The Savoy Ballroom: Rejecting Black Exoticism Through Community-Driven Design, by Clay Moon

June 10, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

In the 1930s, New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood found itself at the center of many political, cultural, and economic issues. During this post-war period known as the Depression-era, over three hundred thousand African Americans from the south known as “the Great Migration” flooded Harlem searching for employment. This sizeable demographic movement, among other social factors, led to Harlem becoming the largest African American community in the United States.Additionally, a nationwide alcohol ban known as Prohibition catalyzed an organized mafia crime scene and countless clubs throughout Harlem. The resulting energetic and relentless nightlife was, according to many, the source of the neighbourhood’s artistic creativity and collaboration.2

This explosion in diverse, Black creative works, known collectively as the Harlem Renaissance, is a problematic cultural movement to navigate. Although praised for its success in popularizing a new, national Black identity, the “New Negro” was often tailored for the whites of wealthier areas.3 For this reason, the Harlem Renaissance is often criticized as a movement that, although “successful,” failed to ease many of the underlying racial tensions. If anything, it reinforced the idea of the Black artist subordinate to the wealthier white man.

Between 140th and 141st street in Harlem, a typical brick building would oppose these pervasive stereotypes and impact the African American cultural identity for generations to come. More specifically, the Savoy ballroom housed on its upper floor would give off a more prestigious Black persona, one that rejects the stereotypical exoticism constructed by whites-only cabarets. Ahead of its time, the Ballroom is a unique success story that provided Blacks with an environment in which they could freely connect and thrive. Besides Small’s paradise, a little basement nightclub, the Savoy was the first major racially integrated venue in America. In retrospect, it was part of America’s earliest placemaking efforts for minorities, unifying a neighbourhood that struggled with financial stability and collective identity.4 For the Black locals who regularly visited, the ballroom was not only a temporary escape from work but from the restrictions of a suffocating set of explicit and inexplicit racist policies. Above all, the Savoy Ballroom’s design improved African American artists’ integrity and professionalism by enabling a raw portrayal of Black culture undeterred by a white social agenda.

When engaging in race and architecture, the academic field often aims to reveal hidden, subtle, and negative sociopolitical biases detrimental to minority groups rooted within it. In this speculative essay, the goal is the opposite. The ballroom’s ability to daringly ignore the temptation of a white money-driven business model was unprecedented for a venue of its scale.  It drew a diverse crowd and granted its performers autonomy and expressive freedom, all of which link back to the unique layout. Using an investigative approach, the chosen image (see fig. 1) of the ballroom plan, among others, will guide and correlate the Savoy’s underlying sociopolitical intentions with its architectural attributes.

Figure 1: The Savoy Ballroom floor plan (not to scale). From The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide (undated) courtesy of Ms. Irene Phipps in memory of her father Edgar Phipps. http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/details/the-savoy-ballroom-reservation-guide/

The Savoy’s interior layout contributed to its overall success in several ways. The large size ensured it could rival the status of other significant venues such as downtown’s Roseland ballroom. Additionally, the two may have been similar in size, but only the Savoy welcomed guests of any race, status, or age. The large size was also a pragmatic solution. With the increasingly popular subgenre of swing jazz and its “big bands,” players needed more space on stage. Due to the Great Depression, musicians were willing to be paid less; therefore, a bandleader could hire more people at the same cost. Thus “big bands” came to be the most entertaining and cost-effective band structure. To fully understand the scale, the Savoy usually allowed anywhere from four thousand to five thousand guests on its five public nights.5 In comparison, the competing nearby clubs (see fig. 2) never exceeded fifteen hundred occupants. The sheer number of people regularly attending, of whom eighty percent were Black, thus supplied a hefty and steady income. This income would help fund the renovations of the iconic, prestigious interior and maintain low prices for the Black working-class.

