Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The 1895 Equitable Life Bldg (Victory Tabernacle) - 252 West 138th Street

The entablature was purposely deep to accommodate the Equitable Life Assurance Company name; and it serves the same purpose today.
In 1890 developer David H. King, Jr. began construction on 78 residences "of a first-class character," known as the King Houses.  They would cover the entire block between Seventh  and Eighth Avenues (today Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, respectively) and 138th and 139th Streets, as well as the south side of  138th Street between the same avenues.  The following year he began work on a second row of houses on the opposite side of West 139th Street.

David King had purchased all the property from the Equitable Life Assurance Society, which provided his building loans as well.  The entire debt may have been too much for King to handle, for in 1895 he transferred title to 138 houses to the Equitable.

Now with a massive financial interest in the neighborhood, coupled with the rampant development of Harlem, the firm quickly hired the architectural firm of Jardine, Kent & Jardine to design an uptown branch office at No. 252 West 138th Street.  The plot was across the street from the southernmost row of King Houses.

The architects produced a delightful limestone faced building which was completed in 1895.  Although it was the height of a three-story structure, there were just two over-sized floors.  Its Renaissance Revival design featured a base of three bays separated by clustered Corinthian pilasters and skinny columns.  Stealing the show was the double-height, white marble Venetian Revival style window at the second floor.  Its columns upheld an exotic pierced tympanum that made the little building look, perhaps, more like a synagogue than a business building.  Two blind roundels with marble inserts, a carved frieze and a stone balustrade atop the cornice completed the striking design.

The Equitable Life Assurance Society moved its real estate departments into the new building.  From here foreclosures, property sales, and home and construction loans were handled for nearly three decades.  Then, in the summer of 1923, the firm sold its 22-foot wide building to real estate operators, who quickly resold it that August to the Coachmen's Union League Society.

At the time the demographics of Harlem was rapidly changing as Black residents who hoped to escape the prejudicial treatment of landlords downtown moved north.  The Coachmen's Union League Society was a beneficial and labor organization, founded following the murderous Draft Riots of 1863.  In his 2001 book In The Company of Black Men Craig Steven Wilder explains:

The Coachmen's League was founded in 1864 and possibly influenced by the death of driver Abraham Franklin, who was pulled from his coach, tortured, and murdered--his body then savagely mutilated and displayed--by an Irish mob during the 1863 Draft Riots.  The society's founders were Manhattan coachmen "fired with ambition and hopes, looking toward a new day of justice, freedom and achievement."

According to The Sun in 1895 it "took its name from the Union League Club, because that organization aided the colored people during the draft riots of '63."  By now the Society had 1,100 members.  In its November 1923 issue The Crisis noted that "not all of them [are] coachmen, however."  The article said "The society pays sick and death benefits and recently formed a ladies' auxiliary with a membership of 800."

Vertner Woodson Tandy (who coincidentally or not lived in one of the King Houses) was the first Black architect to gain membership to the American Institute of Architects.  The Society hired him to extend the building to the rear at a cost of $30,000 (nearly a half a million in today's dollars).  

Opportunity magazine, in its March 1924 issue, remarked on the society's name, falling victim to 20th century racism in doing so.  "The public may be surprised that in these days of automobiles such an organization could continue to exist.  It was organized by Negro coachmen back in 1864, when they were as plentiful as Negro chauffeurs are today."

The Coachmen's Union League Society's new headquarters contained a dining room, recreational spaces, meeting rooms and spaces which were available for local organizations to rent.  Among them was the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, which used a meeting hall on Sundays.

The building was often bright with lights and music as social events were held in its hall.  On September 24, 1932, for instance, The New York Age announced "A night of revelry is being arranged by [The Pioneer Five] for all those who attend their premier Fall Dansante at the Coachman's [sic] Hall, 252 West 138th street.  They are promising you good music, soft lights, beautiful women and last, but not least, delicious refreshments.  What more can be asked for by mere mortals?"

Other local groups leased space in the building.  On April 22, 1933 an announcement by the Colored Merchants' Association in The New York Age read "As quickly as possible we will convert a portion of the building at 252 West 138th Street into a convenient warehouse to profitably take care of the increasing demand for C.M.A. products."

The Colored Merchants' Association had been founded five years earlier in Montgomery, Alabama.  A cooperative of Black merchants, its members did joint advertising in local newspapers and worked together to boost Black-owned businesses.  On April 9, 1934 a newspaper announced that there would be a "Harlem Retail Grocers and the Colored Merchants Association joint boycott meeting" that evening.

On March 21, 1936 The New York Age reported on what may have been the last entertainment in the building as Coachmen's Hall.  A musical program had been given by the North Harlem Community Council which rented space in the building.

At the time the building had already been purchased by the American Legion for use as the Col. Charles Young Post No. 398.  The post was named after the first Black officer to attain the rank of colonel in the U. S. Army.  Young was, as well, the only Black graduate of West Point between 1887 and 1936.

The American Legion Hall is emblazoned on the entablature in 1941.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services
As the Coachmen's League had done, the American Legion leased space to outside groups.  On January 2, 1937, for instance, The New York Age reported that the North Harlem Community Council "entertained over 500 children Christmas morning at their headquarters, 252 West 138th street, and distributed candies and toys to all."  And on December 9, 1939 the newspaper reported "On Saturday evening we joined the number who strolled to the dance given by the Strollers Social Club at the American Legion Hall, 252 West 138th street--If you like the dances with a party atmosphere, then you will be right at home at this event."

Another group to rent rooms in the American Legion Hall by 1940 was the Negro Benevolent Society of the Department of Sanitation.  

Then in 1942 the structure that had always looked much like a church became one when the Victory Tabernacle Seventy-Day Christian Church moved in.  Established in 1934 it had worshiped in various spaces until now.  The dedicatory service was held on New Year's Day.  Stained glass now filled the windows and the interior was fitted up as a sanctuary.

During the congregation's nearly 80 years here the neighborhood has seen its ups and downs.  And through it all the church has maintained its outreach, offering Vacation Bible School, Youth Retreats to upstate New York, AIDS Education, and even an Asthma Action workshop for children.  

Over its diverse history Jardine, Kent and Jardine's delightful Victorian structure has been sympathetically cared for.

photograph by the author

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