When the National Black Theatre announced its intention to develop its current site, concerns about the interior (and exterior) artistic treasurers were of great concern. The property, which was purchased by the Theatre’s founder, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer in 1969, houses the largest collection of Nigerian New Sacred Art in the Western Hemisphere. Hand carved wood totems and copper, aluminum and brass relief were created for the Theatre by traditional Nigerian artisans from the Sun-Oshogbo Sacred Grove. They carved these works using tools and methods which spanned seven generations. With its founder, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, dedicated to the preservation of this unique spiritual tradition, it is no wonder that the upcoming project, demolishing the current structure, and creating a new, would present questions about the preservation of the artwork.
Enter ~ Ray ~ a company whose mission states that it builds urban projects as vertical villages in a way that includes art along with architecture and design.
Ray’s founder, Russian-American businesswoman, art collector and philanthropist, Dasha Zhukova, established the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moskow 2008, Garage Magazine in 2011, and is also a co-founder of Artsy, the digital platform. Observing how people interacted with both art and architecture, she expanded her concept with the formation of ‘Ray’, space that meets the needs of a changing world. Ray has two projects in the works ~ Philadelphia’s Ray Fishtown and New York’s Ray Harlem, a joint venture with National Black Theatre.
The project appears to be keeping the integrity of Dr. Teer’s original concept, integrating West African mythology into a new, built space right down to the color of the brick on the exterior of the new structure ~ a pink-red hue referencing the Sun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria, and the original artisans who worked on the National Black Theatre space. The National Black Theatre will occupy the first four floors of the building.
Since being made public five years ago, the project has heartily maintained the full endorsement of Community Board 11 and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer — this support has bolstered the case for a rezoning and allowed for increased density. The site also sits within the Special 125th Street District, which provides a bonus of four square feet of extra floor area for every one square foot of cultural space developed.
Tapped to make this happen is the architect, Frida Escobedo, in collaboration with Handel Architects (Sendero Verde, East Harlem). In keeping with Ray’s philosophy of ‘community’, the ground floor (corner of 126th Street and Fifth Avenue) will house a Living Room, listed as a “cozy space open to the public and serving as a community gathering space.’ Interior Designer, Little Wing Lee (National Museum of African-American History and Culture) will “incorporate design gestures that speak to the history of the space, from the river that runs beneath the ground of 125th Street to NBT’s narrative.”
The 21-story Ray Harlem will have approximately 222 units comprised of a mix of studios, one and two bedrooms, home office and junior bedroom options, flexible spaces, and affordable units. Included will be an Artist Housing Initiative with housing for local artists and creatives. Residents will have access to some very cool amenities like artist studio, library, co-working lounge, wellness space, and community courtyard on the main amenity floor. The rooftop will include a community kitchen and terrace.
Ray Harlem will be located at 2033 National Black Theatre Way on Fifth Avenue at 125th Street, with ground breaking in February, 2022 and a scheduled completion in November, 2024.
Read more about the female-led team behind Ray and The National Black Theatre in Madam Architect.
Watching the Progress
In July, 2022, we noticed new fencing and a truck or two on the grounds. Follow along as we watch the construction.
The image above faces 126th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.
In the image below, the view captures Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets, with the church/art studio, 2050 Fifth Avenue in the background ~ the former Mt. Moriah Church, currently owned by Swiss-born artist Ugo Rondinone.
(Above) The National Black Theatre, in partnership with ArtBridge, RAY, and LMXD, is pleased to announce Steal Away, a public art exhibition created by renowned artist Xenobia Bailey. This 500-foot long exhibition is installed on the construction fencing surrounding the future home of the longest-running Black theater in New York City.
Here’s another view. Rising above the seven-story buildings on 124th Street, this is a view from Madison Avenue looking toward Fifth Avenue (below). Ray Harlem will rise to 21-stories ~ three-times the height of the buildings in the forefront on 124th Street.
National Black Theatre (NBT), Ray and LMXD have announced the topping out of National Black Theatre and Ray Harlem, a 21-story arts and culture hub located at 2031 Fifth Avenue that will house a state-of-the-art, permanent home for the longest-running Black theatre in New York City, founded in 1968 by the late visionary artist Dr. Barbara Ann Teer.
NBT Chief Executive Officer Sade Lythcott said: “As the first revenue generating Black arts complex in the country and the oldest, continually run Black Theater in New York City, this project represents a dream come true and a vision realized. To create a permanent home for Theater makers of the global majority! Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s foresight – to buy this block all those years ago – cemented the future of NBT at the symbolic intersection of Black Culture and opulence in New York City, providing a Home Away From Home for generations of Black storytellers and designers, an economic engine for East Harlem and a cultural beacon of empowerment and revitalization for our great City. We are so grateful to our partners in the project, but in particular to Governor Hochul, Mayor Adams, Speaker Adams, DCLA Commissioner Cumbo, ESD Commissioner Knight and NYSCA. Their faith and investment in our project helps to cement not only a bright future for NBT, but a vibrant and equitable future for us all.
“We are thrilled to celebrate the topping out of Ray Harlem with our partners at NBT and LMXD,” said Dasha Zhukova Niarchos, founder of Ray. “NBT has long been a cherished anchor of the Harlem community and we are proud to work with them to bring the next evolution of this space to the neighborhood. Together we are hopeful this building will enhance the cultural fabric of the area while providing a living environment where residents can access arts in their daily life.”
Guests at the topping out ceremony began and ended their evening with the arts, including a drum cadence upon arrival and dispersal; poetry composed by first-ever Lincoln Center poet-in-residence Mahogany L. Browne, and a live music performance by singer, songwriter, artist and activist Mykal Kilgore.
Construction began on Ray Harlem and the National Black Theatre in July 2022 and the building is schedule to open in late 2024, with the theater coming online in early 2026.
Below, windows are in!
Below, a long view of the new Ray Harlem/National Black Theatre on 125th Street, with the new NAACP building and The Victoria Theatre/Marriott Renaissance Hotel in the background, also on 125th Street.
Check out the rest of East 125th Street at ‘125th Street in East Harlem, a Work in Progress?’