August 22, 2019
DORRANCE BROOKS SQUARE HISTORIC DISTRICT IN HARLEM LISTED ON THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES
On August 8, 2019, the National Park Service added the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the nation’s official list of properties worthy of preservation. Listing on it recognizes the importance of these properties to the history of the United States.
https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/weekly-list-20190809.htm (site may not open in all web browsers)
ABOUT THE DORRANCE BROOKS HISTORIC DISTRICT
The Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District encompasses most of the blocks between St. Nicholas Ave and Frederick Douglass Blvd between West 136th and 140th Streets in Harlem. This picturesque district includes 110 row houses, four churches, six apartment buildings, and a memorial park, which lends its name to the district. While located beyond the boundaries of the district, the Collegiate Gothic campus of City College overlooks the neighborhood from above the bluffs of St. Nicholas Park and contributes to the setting and story of Dorrance Brooks Square. More than just an architecturally distinctive late 19th-century residential neighborhood, the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District is significant for its association with numerous voices of the Harlem Renaissance and symbolic events that helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.
Dedicated in 1925, the square is the first public space in the city to honor a black serviceman, Dorrance Brooks, a soldier who died on the battlefield during WWI while serving with his segregated military regiment, the 369th aka the Harlem Hellfighters. The square’s symbolic significance made it a frequent site of protests, marches, commemorations, and political rallies, not least on two occasions—on October 30, 1948 and October 11, 1952—when President Harry Truman delivered campaign speeches there before massive, predominantly black audiences. For his 1948 appearance, just four days before voters headed to the ballot box and as Democratic party leaders were pleading with him to appease pro-segregation Dixiecrats, he delivered a major speech in which he re-committed his administration to advancing civil rights. It was the first time a sitting president had addressed an audience in Harlem, the center of black politics and culture in the United States. The overwhelming support from African-American voters nationally aided his unexpected victory over his Republican opponent, New York governor Thomas Dewey.
The residential blocks adjacent to the square were home to accomplished individuals during the Harlem Renaissance. It was effectively an extension of the elite Striver’s Row just one block east. A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of the beauty product magnate Madame C.J. Walker, maintained a pied-à-terre at 80 Edgecombe Avenue where she hosted a who’s who of Harlem society. The civil rights leaders Walter F. White and W.E.B. DuBois resided with their families at 90 and 108 Edgecombe Avenue respectively. Regina Anderson Andrews, who through her role as a librarian at the 135th Branch of the New York Public Library brought many writers, artists, and intellectuals of the Renaissance together, hosted literary salons in her apartment at 580 St. Nicholas Avenue with her two roommates, Ethel Ray Nance and Louella Tucker. They affectionately called it “Dream Haven.” The sculptress Augusta Savage operated a neighborhood art school in a rear building at 321 W. 136th Street. There she mentored young Harlem artists, including Robert Blackburn, Norman Lewis, and Jacob Lawrence. Among the early tenants of the Art Deco apartment building at 574 St. Nicholas Avenue—named “The Dorrence Brooks” [sic]—were bandleaders Cab Calloway and Lionel Hampton, as well as the singer, composer and music critic Nora Holt.
Churches in the District
The district’s four churches played an important role in fostering the community’s artistic, intellectual, and civic development. The large St. Mark’s United Methodist Church—its neo-Gothic building covers a full city block—has been a frequent host to, and a physical backdrop for, events in Dorrance Brooks Square. St. Mark’s long-running Lyceum hosted countless influential voices in Harlem. Additionally, the church served as a WPA basecamp for programs in Harlem during the Depression. Grace Congregational Church at 308-310 W. 139th Street was known as “the church of the actors” in recognition of its long tradition of ministering to performing artists and hosting recitals. One artist was Countee Cullen, who read from a selection of his poems in 1928, just a week prior to his marriage to W.E.B. DuBois’s daughter. The first African-American congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, taught for seven years in the pre-school of Mount Calvary United Methodist Church at the corner of Edgecombe Avenue and W. 140th Street. In the 1940s, the church boasted one of the largest Methodist congregations in Harlem.
