5. The Original Harlem YMCA
The original Harlem YMCA at 181 West 135th Street was a 226-room building designed in the style of an Italian palazzo and built in 1919 with money donated by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. The branch established itself as a major community institution during the Harlem Renaissance, serving as both a center for local youth and as a temporary home for the visiting African American tourists and performers denied lodging in New York’s hotels because of racial discrimination, including renowned writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright; artists Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas; and actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. After a newly expanded YMCA was built across the street in 1933, the original building was remodeled as the Harlem YMCA Jackie Robinson Youth Center and received New York City landmark status in 2016.
In the 1920s the Harlem YMCA served as a gathering place for the local literary community, where the Harlem Writers’ Workshop met and authors such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay gave lectures to crowds. The NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson lived both here and in an adjacent building between 1925 and 1938, where he published his poetry and sociological studies. The building continues to serve the local community while reminding observers of the neighborhood’s illustrious literary past.