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Shining Up the Silver Dollar

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

For most of the past two decades, the Victorian Romanesque row house at 721 St. Nicholas Avenue, at the southwest corner of 146th Street, was a decrepit shell. The arcaded windows of its eye-catching round tower were shuttered. The scrolled gable of its once handsome dormer was rotting. In recent years, the building’s fire-damaged rooms were home to cats and a colony of raccoons. But a gut renovation is nearing completion, rejuvenating the 1891 building as a mixed-use condominium and bringing a measure of elegance back to a storied corner of the Hamilton Heights Historic District.

As Harlem’s fortunes have risen and fallen and risen again since the late 19th century, 721 St. Nicholas Avenue has enjoyed a rich and varied series of uses. Several iterations have made it an elite men’s social club, a respected private school for boys and a rollicking speakeasy highlighted as a musical hotspot in a 1935 Langston Hughes play.

The rotund-towered building—“a hot-air balloon of masonry,” in the words of architectural historian Christopher Gray—began its life as a residence, the northernmost of five row houses designed by the architects Thayer & Robinson. In 1898, the four-and-a-half-story house was adapted to a more high-profile use as the Heights Club, a gathering place for socially prominent residents of Washington Heights. At the time, the Heights was defined roughly as the west side blocks between West 140th Street and the George Washington Bridge.

In March 1898, the exclusive organization held a formal reception to unveil its swanky new clubhouse. Five hundred visitors explored the club’s facilities. A grill room at street level gave way to a library, a smoking room and a reception room above. On the second floor was a pool room and two card rooms. A billiard room and ladies’ reception room, decorated in gold and blue, occupied the third floor. The top-story aerie, which was given a castle-tower atmosphere by a row of seven narrow arched windows set into the curved front wall, was occupied by the directors’ room and members’ sleeping rooms. Several American paintings, on loan from the Union League Club, adorned the walls. The entire place was decorated with palms and cut flowers.

Though an earlier attempt to found a club in the area had failed for want of members, the extension of the elevated railroad to 155th Street spurred development. The well-to-do were especially drawn to St. Nicholas Avenue, a wide boulevard with plenty of room for recreational riding or showing off one’s grand equipage. The Heights Club quickly approached its limit of 500 members, who competed in bowling tournaments against other Harlem clubs; held “smokers” enlivened by the viewing of images through a stereoscope; and exhibited oil paintings by the likes of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church.

The Heights Club’s first president was Justice William Travers Jerome, a first cousin of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother. A colorful anticorruption crusader, Jerome was famous for leading raids in which, the New York Times reported, “his men chopped down doors with axes, blew up barricades with dynamite and carried off gamblers, keepers of disorderly houses and police lawbreakers to prison.” He was known to conduct impromptu court sessions inside the buildings he raided, pulling a Bible from his hip pocket to swear in witnesses.

In 1900, the Heights Club moved across 146th Street to a sprawling, four-story stone house, also distinguished by a handsome corner tower. The mansion had previously been occupied by the New York Tennis Club.

By fall 1903, the Barnard School for Boys had moved into 721 St. Nicholas, relocating from West 125th Street for its 17th year. The prep school’s founder was William Livingston Hazen, a pioneer in the summer camp movement who also established the nearby Barnard School for Girls on Convent Avenue. Hazen served as the headmaster of both schools until his death in 1944, though he had a

single, heroic hiatus: In 1898, he was a captain in the Spanish-American War, earning a presidential citation by leading his men, the noted “Harlem Company” of the 71st Infantry Regiment, up San Juan Hill in Cuba. Lying ill with fever in the aftermath of the war, he told the New-York Tribune that the harsh experience of the soldiers in Cuba was “indescribable.”

The boys’ school prospered enough to outgrow its St. Nicholas Avenue home, prompting the purchase of land in Fieldston, a tony enclave in the Bronx, in 1912. (In 1973, Barnard merged with the Horace Mann School.)

Starting around 1925, the ground floor of 721 St. Nicholas was home to one of the neighborhood’s first speakeasies, the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and the Silver Dollar (also known as “the 721”) became a musical destination for jazz aficionados. The speakeasy was likely named in homage to its famous namesake saloon in St. Louis, where Scott Joplin had played piano in the 1880s.

