Audubon Ballroom

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

A couple of years ago I revisited one of my earliest New York City experiences – taking the M4 bus from midtown Madison Avenue all the way to The Cloisters.

As the bus turned off Broadway into 165th Street I noticed on the street corner an elaborate building which I judged to have a cast-iron façade.

When I went back later, closer inspection showed that most of the elaborate external decoration is brightly coloured, crisply modelled faience.

The entrance is dominated by an elaborate relief of the prow of a ship, apparently representing Jason and the Argonauts, with an oversized figurehead depicting the god Neptune, and along the entire façade are the heads of brown foxes.

This was the Audubon Theater and Ballroom, built in 1912 by the greatest American theatre-architect of his day, Thomas W Lamb (1871–1942), for the film distributor William Fox (1879-1952), who later gave his name to the 20th Century Fox film studio.

The connection with Fox explains the foxes, but I’ve no idea why Neptune dominates the entrance nor, indeed, whether the building is named after the ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).

The splendid auditorium seated 2,500 and was used for both film and vaudeville.  The basement was used as a synagogue, Emez Wozedek, from 1939 to 1983, and the second-floor ballroom became a venue for trade union and other political meetings as well as dances and dinners.

It was in the ballroom on February 21st 1965 that the human rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated at the age of 39:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/malcolm-x-assassinated-1965-article-1.2111105.

After a foreclosure in 1967 the ballroom was used as a Hispanic cinema, the San Juan Theater, until 1980.

The building then became derelict and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center took it over and proceeded to clear the site to make way for a purpose-designed medical research centre.

The Columbia project created controversy between advocates of regeneration in an area of deprivation and guardians of political and cultural heritage:  [http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/03/nyregion/a-proposal-to-raze-audubon-ballroom-causes-controversy.html and http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/23/arts/architecture-view-once-and-future-audubon.html]

It seems that the Audubon Theater and Ballroom is threaded into so much twentieth-century New York cultural and political history.  The erotic filmmaker Radley Metzger (1929-2017) had a strong affection for the Audobon Theater, and named his distribution company after it:  http://www.therialtoreport.com/2017/04/06/audubon-ballroom.

Political pressure from the Washington Heights community, and particularly from the family of Malcolm X, led by his widow, Dr Betty Shabazz, eventually ensured that half the ballroom and much of the façade were retained:  http://rinaldinyc.com/portfolio-item/3920.

It’s an awkward compromise, that speaks of cultural conflicts that go back to the time of the civil rights campaigns that Malcolm X fought for.

His third-eldest daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, remarked when her father’s memorial was opened in the building, “It’s hard for people to come back to a place where he was assassinated…But we’ve taken a tragic place and turned it into something beautiful.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/21/nyregion/remembering-malcolm-x-in-the-place-where-he-fell.html].

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

 

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