Hotel Theresa: the Waldorf of Harlem
( words)The Hotel Theresa opened in 1913 on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem and closed its doors as a hotel in 1970. It was built by German-born stockbroker Gustavus Sidenberg to the designs of architects George and Edward Blum. The Blum brothers were trained at the famous Ecole des Beaux- Arts in Paris and they designed a full-blockfront all white apartment hotel 13 stories high with 300 rooms. Like its façade, the newly-opened Theresa had an all-white clientele and staff for its first twenty-eight years. In 1940, reflecting the changing population of Harlem, the hotel accepted all races, hired a black staff and management and became known as the “Waldorf of Harlem.” The Hotel Theresa was integrated when most mid-Manhattan hotels wouldn’t accept blacks. They could perform at the clubs, hotels and theaters but couldn’t sleep in the hotel rooms or eat in the hotel’s restaurant.
Black Americas most famous stars- Josephine Baker, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Dandridge, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Count Basie- had to go to Harlem for a night’s sleep. For many blacks the existence of the Hotel Theresa’s rooms, bars and swank shops was regarded as a sign that they had finally arrived, at least in Harlem.
Seventh Avenue and 125th Street was called the Great Black Way. The neighborhood contained the Salem Methodist Church; the studio of James Van Der Zee, Harlem’s most famous photographer; the African Memorial National Bookstore; the mafia-owned Diamond Jewelry Store; the M. Smith Photo Studio; the Apollo Theater; Blumstein’s Department Store; Frank’s Restaurant; Harlem Opera House; Oscar Hammerstein’s Play House; Hartz and Seamon’s Music Hall; the Cotton Club; Mike’s Place; Savoy Ballroom; Nest Club; Smalls Paradise; The Club Baron.
In 1940, the following announcement appeared in the New York Age:
Harlem Hotel Seeks Negro Trade; Picks Manager: The Hotel Theresa at Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, which catered to white patronage for several years, has changed its policy as of March 20 and will cater to both races, under Negro management with a Negro staff, according to an announcement by Richard Thomas, publicity manager of the hotel. In carrying out its new policy for the accommodation of Negroes and whites, the Gresham Management Company, operators of the Theresa, appointed Walter Scott as the hotel’s manager. Extensive renovations and improvements of the service and facilities of the hotel have been undertaken. A staff of 80 persons has been employed.The African American General Manager Walter Scott had been the business manager at the Harlem YMCA on 135th Street. A graduate of New York University and a World War I veteran, Scott had worked as a bellhop, partner and waiter on the Hudson River Dayline boats. Early in April 1940, Scott and his wife Gertrude and their sixteen year-old daughter, Gladys moved into a six-room suite on the tenth floor.
In 1941, heavyweight champion Joe Louis attracted 10,000 fans when he stayed at the Theresa after a victory at the Polo Grounds. Soon thereafter, John H. Johnson was a guest at the Theresa when he started a new pocket-size magazine called Negro Digest and, in 1945, Ebony which was followed by Jet in 1951. After splitting with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X rented offices at the hotel for his Organization of Afro-American Unity.
In 1948, when GM Walter Scott resigned because of illness, Gresham Management hired William (Bill) Harmon Brown as resident manager, Brown graduated from Howard University where he had earned a National Youth Administration scholarship, funded by a New Deal program for students who had a B average or better. President Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary Ron Brown, the manager’s son, grew up in the hotel. U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel (D. New York) once worked there as a desk clerk.
Fidel Castro and his staff came to New York in 1960 when he was to address the United Nations. They first checked in to the Shelburne Hotel at Lexington Avenue and 37th Street but moved to the Hotel Theresa when the Shelburne demanded $10,000 for alleged damage that included cooking chickens in their rooms. The Theresa was the beneficiary of the worldwide publicity when Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union; Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India; and Malcom X, all visited Castro there. Castro’s entourage rented eighty rooms for a total of $800 per day.
At the end of 1960, John F. Kennedy made a presidential campaign stop at the hotel with Jacqueline Kennedy, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Senator Herbert Lehman, Governor Averill Harriman, Mayor Robert Wagner and Eleanor Roosevelt. “I am delighted to come and visit,” said Kennedy. “Behind the fact of Castro coming to this hotel, Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveler in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognize that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of globe.”
In 1971, the hotel was converted to an office building with the name Theresa Towers and was declared a landmark by New York City in 1993.
By Stan Turkel