The Audubon Ballroom
Farther north on Broadway, between West 165th and 166th Streets is a remnant of the former Audubon Ballroom. Originally constructed in 1912 by Hungarian immigrant William Fox, creator of 20th Century Fox, the Audubon consisted of a 2,500-seat theater and a ballroom for 200 guests on the second floor. The theater first functioned as a vaudeville house where the likes of Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Henny Youngman, the Three Stooges, and Mae West performed. Later the space was used as a movie theater, and eventually as a key meeting place for political activism. In the 1930s, the Emes Wozedek Jewish congregation began using the rooms in the basement for religious practices. Several unions also used the building for meetings, including the Municipal Transit Workers, the IRT Brotherhood Union, and the TWU (remember Mike Quill who greeted Mayor Lindsay with a transit strike?).
The Audubon Ballroom became an important landmark for the African-American community in Harlem and Washington Heights in the 1950s. The annual New York Mardi Gras festival, where the King and Queen of Harlem were crowned, was held here. When Malcolm X returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity that met weekly in the ballroom. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot to death on the 2nd-floor stage while delivering a speech.
Statue of Malcolm X inside Audubon Ballroom
Occupying the full block, the building, notable for its ornate terra cotta ornamentation, was not kept up over the years. The nearby Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital sought to purchase the site and raze the building. A battle ensued between preservationists, who wanted to honor the rich history of the site as well as its architectural features, and those who saw greater value to the community in a new proposed research facility. The eventual compromise is an example of adaptive re-use in which much of the ornate façade was kept, a smaller research facility was built, and the lobby and second floor ballroom were repurposed as an educational center.
Today there is no sign commemorating the ballroom. The address, 3940 Broadway, just seems home to a ground-floor restaurant and office space, but once in the lobby you see a statue of Malcolm X on a platform and realize you are in a special place. The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The second floor, where Malcolm X was killed, has murals and quotes honoring the civil rights leader.