Timme Rosenkrantz, a Danish baron who was immersed in Harlem’s jazz world for three decades beginning in 1934, recalled the Silver Dollar in his memoir as one of the two most popular watering posts in the neighborhood, which had come to be called Sugar Hill. Rosenkrantz worked in the Mel-O-Dee record shop up the avenue near 147th Street. Revelers from the Silver Dollar routinely wandered into the shop, drinks still in hand, to listen to new releases.

Toy Wilson, nicknamed “the Mad Genius,” regularly played stride piano in the back room of the Silver Dollar. “What a fantastic left-hander he was,” Rosenkrantz remembered, noting that Duke Ellington once observed that “this technique could only be mastered by reaching for that drink on the far right of the piano while keeping up the tempo and melody with the left hand.”

Most saloons in Sugar Hill were owned by Italians, including the Silver Dollar. The Associated Negro Press, a black news service, called the speakeasy the “swankiest ‘liquory’ up there.” In 1935, the ANP reported that black patrons “made business so excellent” at the Silver Dollar that “its Roman proprietors, two months ago, called in white and colored workers to double its capacity.”

Mussolini’s invasion of the East African nation of Ethiopia in 1935 led to some lively byplay between Italian saloon proprietors and their black customers. “Colored patrons constantly tease or just ‘gum beat’ the Italian bartenders and owners about what ‘we goin’ to do to Muzzerleenie,’” the ANP wrote. For the most part, the Italians laughed off the jokes.

But Sugar Hill could be a rough place. Area residents complained of gun violence, gambling and petty racketeering. By the late 1930s nine saloons were doing business on St. Nicholas Avenue between 145th and 149th Streets.

In March 1936, a white man and his “gun moll” robbed the Silver Dollar’s patrons of jewels and cash, according to the New York Amsterdam News. The following month, a brawl over a woman resulted in the stabbing deaths of the bar’s owner-manager, Archie Trozzo, and a waiter. Both had tried to break up the fight. The arrest of the murder suspects, a pair of Harlem brothers, spared them a potentially worse fate, the Amsterdam News reported, as a price had been put on their heads by “business associates of Trozzo in the ownership of the Silver Dollar, the Moulin Rouge and Victoria grills.”

The Silver Dollar survived until 1964, according to a city landmarks report. Several longtime area residents said recently in interviews that 721 St. Nicholas had been boarded up for as long as they could remember. But some recalled the ground floor’s incarnation in the 1970s as “the 721,” a bar with a few tables in the back.

“The Italian guy would cook up spaghetti and meatballs for you for a dollar and a quarter,” said a beefy man in a wheelchair who asked to be identified only by his street name, Rock.

The name of the new condo taking shape in the resuscitated Victorian building is the Barnard, in deference to the boys’ school. A high-end bar-restaurant, a new heir to the Silver Dollar, is expected to occupy the ground floor, said Tamara Marotta, of Douglas Elliman Real Estate, the broker for the building. The upper four stories will be apartments—three two-bedroom, two-bath units and a one-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath unit with a study—offered at prices ranging from $1.15 to $1.41 million. An enormous Japanese pagoda tree outside gives the apartments a tree house feeling. The restored wooden windows in the rounded tower wall, which look out across the broad boulevard of St. Nicholas Avenue and the sky above it, provide an appealing sense of openness.

It’s all a far cry from the building’s earlier, ruined condition. To stabilize the house and satisfy the city’s exacting landmarks commission, Steeplechase Construction Group, the project’s sponsor and developer, rebuilt half the 146th Street façade. They also replicated the fire-ravaged mansard roof with new slate and restored the dormer, refurbishing its distinctive scrolled gable.

“When I first came here in 2009, it was a really shaky and unstable building, and I didn’t sleep because I thought we were going to be killed,” said Novak Vukasinovic, a principal of Steeplechase. “Now it’s like a nuclear shelter with all the new steel joists and I beams, and it’s going to stand another 200 years.”

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017


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