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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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].

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


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


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.

Greg Miller, “During Prohibition, Harlem Night Clubs Kept the Party Going,” Culture, (February 10, 2021). Accessed March 28, 2021.

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.

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.

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

11 Ibid, 3.

12 The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide (undated),

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

14 Rosten, The strangest places, 187.

Strike a Pose: The Importance of the Black Queer Spaces in the Late 20th Century, by John Vaccaro

June 4, 2021

Harlem’s Imperial Lodge of Elks, also known as the Elks Lodge, located on 129th West Street, Manhattan in Central Harlem, New York City, was constructed from 1922-24 and designed by African American architect Vertner Woodson Talley (1885-1949). Talley was an important Black figure in the Harlem community of NYC, co-founding the first African American Greek letter fraternity in the United States in 1906 during his undergraduate studies.The fraternity, known as the Alpha Phi Alpha Society, would contribute a great deal to the upbringing of prominent Black scholars and political activists like Martin Luther King Jr.2 Furthermore, Talley would go on to become the first Black registered architect in the state of New York.

The Elks Lodge was initially built to serve fraternal functions and hosted various community events. Today, the building still stands proudly having been converted in recent years into the Faith Mission Christian Fellowship Church. The focus of this paper, however, will not be on the most distant or recent history of this building, but instead somewhere in the middle – this middle being its most famous appearance in a classic and often criticized queer documentary.

The documentary in question is of course Paris Is Burning (1990); a film directed and produced by Jennie Livingston that explores the lives of prominent Black and Latino/a queer figures in the New York City Ballroom scene, specifically in relation to the balls held in the Elks Lodge and the Harlem Black queer landscape through the mid to late 1980s. The film, despite its many controversies following the release, provides a rare look into the Imperial Elks Lodge in Harlem where the famed balls were held. Analyzing the film in conjunction with adjacent queer texts and analyses, we can establish the socio-spatial importance of the Ballroom and the subsequent structures that uphold its importance to Black and Latino/a queer culture and the formation of identity within the context of late 20th century urban America. The typology of the Ballroom can then be interpreted as the catalyst triggering the creation of Black and Latino/a queer infrastructural networks that benefited the mental and physical health of the marginalized communities it served. Glimpses into the Elks Lodge’s balls also allow for further dissection into hierarchical relations of the Ballroom participants.

“I remember my dad, he said you have three strikes against you in this world. That every black man has two – that they’re just black and they’re a male – but you’re black and you’re a male and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time. But he said if you’re gonna do this you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.”3

These first words spoken in the documentary essentially establish the thesis statement of the Ballroom. What follows is a scene capturing one of the most important and highly respected figures of the Harlem Ballroom scene in the 80s and 90s, Peper Labeija, Mother of the House of Labeija, as they enter a nondescript building (the Elks Lodge) past dusk. Peper, wearing an extravagant garment covered in glittering gold fabric, appears as a shining star in the vast dark universe of New York City at night. As they strut directly from the entrance and onto the floor, also referred to as the runway, Black and Latino/a members of the LGBTQ+ and Ballroom community surround and praise them on the left and right. The Ball has officially begun.

Figure 1: Stills from Paris Is Burning (1990); (left) Peper Labeija entering the Elks Lodge Ballroom, featuring the Elks’ fraternity crest in the upper left corner.

Figure 2: Stills from Paris Is Burning (1990); Willi Ninja, Mother of the House of Ninja, vogueing on the Ballroom floor.

The Ballroom itself is a socio-spatial architecture that seeks to affirm and celebrate Black queer and trans identities within a safe setting removed from the racism and homo/transphobia of the rest of the city, which includes the public, private and domestic realms. The onslaught of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s ravaged the LGBTQ+ community and further isolated and stigmatized them from the rest of heteronormative society. AIDS and gayness are linked through terms used to describe the disease, like gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID), sensationalist headlines and the overall apathy of a majority of government officials and cisgender straight Americans.4 On top of the general violence and hostility directed at the LGBTQ+ community in the better part of the 20th century, racism was (and still is) very much ingrained within the community itself, as well as within the heteronormative tolerability of queerness. Much of the more acceptable forms of queerness are directly linked to whiteness; the generally white gay districts of big cities that host the popular gay bars, clubs, shows, etc., and gay representation in media all work to affirm gay identities without necessarily challenging the white supremacist foundations of the systems they function within.LGBTQ+ communities and spaces were created in big cities that isolated queer people of colour (most of whom were Black) from their white counterparts.6 Paris Is Burning and its queer – albeit, white – director have also been criticized by Black queer feminists and activists like Bell Hooks. Hooks criticizes the unchallenging perspective of Livingston towards whiteness as the aspirational standard forming much of the dialogue between figures in the film, even asserting it through collages of white models and TV stars on magazines, posters and advertising.All things considered, through the creation of the Ballroom, credited to Crystal Labeija (a Black drag contestant who vocalized frustrations with the evident bias in the judging of white queens versus queens of colour in drag pageants),8 Black and queer individuals make space for themselves in the city where one can feel comforted and be embraced by their peers for their gender, race and sexuality in ways their biological families have perhaps not been able to.9 This is evident in the documentary, as all sorts of events are filmed taking place in the Ballroom, with members of the community strutting across the floor and getting their life.10 One member of a primarily Latino/a house founded in 1982, known as the House of Xtravaganza, even goes on to compare entering the space as “crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland,”11 indicative of the transformative and otherworldly nature of the Ballroom.

“The house, the house, let’s see if we can put it down sharply. They’re families. You can say that they’re families, for a lot of children who don’t have families. But this is the new meaning of family.”12

Dorian Corey, founder and Mother of the House of Corey

The Ballroom also generated what are known as houses. These houses, comprising almost exclusively of Black and Latino/a queer and trans folks, are intrinsic to not only the organization of the events of the Ballroom, such as the balls, but to the survival of the urban youth who participate in them. The houses are run by house mothers and fathers tasked with ensuring the comfort and safety of the members of their house and providing guidance, as would traditional biological parents.13 Peper Labeija, the current Mother of the House of Labeija at the time of filming, speaks to these mother/father-son/daughter relationships from their personal experience within their house and ball community as they sit on their couch with two of their children14 in the room. They explain how many of the kids who perform in the balls have been kicked out by their biological parents for being gay and have next to nothing. The network of houses connected to the Ballroom are able to make up for what these children do not have anymore, at least in part, providing some money for food and other necessities and a place to stay.

Figure 3: Stills from a deleted scene in Paris Is Burning (1990); Peper Labeija in their home with two of their house members, or children (Paris is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes, 2020).

Figure 4: Stills from a deleted scene in Paris Is Burning (1990).

Angie Extravaganza, Mother of the House of Extravaganza, continues the same points, also mentioning the socio-spatial relations of their house and its house members to the Ballroom. Many of the mothers and fathers of the house will host parties in preparation for a ball the night of, singing, dancing, doing each others’ makeup, etc.15 In essence, the Ballrooms promoted the grouping of individuals and prompted them to create new families that protected each other. The variety of houses, many of which are still active in the Ballroom scene to this day, provide Black and Latino/a queer and trans youth with a network of safe spaces they can rely on, acting as both the metaphorical and literal definition of home that they otherwise have been robbed of.16

Throughout Paris Is Burning, we also see scenes of the Ballroom events in the Elks Lodge collaged in and between these interviews which demonstrate the spatial order of the culture and subsequent social implications. The layout of the Ballroom can generally be divided into four spaces as seen in the film: the observing space, the floor/runway, the commentator’s podium and the judges’ panel.17

Figure 5: Still from Paris Is Burning (1990); Venus Extravaganza, center, walking the runway at a ball, with spectators to the left and right and the commentator’s podium and judge’s panel positioned in the back.