The district is additionally significant as an example of a late nineteenth-century Harlem neighborhood distinguished with richly detailed row house architecture. Between 1886 and 1904, the four largest blocks in this eight-block district rapidly took form as a residential enclave with twelve rows of private houses designed by ten different architects for eight independent speculative developers. These blocks reflect the period’s transitional moment in architecture as it moved away from the multi-textured, asymmetrical Queen Anne and heavy Romanesque styles to the lighter and more restrained Renaissance Revival style with its emphasis on classical forms. All twelve rows retain an impressive amount of character-defining details.
Three churches in the district add to the residential character. The Gothic Revival-style Mount Calvary United Methodist Church (built in 1897–1898 for a German Lutheran congregation) commands its corner location with a soaring square tower. Grace Congregational Church is a humble Romanesque Revival-style chapel (built in 1882 for a Presbyterian congregation) that complements its row house block. Meanwhile, the neo-Gothic St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, designed by the architecture firm Sibley & Fetherston, subtly echoes the square-towered Shepard Hall on the City College campus, which overlooks the neighborhood.
OPPORTUNITY FOR HISTORIC TAX CREDITS & GRANTS
An additional benefit of listing on the National Register of Historic Places are historic tax credits. Owners of income-producing properties may be eligible for a 20% federal income tax credit for the substantial rehabilitation of historic properties. The final dollar amount is based on the cost of the rehabilitation. Federally approved work to income-producing properties automatically qualify for the 20% state tax credit if the property is located in an eligible census tract. (As of 2019, all of the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District is located in an eligible census tract.) Rehabilitation work on homeowner-occupied historic buildings may qualify for the NYS Historic Homeownership Rehabilitation Tax Credit. The credit covers 20% of qualified rehabilitation costs, up to a credit value of $50,000.00. At least 5% of the total project cost must be spent on the exterior of the building. A sample of qualifying expenses covered by historic tax credits include façade repair, interior restoration work, soft costs like architect and construction management fees, roof repair, boiler replacement, new plumbing, electrical wiring, and even solar panels! Properties owned by not-for-profit organizations are eligible to apply for state historic preservation matching grants.
For more info about historic tax credits, visit https://parks.ny.gov/shpo/tax-credit-programs/
For more info about matching grants, visit https://parks.ny.gov/shpo/preservation-assistance/
In most cases, listing on the National Register of Historic Places does not protect historic buildings or spaces from demolition or alteration. Regulation of exterior changes comes only with local designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The neighborhood is facing increasing development pressure. Demolition permits have been filed for Mount Calvary United Methodist Church to make way for a new residential development. (The congregations of St. Mark’s and Mount Calvary merged in 2014, and activities were consolidated in St. Mark’s building.) Augusta Savage’s old studio building on West 136th Street has been reduced to a brick shell as developers prepare to build a new residential building. It will likely be demolished entirely once construction violations are resolved. Residents and groups including the Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization and the Dorrance Brooks Property Owners & Residents Association have been urging the LPC to designate Dorrance Brooks Square a local historic district. Assisting with advocacy efforts is the Historic Districts Council, which has named the district one of its “Six to Celebrate” in 2019.
NATIONAL REGISTER NOMINATION
Marissa Marvelli, a historic preservation consultant, prepared the National Register nomination for the district in 2018. The nomination materials will be available in the National Park Service’s database soon.
About the National Register and historic tax credits: Daniel McEneny, NYS Division for Historic Preservation - Daniel.McEneny@parks.ny.gov / (518) 268-2162
About history of the district and neighborhood efforts: Dr. Keith Taylor, President of the Dorrance Brooks Property Owners & Residents Association - Keith.Taylor@dorrancebrookspora.org / (917) 524-9996
About significance of the district and architecture: Marissa Marvelli, historic preservation consultant – email@example.com / (347) 403-1257
About landmarks advocacy: Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council – firstname.lastname@example.org / (212) 614-9107
All photos by Marissa Marvelli unless otherwise noted below.
DBSHD Image Captions and Credits: