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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Harlem’s Lenox Lounge Landlord Is Aghast

MANHATTAN (CN) - The owner of Harlem's historic Lenox Lounge, which hosted Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and other jazz greats, disobeyed police orders by stripping the building's Art Deco storefront after being priced out the property last year, the landlord claims in court.

The landlord, 286 Lenox Avenue Realty Corp., sued Lenox Lounge Inc. and its owner Alvin "Al" Reed for $25 million in New York County Supreme Court.

The eight-page complaint opens with an overview of the famous jazz club's history.

Dominic Greco founded the club in 1939 under his own name, before he changed it to the Lenox Lounge four years later.

"Great jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane performed there," the complaint states. "This is where Langston Hughes narrated The Story of Jazz. James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison were regulars at the Lenox Lounge. This is where Alex Haley interviewed Malcolm X for his biography."

Before it was stripped, the façade was "a hallmark example of the few original Art Deco structures left in New York" and "possibly the finest surviving example of 1930's storefront architecture in New York," the complaint states.

Its signature Zebra Room has been a setting for the TV series "Mad Men," a music video by Madonna and a 2000 remake of the movie "Shaft."

Greco, who is not a party to the lawsuit, sold the business in the 1980s, and 286 Lenox Avenue Realty Corp. assumed control of the property and defendant Reed took over the lounge.

In 2000, Reed complained to The New York Times that the Lenox Lounge's unique place in local and African American history was fading, as Harlem's gentrification drew predominantly white crowds to the venue.

Reed told the New York Daily News in 2011 that the landlord had doubled his rent to force him out. Celebrity restaurateur Richard Notar, (nonparties) co-owner of Nobu, took over the lease.

On Dec. 30, 2012, the Lenox Lounge hosted its last concert and prepared to close up shop and move two blocks north.

According to the complaint, the landlord corporation's president, Ricky Edmonds, and architect, Huntley Gill, walked into the lounge the next morning, just before the New Year.

"Ominously, they saw approximately 10-12 persons who, from their clothing and tools, appeared to be carpenters and other contractors, about to tear out the historic and iconic fixtures in the premises," the complaint states. "Mr. Gill advised defendant Alvin Reed that he was not permitted to remove the fixtures and other landlord's property from the premises. Tyreta Foster, defendants' counsel, angrily yelled at Mr. Gill and Mr. Edmonds to get away from the property, and she called police."

Foster did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaint continues: "When the police arrived, they informed both parties that the dispute was a civil matter as to the interior, but that the storefront and sign could not be altered without a permit and they took no further action."

The next morning, New Year's Day, two phony police officers prevented Edmond and Gill from interfering with the lounge's workers, who were gutting what was left, according to the complaint.

"When Mr. Gill asked to see their badges, the two 'police' hid their 'shields,'" the complaint states. "After further questioning, the two 'police' stated that they were 'security' hired by defendant's counsel."

Gill claims he saw them loading two trucks which drove two blocks north to Lenox Lounge's new site.

"When defendants and their workers had completed their 'work,' the premises was completely stripped and bare," the complaint states. "Defendants had taken everything form the premises - fixtures, banquettes, iconic mirrors, doors, signage and even the building façade, and transported these items to 333 Lenox Avenue, for use in their new venture. The once proud Lenox Lounge, for the first time in its history since its founding in 1939, stood completely bare and empty."

Reed has told reporters that he owns the trademark to the Lenox Lounge name.

His legal defense will likely point out that the original Lenox Lounge was not a protected landmark, as local news website DNAinfo noted in an investigation on historical preservation in Harlem.

But the landlord claims that the jazz club's "significant contribution" to U.S. history and "distinctive" architectural characteristics qualify it as "historic" under federal standards.

The landlord wants the fixtures back and $25 million for conversion and waste.

It is represented by Dean Dreiblatt with Rose & Rose.

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