The seating (observing space) and floor/runway (performing space) are placed next to each other on the same level, the former surrounding the latter on both sides and make up the largest portion of the Ballroom. The borders between the observing and performing areas are often blurred as performers emerge from the observing space and onto the floor/runway to perform. Alternatively, depending on the category, observers and performers not currently performing will surround those performing in celebratory praise. The next space is the commentator’s podium, placed towards the back of the floor/runway and in front of the panel of judges. The role of the commentator is to announce the categories and special events of the night, provide lighthearted shade and generally keep the show moving forward. Finally, towards the very back of the Ballroom is the judges’ panel, who are tasked with scoring the performances on the floor and awarding the prizes. Both the commentator’s podium and judges’ panel are elevated above the rest of the Ballroom on a stage, to provide them with a better view of the entire floor and performances. In a strikingly similar fashion to that of a church, the elevated position of the commentator and judges demarcate their importance to and authority over the competitions. The ritualistic nature of the Ballroom events and performances can also be compared to those that take place in churches.17 In a sense, the Ballroom is a church but in service to Black and Latino/a queer folks.

“In real life, you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight.”19

Dorian Corey, founder and Mother of the House of Corey

It is interesting to chart the evolution of the Imperial Lodge of Elks since its opening in 1924 to today and how it has, in some way, provided safe spaces to the different subgroups and/or cultures within the large Harlem Black community. Elks Lodge can be understood and analyzed as an architecture of survival, affirmation and celebration, uplifting the communities who inhabited its walls.

Figure 6: Elks Lodge as it stands today after being converted into a Church recently (NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017).

Furthermore, the Ballrooms of big cities in North America like New York City were and continue to be an integral part of the Black and Latino/a queer community, serving as not only a collective place of gathering, but an imagined fantastical space that aims to protect marginalized folks from the once (and still, to a certain degree) dangerous public urban realm. The existence of the ballrooms themselves and the safe spaces they provide to these individuals allows for an exploration of gender, sexuality, identity, family and community that at times both succumb to and challenge notions of white heteronormativity in the United States. Despite the golden age of the Ballroom having passed, many of the houses featured in Paris Is Burning still exist today under new house mothers and fathers and remain active in the Ballroom scene in addition to several new houses having emerged in different cities that go even further to provide sexual education and awareness to protect the health of the Black queer community at large.20 There might never be another Ballroom like this one in Harlem, but its impact in the Black and Latino/a queer community is undeniable and will continue to be felt for decades to come.


John Vaccaro is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355 – Architectural History IV.


Lakeisha Harding, “Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity,” April 12, 2009,


The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary,” YouTube video, January 20, 2021,

Lawrence K. Altman, “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials,” New York Times, May 11, 1982,; Andrew Anthony, “‘We were so scared’: Four people who faced the horrors of Aids in the 80s,” The Guardian, January 31, 2021.; Antonia ch, “Paris Is Burning – Deleted Scenes Outtakes,” YouTube video, April 23,2020,

Bell Hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992) 145-155.

Marlon M. Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 4 (May 2013): 490.

Hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 145-155.

Kinolorber, “Crystal Labeija’s epic read from The Queen (1968) – ‘I have a right to show my colour, darling!’” YouTube video, June 16, 2019,

Emily A. Arnold and Marlon M. Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family: How the Ballroom Community Supports African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS,” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 21, no. 2-3 (April 2009): 178.

10 Gay slang for “having a great time.”

11  The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary.”

12 Ibid.

13 Arnold and Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family,” 179.

14 Members of the Ballroom community brought into a house.

15 Ibid.

16 Arnold and Bailey, “Constructing Home and Family,” 174.

17 Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” 500.

18 Bailey, “Engendering space: Ballroom culture and the spatial practice of possibility in Detroit,” 500.

19 The Black Experience Archive, “Paris Is Burning 1990 Documentary.”

20 Matt Baume, “Learning from the Ballroom History: Older Generations vs. Today,” YouTube, July 28, 2020,; Emily A. Arnold and Marlon M. Bailey, ““Constructing Home and Family: How the Ballroom Community Supports African American GLBTQ Youth in the Face of HIV/AIDS.”

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