Figure 2: “A Night Club Map of Harlem.” Created by E. Simms Campbell, considered the first commercially successful African American illustrator, [c1932]. From James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Library. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/prohibition-harlem-night-clubs-maps

The luxurious décor, frequently updated to reflect the times, directly indicated that the longstanding manager Charles Buchanan6 held an unwavering vision for Black people’s dignity and identity in light of the Harlem Renaissance. Everything was professionally and politely executed, never hinting at “[…] African jungle motifs, southern stereotypology, [or] lurid eroticism”7 that far too many whites-only venues employed. These other segregated cabarets, such as the famous Cotton Club, caricatured, objectified, and commoditized the Black performer (see fig. 3, fig. 4).

Figure 5: “Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Chorus girls in the background. Cotton branch décor overhead.” From Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 28, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/fcfafba0-1346-0136-de9c-396c77d77bb6

Figure 4: “Jimmie Lunceford and His Glee Club, at the Cotton Club. Note the Jungle motif of the curtains behind.” From
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 29, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/83324840-7edd-0135-f3bf-0511acf52acf

The Savoy’s interior had two mirrored flights of marble stairs, various chandeliers, a fountain, decorated columns, and copper-clad bandstands (see fig. 5).8 At its peak, the ballroom screamed the clean, high-quality aesthetics of Art Deco.  The materials and design were, from various accounts, “much bigger, more glamour[ous], [and of] real class”9 compared to previous night clubs. In fact, the venue’s name was inspired by the classy Savoy Hotel in London. Importantly, even though the décor expressed wealth, the cover charge was always cheap, averaging about fifty cents during the depression era. The manager Charles Buchanan always played a crucial role in aligning the Savoy’s goals with those of the locals.  It was not only “The World’s Finest ballroom,” it was the world’s finest ballroom for all.

Figure 5: “1941 Savoy Ballroom postcard.” From
http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/research/savoy-renovations/

In the plan, the dancing floor and the two bandstands were the most prized possessions at the Savoy and arguably the most symbolic. “The Track,” as it was called, was a spring-loaded, wooden dancefloor among the largest in town, with a total area of over ten thousand square feet. The floor was maintained religiously. No smokers were allowed near, and night cleaners would polish it every night. The boards were even swapped every three years.10  “The Track” was particular because it allowed the popular swing jazz to be fully expressed through various dance styles, namely the Savoy’s signature “Lindy hop.” Characterized by its energetic, often aerial moves, the Lindy Hop no doubt developed to take advantage of the large, unobstructed floor. Unlike other Harlem clubs, whose dancers were on stage with the band, this dance floor was flush with the surrounding carpet, covering the entire area surrounding the bandstands (see fig. 6, fig. 7).

Figure 6: “A newly laid floor inviting you to dance.” From Savoy News, Vol. 1 no. 2.

Figure 7: “View from the top right corner, looking towards the bandstand.” From
Savoy News, Vol. 1 no. 2.

Other than at the “showtime,” when professionals showed off their new Lindy hop skills, dancers of any skill level could quickly join. The layout naturally encouraged participation on the dance floor (see fig. 8).  Judging from the photos, one would have a hard time avoiding a dance. The Black female dancers were not overly sexualized either, unlike at the Cotton Club. Instead, the dancers often blended in with the crowd. This is partly because the dancing did not have to be a significant source of income. The seamless floor design also encouraged people to sit and gather informally around the dancers in an impromptu semi-circle (see fig. 8), echoing the Savoy’s communal spirit. In contrast, Small’s Paradise, another racially integrated club, could only host dances in its small basement if it moved its furniture aside. In the same vein, Buchanan had explained that he wanted “an atmosphere of tasteful refinement” instead of “the small, […] stuffy, […] foul-smelling, cellar nightclubs.”11

Figure 8: “Wide-angle view of the dancefloor. From Source Unknown, [c1941]. http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/gallery/

The bandstands held an equally important and complementary role to the dancefloor. Unlike its competitors, the dual bandstands lacked curtains, so they could always be viewed from three sides. The stands, although elevated, continued the same seamless, intimate spatial quality as the ballroom floor. Not having curtains or partitions on its sides signalled a degree of transparency in how things were run. It also gives the adjacent dancing audience a closer, intimate view of them. Ultimately, the lack of curtains instilled a level of trust and further reduced the artificial barrier between audience and performer. The only significant closed-off rooms were the washrooms, as shown in the plan (see fig. 1). In general, the open view of the room, from one end to the other, added to the informal atmosphere and took the pressure off the performers.

