A Bid to Save Harlem’s Historic ‘Renny’

"The Renny" (Photo via Caribbean Life)

“The Renny” (Photo via Caribbean Life)

In the early 1920s, three immigrants, one form Antigua and two from Montserrat, joined forces to organize the construction of the first black-owned theater complex at 137th Street and Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard) in Harlem. Members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the three men, William H. Roach, Cleophus Charity and Joseph H. Sweeney, oversaw the construction of the Renaissance Ballroom & Casino, which included a 900-seat theater. Completed in 1924, the complex came to be known as “The Renny” and played an important role in Harlem’s history, as Vinette K. Pryce of Caribbean Life notes:

Much has been documented about the hot-spot in Harlem affectionately known as The Renny. Visited often by Garvey, boxer Joe Louis, entertainer Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson also performed there.

At a time Blacks were barred from the National Basketball Association, it became the home court of the Rens, the first all African American professional basketball team in the nation.

The adjacent 900-seat theater featured movies by Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to produce a feature-length film.

The casino was used for a 1923 anti-lynching meeting held by the N.A.A.C.P.

The "Rens" basketball team. (Photo via Caribbean Life)

The “Rens” basketball team. (Photo via Caribbean Life)

Closed in 1979, the Renny is now threatened with demolition to make way for the a large residential and commercial development.

In 1991, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, organized a group of small business owners in Harlem to buy the site. The group paid $300,000 for the mortgage.

That same year a proposal for landmark status of the building was presented to the city’s landmarks commission. In 1997, a court-appointed mediator awarded the business owners the title to the property.

But recently, the Abyssinian Development Corporation — the real estate arm of the church — sold the building to BRP Development Corporation for $15 million.

The developers promise a $70 million housing unit they plan to name, The Renny. It will include a 134-unit apartment building, with affordably priced homes. A spokesperson said 17,500 square feet of retail space will replace the landmark structure after it is razed.

Housing preservationist Michael Henry Adams regularly protests the Renny’s demolition, and now, on Feb. 9, the Harlem Swing Dance Society is sponsoring a “Save The Renny” informational meeting. Originally scheduled for late January, the meeting’s new date is perhaps “more fitting,” Pryce writes, as it falls during Black History Month. Read more about The Renny at Caribbean Life.

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