The restored Audubon Ballroom entrance with terracotta Neptune sculpture. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sometimes listed as William Fox Audubon, Beverly Hills, San Juan Theater.
The Audubon Ballroom served as a multi-functional entertainment facility in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. The ballroom was originally constructed in 1912 by Hungarian immigrant William Fox, creator of 20th Century Fox1. Thomas W. Lamb, a prominent theater designer, was commissioned by Fox to build the ballroom. The Audubon consisted of a 2500-seat theater, and a seated ballroom for 200 guests on the second floor. The building first functioned as a vaudeville house, later as a movie theater, and eventually as a key meeting place for political activism.
Thomas W. Lamb designed the Audubon Ballroom with a hybrid of mythical and anthropomorphic imagery that heightened its sense of theatricality. The exterior features a three-dimensional polychrome terracotta sculpture of a boat2. A personified sculpture of Neptune crowns the front of the ship with a maiden hovering below amidst the tumultuous waves. In a symbolic nod to the building’s creator, the pilasters feature three dimensional terracotta sculptures of red foxes which flank the rounded windows3. A unique detail to the exterior is the mix of Greek influence illustrated in the multicolored projecting ionic capitals, comparable to the Erechteion in Greece, with sculptures of sirens laid between the scrolling volutes.The interior, which has now been gutted, had been described as having the same mythological themes. The curtain draped box seating was adorned with a satyr head framed by two beautiful maidens in the periphery4.In the 1930s, the Emes Wozedek Jewish congregation began using the rooms in the basement for religious practices5. Several workers unions also used the building for meetings including the Municipal Transit Workers, the IRT Brotherhood Union, and the Transportation Workers Union6.
The ballroom became an important landmark for the African American community in Harlem and Washington Heights in the 1950s. The annual New York Mardi Gras festival was held in the Audubon Ballroom where the King and Queen of Harlem were crowned7. Noted jazz drummer Arthur Zutty Singleton and trumpeter Henry Red Allen both played at the Audubon Ballroom8. Upon Malcolm X’s return from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The organization began to hold weekly meetings at the Audubon Ballroom. On February 21, 1964, Malcolm X was shot to death on the stage of the ballroom while delivering a speech. The Audubon Ballroom soon became a cultural landmark in the "history of Afro-American struggle" 9. In the 1960s and 1970s, the San Juan Theater became an important landmark for the Latino community. It showcased many of the popular films of Latin America. It officially closed to the public in 198010.
New York City took possession of the ballroom in 1967 due to back taxes11. After the San Juan Theater closed, the building sat vacant and deteriorated over the time. In 1989, Columbia University reached an agreement with the city and the Port Authority Of New York and New Jersey to demolish the Audubon Ballroom in order to build a research medical facility12. African American community activists along with preservationists and Columbia University students protested the potential demolition and eventually reached a compromise to protect the 2/3rds of the original facade of the building and a portion of the interior ballroom; the San Juan Theater was demolished. The complex now serves as the Audubon Business and Technology Center. The university restored the Broadway portion of the facade, which contains the three-dimensional sculpture of the Neptune on the ship. The interior of the lobby contains a portion of the ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated that was protected and restored. In 2005, the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center opened in the lobby of the Audubon Hall in order to commemorate the contributions Malcolm X made to the civil rights movement13.
The Audubon Ballroom now functions as the Audubon Business and Technology Center. In 2005, a portion of the former ballroom was converted into the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.
The Audubon Ballroom's significance resonated among many ethnic groups as an important landmark worthy of preservation. The ballroom originally functioned as an entertainment center showcasing vaudeville acts and movies. For the Jewish community, it was a haven for the religious practices of the Emes Wozendek congregation. Yet it was also the location where several labor unions were created. The most notorious event that occurred in the ballroom was Malcolm X's assassination. Soon after his assassination, the structure became a symbol for the civil rights movement.
One of the most unrecognized aspects of the Audubon's history is the San Juan Theater, which showcased popular films of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The battle to preserve the Audubon Ballroom represented the changing tides of preservation in New York City in which cultural significance became as equally important as architectural merit.
Columbia University Proposal to Raze the Audubon Ballroom
After the theater closed in 1980, the Audubon sat vacant and suffered deterioration14. The once gleaming variegated terracotta exterior became caked with graffiti. The city had usurped the building in 1967 due to back taxes. Columbia University in partnership with the city and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey planned to demolish the Audubon Ballroom in order to build a new building, the Center for Commercial Biotech Research15. This new research facility would be strategically located across the street from the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. The proposal presented a conundrum: while the construction of the building would bring jobs to an area in need of economic revitalization, it would mean destroying an important part of history that symbolized cultural importance for a variety of different groups. The city argued this $22 million dollar project would bring jobs to the poor area of Washington Heights, which had suffered an economic downturn because of the fiscal crisis on the 1970s16. Mayor David Dinkins, along with Community Board 12, was heavily in favor of the project.
A Movement Divided
It was a contentious battle for preservationists and African Americans because of the controversial events that took place at the building and the economic benefits the project hoped to bring to Washington Heights. Preservationists were torn over whether or not the Audubon Ballroom should be designated as a New York City Landmark or if some form of compromise could be reached in saving portions of the building. Yet, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to hold a hearing for the Audubon Theater's potential designation17.
