The Hotel Theresa: An historic treasure of Harlem

The Hotel Theresa, as it looks today, White Castle and all.

PODCAST The Hotel Theresa is considered a genuine (if under-appreciated) Harlem gem, both for its unique architecture and its special place in history as the hub for African-American life in the 1940s and 50s.

The luxurious apartment hotel was built by a German lace manufacturer to cater to a wealthy white clientele. But almost as soon as the final brick was laid, Harlem itself changed, thanks to the arrival of thousands of new black residents from the South.

Harlem, renown the world over for the artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance and its burgeoning music scene, was soon home to New York’s most thriving black community.  But many of the businesses here refused to serve black patrons, or at least certainly made them unwelcome.

The Theresa changed its policy in 1940 and soon its lobby was filled with famous athletes, actresses and politicians, many choosing to live at the Hotel Theresa over other hotels in Manhattan.  The hotel’s relatively small size made it an interesting concentration of America’s most renown black celebrities.

In this podcast, I give you a tour of this glamorous scene, from the corner bar to the penthouse, from the breakfast table of Joe Louis to the crazy parties of Dinah Washington.

ALSO: Who is this mysterious Theresa? What current Congressman was a former desk clerk? And what was Joe Louis’ favorite breakfast food?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

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The Hotel Winthrop which sat on the spot of the Theresa before it was torn down in the early 1910s, deemed a bit inadequete for the growing neighborhood. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

From the February 4, 1917, issue of the New York Tribune, making note of its “large spacious dining room overlooking the Palisades.”

The Hotel Theresa, circa 1915.  Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Hotel Theresa, Seventh Ave. & 125th Street.

Boxer Joe Louis was one of America’s most famous athletes in the 1940s and a frequent guest at the Teresa.  Joe fought the German boxer Max Schmeling twice, both times at Yankee Stadium.  Max bested Joe in the first match, but on the second go-around in 1938, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round.  He enjoyed his win that evening at the Theresa, as thousands of fans gathered in front of the hotel and throughout the city in celebration.

Malcolm X speaking to crowds in front of the Hotel Theresa — back when there was a Chock Full O Nuts on street level! The former Malcolm Little would be very associated with the hotel, headquartering here after his split with the Nation of Islam.  Photo by Larry Fink c/o WNYC

Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine founder John J Johnson conceived the ideas for both magazine at the Hotel Theresa and frequently published articles about the Theresa.

 A notice in a 1954 issue of Jet announcing the opening of the Hotel Theresa ballroom, called the Skyline.

In its final years, the Hotel Theresa was even featured in an Alfred Hitchcock film ‘Topaz’. The film fictionalized and played around with an actual event that took place at the Theresa — the arrival of Fidel Castro here in 1960.

You can see the Hotel Theresa briefly in the film’s trailer (at 1:19):

And finally, I featured the music of Una Mae Carlisle in the show.  She was frequently hired to play the Theresa’s club room in the late1940s.  Tragically, Ms. Carlisle died of an illness in 1956, or else she’s certainly be better known today: