In Harlem, a Nightspot So Iconic They’ll Reopen It. Twice.
By KIA GREGORY
A few short weeks ago, people in Harlem were wondering how the neighborhood would cope with the loss of the Lenox Lounge, where Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday once graced the stage, an authentic vestige of a bygone era.
Now it looks as if Harlem will have two kinds of Lenox Lounges: one at its fabled original location, and another up the street, bearing the fabled name.
The Lenox Lounge, which once drew patrons from New York City and beyond, closed on Dec. 31 after a prolonged lease dispute between the property owner, Ricky Edmonds, and the lounge owner, Alvin Reed.
Richard Notar, a former managing partner of the Nobu restaurant chain, took over the lease the very next day; he plans to preserve the lounge’s legacy and atmosphere. “I don’t want to change anything,” said Mr. Notar, who planned to open by the spring, although he has yet to settle on a name. The name on the liquor license, Notar Jazz Club, is just a placeholder, he said.
At the same time, Mr. Reed has announced plans to open a Lenox Lounge two blocks to the north.
“It was a lot of hard work, looking for spaces and being able to sign a lease,” Mr. Reed said. “We’re going to try to duplicate what we had there, as much as possible, as much as we can.”
Mr. Edmonds, however, has accused Mr. Reed of going too far in those efforts. He said Mr. Reed had removed the celebrated Art Deco furnishings from the original location, along with the familiar burgundy paneling and famed neon sign.
“We clearly have a lease that states he was supposed to leave all that stuff in there,” said Mr. Edmonds, whose 286 Lenox Avenue Realty Corporation bought the property in 1983. “The spot is special, not only to the landlord, but to the community. What he’s done is take everything to another spot, and clearly he cannot do that, and we’re going to do everything in our means to get it back.”
Mr. Edmonds said he had retained a lawyer.
Mr. Reed, who obtained a trademark of the Lenox Lounge name in 2011, said through his lawyer, Tyreta Foster, that when he bought the business there had been an asset purchase agreement, though he would not say what he had removed. He added that he looked forward to reopening the club at 333 Lenox Avenue, filling a space once occupied by a beauty salon. “There’s going to be singing in the streets,” Mr. Reed said.
The new tenant, Mr. Notar, said of the dispute: “It’s between the two of them. I don’t want to be brought in. I really hope they resolve it. I don’t want it to distract from my intention. I hope there is a happy resolution.”
Still, there remains the question of the Lenox Lounge’s identity, and whether its essence remains rooted in the original spot, where the sounds from all those jazz greats seeped into the walls. Some also wonder if the business should remain Harlem-owned, or if its ownership should reflect the area’s changing, gentrifying landscape.
Loren Schoenberg, the artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said that such distinctions were complicated, but that he believed the two businesses could coexist.
“Harlem has changed so dramatically in the last 10 years,” Mr. Schoenberg said. “There is certainly room for both.” At issue, he said, is the tension inherent in trying to keep something that was, something from the past, while giving the commercial market of today what it wants.
“But ultimately,” Mr. Schoenberg continued, “what determines a place is the philosophy of the owner. That’s what makes a place successful or not.”
Not even two weeks have passed since the Lenox Lounge closed. Practically overnight, the site has gone from icon to eyesore. The front door is boarded up. The dark red facade is gone, stripped away.
Still, Mr. Reed admitted that there was a certain spirit in the old space. “You can’t take that out,” he said. “That’s the unfortunate part of it. I do love that space.”
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