Some of the groups that were against the demolition included the Sugar Hill Historical Society, the Upper Manhattan Society for Progress Through Preservation, and the Malcolm X Coalition to Save the Audubon Ballroom (an ad hoc group formed to preserve the legacy of Malcolm X). However, groups such as the New York City Landmarks Conservancy and the Municipal Art Society were willing to breach a compromise with the proposed project. The Municipal Art Society assembled a pro bono team of architects to investigate the ballroom structure to see if remnants of the building could be salvaged18. They composed a plan that included the adaptive reuse of the building as the biotech research facility while retaining the original facade and restoring the terracotta detailing19. The role of the Municipal Art Society ultimately influenced the protection of portions of the Audubon Ballroom. Without their involvement, other groups would not have been as successful for at least securing a compromise. Unfortunately, the San Juan Theater would have to be destroyed for the research facility. According to historian Luis Aponte-Pares, Latino-Americans lacked the financial resources to protect the San Juan Theatre20.
Not all preservation groups were satisfied with this compromise. For instance, the Upper Manhattan Society for Progress Through Preservation president, Michael Henry Adams, argued that it was not fair to preserve only part of the structure21. He believed it set a bad precedent for what parts of history were considered worthy of preservation.
Luckily preservationists had a political ally in their pursuit to save the Audubon Ballroom. Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger had to approve the project in order for Columbia University to receive public funding. Messinger was a strong advocate for the restoration of the full facade and interior of the Audubon Ballroom. The Port Authority discovered a loophole, that allowed for the city to secure funding for the project without the approval of the Manhattan Borough President. In order to negotiate a compromise with the Port Authority, Messinger advocated for the adaptive reuse of the Audubon Ballroom, which included retaining 2/3rds of the front facade facing Broadway and 40% of the ballroom where Malcolm X was shot22. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, also supported the compromise with the plan to convert this section into a museum and memorial23. In 1990, the Board of Estimate approved the plan to preserve the portion of the facade and interior ballroom24. The proposal also stipulated that local residents would be provided with jobs. The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and educational facility officially opened in 2005.
Although preservationists were unsuccessful in designating the Audubon Ballroom as a New York City Landmark, the compromise exemplifies that preservation can work with new development by using innovative solutions for its protection. This battle illustrates the complexities involved in landmarking buildings yet it also reinforces that historic buildings can still be protected by other methods other than the use of local legislation. However, if the Audubon building had been designated as a NYC Landmark, the outcome would have preserved the ballroom in its entirety.
Archives, Personal files, and Ephemura
- 1. Rozhon, Tracie. "Research Park Rising on Site of Audubon Ballroom." The New York Times. June 11, 1995.
- 2. Renner, James. "Audubon Ballroom." Washington Heights and Inwood Online May 2003.
- 3. Rozhon, Tracie. "Research Park Rising on Site of Audubon Ballroom." The New York Times. June 11, 1995.
- 4. Renner, James. "Audubon Ballroom." Washington Heights and Inwood Online May 2003.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. http://maap.columbia.edu/place/24.html.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Renner, James. "Audubon Ballroom." Washington Heights and Inwood Online May 2003.
- 9. Buder, Leonard. "A Proposal to Raze Audubon Ballroom Causes Controversy." The New York Times. May 3, 1996.
- 10. Aponte-Pares, Luis. "Appropriating Place in Puerto Rican Barrios: Preserving Contemporary Urban Landscapes." In Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America. John Hopkins University Press, 2000.
- 11. Gray, Christopher. "The Audubon Theater; On Upper Broadway, the Genesis of the Fox Empire." The New York Times. November 22, 1987.
- 12. Kaufman, Ned. "Heritage and the Cultural Politics of Preservation: The African Burial Ground and the Audubon Ballroom." In Place, Race, and Story: Essays in the Past and Future of Historic Preservation. Routledge: New York 2009, p.296-308.
- 13. Kilgannon, Corey. “Remembering Malcolm X and the Place Where He Fell.” The New York Times. February 21, 2005.
- 14. Gray, Christopher. "The Audubon Theater; On Upper Broadway, the Genesis of the Fox Empire." The New York Times. November 22, 1987.
- 15. Kaufman, Ned. Kaufman, Ned. "Heritage and the Cultural Politics of Preservation: The African Burial Ground and the Audubon Ballroom." In Place, Race, and Story: Essays in the Past and Future of Historic Preservation. Routledge: New York 2009, p.296-308.
- 16. Muschamp, Herbert. "Architecture View; Once and Future Audubon." The New York Times. August 23, 1992.
- 17. Johnson, Kemba. "Landmarks Omission." CityLimits September/October 1998.
- 18. Kaufman, Ned. 2009: p.296-308.
- 19. Ibid.
- 20. Aponte-Pares, Luis. "Appropriating Place in Puerto Rican Barrios: Preserving Contemporary Urban Landscapes." In Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America. John Hopkins University Press, 2000.
- 21. Zukin, Sharon. The Cultures of Cities. Wiley Blackwell, Hoboken 1995.
- 22. Kaufman, Ned. 2009: p.296-308.
- 23. Rickford, Russell J. Betty Shabazz: A Remarkable Story of Survival and Faith Before and After Malcolm X. Sourcebooks, Naperville 2005.
- 24. Terry, Don. "Estimate Board Approves Audubon Ballroom Plan." The New York Times. August 22, 1990.