The location of the bars and the boxes are relevant as well. Placed far from the stair entrance, the bars were far from the action and featured no waiters.12 It, therefore, minimized excessive drinking and distanced behaviour. There was even a drink limit to discourage people from attending simply for the drinks. Buchanan summarizes the ballroom’s agenda perfectly, claiming that “[the staff] are not partial to white people who come to gawk […] besides [the staff] is not geared to make money out of them. They can’t spend more than the admission fee and a couple drinks.”13 This limit, combined with the various bouncers, ensured a safe and happy environment. The semi-circular layout of the boxes flanking the dancefloor, where many lounged, allowed people to join the crowd spontaneously (see fig. 6, fig. 7). Other venues did not create this enticing interactivity. If someone did want a break to socialize in a quieter setting, the Savoy offered that too. The tables and lounge chairs were placed further away, beyond the boxes.  Many were even caught dozing off peacefully on camera. The bars’ arrangement, the boxes, and the tables stimulated positive interactions, especially for the uptight white guests. In a written anecdote by Calvin Rosten, Buchanan fittingly explains that “As long as they [those drinking and socializing] behave, we ignore them. That is our policy.”14

By investigating the Savoy ballroom’s various relevant architectural features, guided by its well documented reputation as a Black community center, a new racial narrative emerges. Hopefully, such analyses will challenge architects to study race and architecture not only as a bitter past, but also as one that contains positive examples that can help build a better future.

Unfortunately, “The World’s Finest ballroom,” as it was advertised, is now nothing more than a set of memories and documents. At the site, which now houses much-needed social housing and a community park (see fig. 9), a plaque was finally erected in the Savoy’s honour. Demolished in 1958, with Harlem’s economic and cultural decline, the Savoy not only still holds an artistic presence but an experiential presence that lives on in the Black people. Hopefully, the magical synergy of the architectural qualities, the performers, and the diverse, unrestricted audience can be replicated in placemaking efforts today. It’s hard to conclude whether the Savoy’s interior was successful through association with the activities housed within or if the interior was the reason for the building’s legendary reputation. The answer likely lies somewhere in between these extremes. Regardless, the Savoy ballroom forever changed African American identity and culture by pioneering a safe, humanizing environment where music and dance were presented free of racial exoticism.

Figure 9: The Savoy’s footprint overlaid on Google maps 3D satellite view. From
http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/research/figuring-out-the-size-of-the-savoy/

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Clay Moon is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Gerald Meyer, “Black Harlem in the Great Depression: A Review Essay,” New York History 74, no. 1 (1993): 97-104. Accessed March 27, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23181759.

Greg Miller, “During Prohibition, Harlem Night Clubs Kept the Party Going,” Culture, (February 10, 2021). Accessed March 28, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/prohibition-harlem-night-clubs-maps)

Cary D. Wintz, “Harlem Renaissance,” In Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present: (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Annette Koh, “Placemaking When Black Lives Matter,” Project For Public Spaces. Accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.pps.org/article/placemaking-black-lives-matter.

Barbara Engelbrecht, “Swinging at the Savoy,” Dance Research Journal, 15 no. 2 (1983): 3-10, 5. Accessed March 29, 2021. doi:10.2307/1478672.

L. Calvin Rosten, The strangest places (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), 185.

Maureen Maryanski, “The Aristocrat of Harlem: The Cotton Club,” New-York Historical Society, (February 18, 2016), 1.

“Redecorated Savoy to Open Thursday,” The New York Age (New York: November 15, 1930), 1.

Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1979), 321. Accessed March 27, 2021. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106015219014&view=1up&seq=363)

10 Engelbrecht, “Swinging at the Savoy,” 5.

11 Ibid, 3.

12 The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide (undated), http://www.welcometothesavoy.com/details/the-savoy-ballroom-reservation-guide/

13 Engelbrecht, “Swinging at the Savoy,” 6.

14 Rosten, The strangest places, 187.

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