Places that Matter

The Marion Building

Former home of the Harlem Community Art Center
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Place Matters Profile

The Marion Building occupies a noteworthy position in African American cultural and artistic heritage in Harlem and New York City. The building, which was occupied by the Harlem Community Art Center (HCAC) from 1937 to 1939, provides an important, extant link to the Harlem Renaissance.

The Marion Building reflects the Harlem building boom that was brought about by the opening of the subway. The three-story, brick and terra cotta structure was built in 1904, and today it retains many of its Beaux Arts style elements, including rustication, lintels with scrolled keystones and shields, and an ornate frieze and cornice. During the 1930s, most of the businesses along the 125th Street corridor were owned and managed by whites, and they mainly served the white community, despite the large African American population in the area. The HCAC was thus a pioneering organization, as it was established for, and dedicated to, serving the African American community. 

The HCAC was sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and according to art historian Dr. Lori Verderame, HCAC was the "WPA's largest New York community center for instruction in the arts." Under the leadership of Augusta Savage and Gwendolyn Bennett, the HCAC was a celebrated resource that brought together luminaries such as Selma Burke, Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence, each of whom either taught or took classes at the HCAC.

The art center's envisioned and created by the Harlem Artists' Guild, which was organized by local African-American artists for the purpose of developing the African American arts community. Its opening ceremony was held on December 20, 1937, and was attended and celebrated by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. With the aid of the WPA, the HCAC achieved its goals by organizing public art exhibitions and providing free arts and crafts lessons to the community in Harlem. According to The WPA Guide to New York City, in addition to the funding from the WPA Federal Art Project, the extra funds were raised by the local community to supplement the cost of working materials for classes. 

The HCAC attracted approximately two thousand five-hundred students, both young and old, from the community. Nearly seventy thousand people attended its exhibitions during the period when the HCAC operated from this location. Visitors to the HCAC came from across  New York City and around the world. 

After the HCAC vacated the Marion Building to occupy a new location in Morningside Heights, the building continued to serve as a venue for other African American cultural activities. According to entries in telephone directories published between the 1940s and the 1970s, the building also provided office space for a numerous small, local businesses. Later New York Times articles indicate that this building was occupied by cultural organizations, such as the Harriett Tubman Hall, People's Showcase Theater ("an all-Negro acting company"), and New Heritage Theatre. Another article and a telephone directory, both dating from 1946, identify that the building also housed bowling alleys (Lenox Bowling Academy), probably due to its large floor plate.