlor accommodated them.  New-York Tribune, February 2, 1902 (copyright expired)

Plants and flowers softened the decidedly masculine atmosphere for the event.  "The building was prettily decorated with palms, roses, and flowering plants, and a band played in a floral bower in the reading room."  Oddly enough, despite the spacious dining rooms, the guests ate in the basement.  "Dancing went on for the younger folks in the drawing rooms, and supper was served by Steward Marsich on small tables arrange in the bowling alleys."

The Billiard Room was outfitted with five tables. New-York Tribune, February 2, 1902 (copyright expired)

Like its downtown counterparts, the exclusivity of the Harlem Club was not limited to wealth and family, but to religion.  On July 10, 1889 The Times wrote "The Harlem Club, which recently moved into its handsome and costly new disturbed by the raising of the Hebrew question."

The issue went back to the June 13 opening, at which Senator Jacob A. Cantor was a guest of George McGown.  Banker Robert Bonynge proposed him as a member that night.  Later another member approached the senator and said "Jake, I have known you for a long time, and I am a friend of yours, but I must tell you that in this club we draw the line at Hebrews."

Understandably insulted, Cantor went to Bonynge and offered to withdraw his name.  But, explained The Times, "that gentleman and the other friends of the Senator had their blood up and said the Senator's name should stand and be passed on if it took all Summer."

It would take more than all summer; in fact the senator was never admitted.  A reporter who spoke to Cantor during the drawn-out process noted "he was satisfied to know that if it did reject him, it would do so on account of his race and not on personal grounds."

The ugly and bigoted affair would stain the Harlem Club for the rest of its existence.

An early postcard depicted a nearly deserted Lenox Avenue. (copyright expired)

But in the meantime the clubhouse was the scene of "smokers, euchres, and concerts," among other events.  An annual exhibition of works by American artists was held here; and musical entertainments were common.  In January 1903, for instance, 200 hundred members and guests heard soloists perform operatic arias, after which supper was served in the dining rooms, and dancing went on until 1:30 in the morning.

During the 1904 Presidential campaign two members got into a heated political debate.  James O'Reilly insisted that Judge Alton B. Parker, the Democratic candidate, would beat Theodore Roosevelt in the election.  Herman J. Elkhoff was equally confident in his choice.  Their argument resulted in a bet, the conditions of which were "that the loser swim across the East River some time during the month following election day."

Parker lost the election and O'Reilly lost the bet.  True to his word, on Sunday morning November 10 he plunged into the river and swam to Randall's Island and back.  O'Reilly was physically prepared for the challenging feat.  The Evening World said "he takes a plunge in the river every morning during the winter."   The apparently out-of-shape Elkhoff, on the other hand, was lucky his candidate had won.  Other members confided that he "was taking a desperate chance" with his bet.

Modern Harlem historians are wont to blame the decline of the Harlem Club on its anti-Semitic policies.  In fact, while the stigma of the Cantor affair hung on, it was more likely finances that brought the club down.  Suit was filed against the club on June 19, 1906 "to foreclose a mortgage of $60,000 on the club's property."  That was the original July 12, 1889 mortgage; a second mortgage of $52,779 brought the liabilities to more than $3 million in today's dollars.

In October a Supreme Court judge ordered the building to be sold at auction on January 31, 1907.  Two days before the sale, The New York Times wrote "After nearly thirty years of active life, during which it came to be known as the first club of Harlem, the Harlem Club is about to be dissolved.  Upon the two iron lamps which stand on either side of the front steps of the handsome building...are glaring yellow posters announcing in large type that by order of the Supreme Court the clubhouse and its furnishings will be sold out at auction."

The clubhouse was purchased by developer William A. Martin.  He resold it within the month to the Eastman Business College of Poughkeepsie.  Established in 1859 by Harvey Gridley Eastman, the school readied young men for clerical business work.  Included in the curriculum were "Civil service, shorthand, typewriting, telegraph, penmanship and correspondence."

The new Manhattan branch was called the Eastman New York Business Institute, and an advertisement boasted that it was housed in "one of the most attractive structures in the most aristocratic neighborhood of Upper New York."

The school remained in the building until 1935, when it fell victim to the Great Depression and changing demographics.  Reportedly it refused to admit black students--a major problem in a neighborhood that was now significantly black.

The building was taken over as the Unity Mission Church; the headquarters for the charismatic if questionable "Father" Major Jealous Divine.  The leader of what at least one newspaper called "a Negro cult," Divine had made a name for himself by conducting revival meetings, curing the sick, and declaring himself a deity.  Telling his followers that he had been born a fully-formed adult, he amassed a following of tens of thousands.

The progress of the 4-foot, 6-inch leader was closely followed by law enforcement.  By 1933 he had "kingdoms" in Manhattan, Newark, Baltimore, Washington DC, Bridgeport and other cities.  A 38-page typewritten report ordered by Common Pleas Judge Richard Hartshorne that year credited Divine with "some socially helpful results."   But it also noted, according to a New York Times report, he "has equipped himself with an airplane, automobiles, several secretaries and a large staff of employes in his headquarters and 'kingdoms' in New York City" and that "his followers, including many whites, did in fact worship him as God."

Adherents to Father Divine turned over all their possessions to the Kingdom, earning them the status of angel.  The angels then took on a heavenly name--such as Lovely, or Kind.  The process caused endless problems, from followers trying to file tax reports under their unregistered new names; to husbands suing Father Divine for alienation of affection.

One case was that of chauffeur and oboe player Carl Davenport, who sued for $100,000.  He testified that he and his wife Alice, had been happily married until February 1933 when she was "subjected to public and private exhortation by Father Divine and his servants and employees."  Alice walked out on Carl and their eight children.

Her actions were mirrored by Madeline Green two years later.  She left her husband, Samuel N. Green, Jr., a postal clerk, and their seven children (aged 3 through 14).   Samuel filed a petition alleging that when she had abandoned them, she said the children should be sent to an orphan asylum.  She explained to the Children's Court judge "I have no more children.  The life I lead is one of sacrifice.  All belongs to God now."

When Judge Levy asked "How can you give up seven children and say you lead a Christ-like life?" she responded flatly "Because I see the light.  I am out of darkness."

A "children's dinner" in Unity Mission Church.  photo via

Father Divine's magnetism did not affect everyone.  Washington DC pastor Rev. Dr. Walter H. Brooks, a son of slaves, was asked about Divine's movement in April 1935.  "People like to be humbugged," was his curt reply.

Despite his constant legal battles (he was accused of having a harem, engaging in outrageous sexual activities, and illegally housing minors), Father Divine continued to lead throngs--his meetings drew tens of thousands of followers.  His main companion and assistant was No. 1 Angel, Faithful Mary; and his celebrity was such that in 1936 John Hoshor wrote God in a Rolls Royce.  The Rise of Father Divine, Madman-Menace or Messiah.

Following an incident in which three men were stabbed by one of his angels, Father Divine was wanted for questioning.  He fled Harlem, but was found hiding behind the furnace in the cellar of Milford, Connecticut house.  Divine had tried to "invisibilize" himself, but seems to have failed.

Initially he denied being Father Divine.  But at the West 123rd Street station house, he notified authorities that "the Father had resumed his earthly body," and he was once again Father Divine.

The Unity Mission Church left West 123rd Street in 1946.  The building was sold to Jacob Goodman & Co., which announced they were "considering plans for altering the property into apartments."  Instead, the firm resold the structure "to a buyer who intends to spend $50,000 on alterations," as reported by The Times on February 1, 1947.

Especially charming were the metal dormers, with openings on three sides. 

A second church took over the building; followed by the newly-formed Bethelite Community Baptist Church in 1957.  Founded by Rev. Millard Alexander Stanley, he supposedly invented the name "Bethelite" after a drug addict said to him "If y'all gonna be a church, you better 'Be-The-Lite."

If Father Divine had drawn controversy, he would pale in the shadow of Stanley's successor, Pastor James David Manning who took over in 1981.  He changed the name to the ATLAH [All The Land Anointed Holy] Worldwide Missionary Church.  He used the church's outdoor signboard to spread his outrageous and, some would say un-Christian, viewpoints.

Hateful messages like "We will take Harlem back from the pinch nose sellout Negroes and the demonic homos" and "Jesus would stone homos.  Stoning is the law" in 2014 drew protestors to Lenox Avenue.

Manning sided with Donald Trump, posting that Barack Obama was a Muslim and not a valid president.  In August 2014 he asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would release KGB intelligence "that would prove that President Obama is homosexual."

The splinter group is still in the former Harlem Club, although financial pressures make its future questionable (Manning refuses to pay taxes, insisting the church should be exempt like other religious institutions, although his is not a recognized sect.)

In the meantime, despite the loss of the Lenox Avenue balcony and altered windows; Lamb & Rich's striking clubhouse survives as an imposing reminder of a far different period in Harlem history.

photographs by the author


  1. You outdid yourself on this one! There's nothing funny about hatred and bigotry but, the way you write of such outrageous people and events in such a matter of fact manner, had me laughing out loud. It's a lovely building but demolition might be the only way to get rid of the hate cooties.

    1. Thanks! I was telling another read who wrote me directly that it was so really difficult to keep this history "blog length." The Father Divine section alone was so hard to keep short (relatively, anyway!). What a character!

    2. It may not be legally demolished; it is located within an historic district.

  2. Research and commentary as impressive as the building itself. As always, thanks for the insights