As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, the proposed Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District would recognize this neighborhood’s significant association with notable African Americans in the fields of politics, literature, healthcare, and education during the Harlem Renaissance from the early 1920s to the 1940s. The proposed district consists of intact streetscapes of a striking variety of 19th and early- 20th century row houses, multi-family dwellings, and institutions, designed by prominent New York City architects within two sections on either side of Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 136th Street and West 140th Street.
This week, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Harlem’s Dorrance Brooks Square a Historic District.
Developed in the proposed historic district was prompted by the arrival of elevated railway service along Frederick Douglass Boulevard (then Eighth Avenue) in 1868. Several decades later, anticipation of the new IND 8th Avenue subway line (B and C trains) which opened in 1932, spurred further development along Edgecombe and St. Nicholas Avenues. Row houses, designed predominantly in the Renaissance Revival, Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles, dominate the streets within the proposed historic district, while mixed-use buildings and multi-family dwellings are more common on the avenues. In the early-20th century, African Americans who had been pushed by discrimination and demolition out of neighborhoods on the west side of Manhattan such as San Juan Hill and the Tenderloin, began moving to Harlem, and by the 1920s, the neighborhood had become a community of middle-class African Americans, including notable intellectuals, artists, actors, educators, and doctors.
Dorrance Brooks Square was dedicated in 1925, named after the Black serviceman who died in action while serving with a segregated military regiment in the First World War, and was the first public place in New York City to honor an African American in this way. It was the site of many notable political protests starting in the 1920s, and two visits from Harry S. Truman in 1948 and in 1952 when he received an award for his civil rights achievements, including desegregating the U. S. Armed Forces.
Anchored by Dorrance Brooks Square, the proposed historic district was home to many prominent residents and institutions. Among those associated with literature and the arts were the intellectual and essayist W. E. B. Du Bois, stage and motion picture actress Ethel Waters, and celebrated sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage and other artists had studios in the neighborhood, such as the Harlem Artist Guild and the Uptown Art Laboratory. In the apartment building at 580 St. Nicholas Avenue, Regina Anderson, Luella Tucker and Ethel Ray Nance hosted the “Harlem West Side Literary Salon,” known simply as “580” to those who attended, which helped foster the careers of notable Harlem Renaissance artists Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and many others.
At a time when discriminatory barriers denied African American doctors the same privileges as their white counterparts, two small hospitals were founded within the historic district by African American doctors to serve the Harlem community: The Vincent Sanitarium and Hospital, and the Edgecombe Sanitarium. Several African American medical practitioners resided in the neighborhood, including Dr. May Edward Chinn, the only Black female doctor practicing in Harlem in the 1930s. The block of West 137th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevards was named John Henrik Clarke Place in honor of the prominent historian and educator and pioneer of Pan African Studies, who lived there. Historian Charles Seifert founded the Ethiopian School of Research History on West 137th Street in 1920s, which later became the Charles C. Seifert Library.
With its highly intact streetscapes of late-19th century and early 20th century architecture and rich associations with the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights movements, the proposed historic district is an important reminder of both the early development of the neighborhood as well as the contributions of the African American community to the history of New York City and the nation.
In honor of Black History Month 2022, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation (NYLPF) and the Dorrance Brooks Property Owners and Residents Association celebrated the 2021 designation of the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District with the unveiling of historic district markers to promote and commemorate the importance of this district. The Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District is New York City’s first historic district named after an African American, World War 1 war hero Dorrance Brooks, and has strong associations with notable figures in the Harlem Renaissance who made important contributions to the arts, social justice, and New York City’s civic life.
“The Commission designated the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District both for its architectural merit and to recognize its associations with the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights movements, and through this designation recognized the African American figures who played a critical role in creating political and social change in New York City and the nation,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll. “The installation of these historic district markers will memorialize the designation of this historic district – the first named after an African American – and let New Yorkers and visitors alike know about its historic and architectural importance.”
The marker installation is part of the NYLPF’s Historic District Marker Program, which fosters public awareness and civic pride in designated historic districts in the five boroughs through signage. A total of six markers, funded by the NYLPF and the Dorrance Brooks Property Owners and Residents Association, have been installed on street poles at Dorrance Brooks Square Park (by St. Nicholas Avenue and West 136th Street), on the north side of West 136th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevard), on the north side of West 137th Street (between Edgecombe Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard), on the south side of West 137th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevard), on the north side of West 138th Street (between Edgecombe Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard), and on the north side of West 139th Street (between Edgecombe Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard).
The newly installed markers are 19-by-36-inch terra cotta-colored signs and feature a map on one side and a brief description and history of the district on the other. The marker text reads as follows:
“The Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District, designated in 2021, is significant for its association with notable and pioneering African American individuals, institutions, and organizations during the Harlem Renaissance in the fields of politics, literature, healthcare, and education. The district features a striking collection of late-19th- and early-20th century row houses, religious structures, and apartment buildings that create intact and picturesque streetscapes. Dorrance Brooks Square, dedicated in 1925, was named for a Black serviceman who died in action while serving with a segregated military regiment in World War I. It was the first public place in New York City to be named for an African American.”
Dorrance Brooks Square is located On Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 136th Street and West 140th Street, NYC.