Our Collections

Audubon Ballroom

Audubon Ballroom

Also known as the William Fox Audubon Theater, Beverly Hills Theater, or San Juan Theater

Significant to several underrepresented communities in New York City, the Audubon Ballroom is an interesting example of preservation without official designation as a NYC Landmark.

Location: 3940 Broadway, New York, NY  |  Google Maps
Neighborhood: Washington Heights
People:  Michael Henry Adams, David Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, Betty Shabazz
Organizations:  Malcolm X Coalition to Save the Audubon Ballroom, Municipal Art Society, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Sugar Hill Historical Society, Upper Manhattan Society for Progress Through Preservation, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Above: The Audubon Ballroom, circa May 1917; Courtesy of Once Upon a Town

Sometimes listed as the William Fox Audubon, Beverly Hills, or San Juan Theater, the Audubon Ballroom served as a multi-functional entertainment facility in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Hungarian immigrant William Fox, creator of 20th Century Fox, originally constructed the ballroom in 1912.1 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 boat.2 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 windows.3 A unique detail of the exterior is the mix of Greek influence illustrated in the multicolored projecting Ionic capitals, comparable to the Erechtheion 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 periphery.4 In the 1930s the Emes Wozedek Jewish congregation began using the rooms in the basement for religious practices.5 Several workers’ unions also used the building for meetings, including the Municipal Transit Workers, the IRT Brotherhood Union, and the Transportation Workers Union.6

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 crowned.7 Noted jazz drummer Arthur Zutty Singleton and trumpeter Henry Red Allen both played at the Audubon Ballroom.8 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, 1965, 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, such as when it showcased many of the popular films of Latin America. It officially closed to the public in 1980.10

New York City took possession of the ballroom in 1967 due to back taxes.11 After the San Juan Theater closed, the building sat vacant and deteriorated over 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 facility.12 African American community activists along with preservationists and Columbia University students protested the potential demolition and eventually reached a compromise to protect 2/3rds of the original facade of the building and a portion of the interior ballroom. 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 Neptune. The interior of the lobby contains a portion of the ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated, which 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 movement.13

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.

1989: Columbia University reaches 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 facility.

1990: The Board of Estimate approves a plan to preserve the portion of the facade and interior ballroom.

2005: A portion of the former Audubon Ballroom was converted into the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.

The Audubon Ballroom's historical and cultural 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. 
In addition, one of the most unrecognized aspects of the Audubon's history is its time as the San Juan Theater, which showcased popular films of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. In the end, 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.


After the theater closed in 1980, the Audubon sat vacant and suffered deterioration.14 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 Research.15 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 Washington Heights, which had suffered an economic downturn because of the fiscal crisis on the 1970s.16 Mayor David Dinkins, along with Community Board 12, was heavily in favor of the project.

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 designation.17 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 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 salvaged.18 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 detailing.19

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 in 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 Theatre.20 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 structure.21 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 shot.22 Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, also supported the compromise with the plan to convert this section into a museum and memorial.23 In 1990, the Board of Estimate approved the plan to preserve the portion of the facade and interior ballroom.24 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.

  • Malcolm X Archives
    The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Facility
    3940 Broadway
    New York, NY 10032
  1. 
Tracie Rozhon, “Research Park Rising on Site of Audubon Ballroom,” New York Times, 11 June 1995.
  2. James 
Renner, “Audubon Ballroom,” Washington Heights and Inwood Online May 2003.
  3. Tracie Rozhon, “Research Park Rising on Site of Audubon Ballroom,” New York Times, 11 June 1995.
  4. 
James Renner, “Audubon Ballroom,” Washington Heights and Inwood Online May 2003.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Place Detail: Audubon Ballroom,” MAAP: Mapping the African American Past, 27 January 2015. 
  7. 
Ibid.
  8. James Renner, “Audubon Ballroom,” Washington Heights and Inwood Online May 2003.
  9. Leonard Buder, “A Proposal to Raze Audubon Ballroom Causes Controversy,” New York Times, 3 May 1996.
  10. Luis Aponte-Pares, “Appropriating Place in Puerto Rican Barrios: Preserving Contemporary Urban Landscapes,” in Arnold R. Alanen and Robert Z. Melnick, eds., Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
  11. Christopher Gray, “The Audubon Theater; On Upper Broadway, the Genesis of the Fox Empire,” New York Times, 22 November 1987.
  12. Ned Kaufman, “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 (New York: Routledge, 2009), pages 296-308.
  13. Corey Kilgannon, “Remembering Malcolm X and the Place Where He Fell,” New York Times, 21 February 2005.
  14. Christopher Gray, “The Audubon Theater; On Upper Broadway, the Genesis of the Fox Empire,” New York Times, 22 November 1987.
  15. Ned Kaufman, “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 (New York: Routledge, 2009), pages 296-308.
  16. Herbert Muschamp, “Architecture View; Once and Future Audubon,” New York Times, 23 August 1992.
  17. Kemba Johnson, “Landmarks Omission,” CityLimits September/October 1998.
  18. Ned Kaufman, “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 (New York: Routledge, 2009), pages 296-308.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Luis Aponte-Pares, “Appropriating Place in Puerto Rican Barrios: Preserving Contemporary Urban Landscapes,” in Arnold R. Alanen and Robert Z. Melnick, eds., Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
  21. Sharon Zukin, The Cultures of Cities (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995).
  22. Ned Kaufman, “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 (New York: Routledge, 2009), pages 296-308.
  23. Russell John Rickford, Betty Shabazz: A Remarkable Story of Survival and Faith Before and After Malcolm X (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003).
  24. Don Terry, “Estimate Board Approves Audubon Ballroom Plan,” New York Times, 22 August 1990.