Hotel Olga

628-695 Lenox Ave New York

NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
Written By NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

The first initiative to document historic and cultural sites associated with the LGBT community in New York City, illustrating the richness of the city's history and the community's influence on America.

Overview

For about 25 years, beginning in 1920, countless African-American travelers stayed at the renowned Hotel Olga in Harlem. In the 1920s, two known LGBT guests included Alain Locke, the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, and legendary “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith.

History

The Hotel Olga, located at the corner of West 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, in Harlem, was completed and opened in 1920 by African-American businessman Edward “Ed” H. Wilson, who later opened two other hotels in the neighborhood. The three-story hotel was mentioned in national newspapers and drew an international black clientele, many of them important entertainers, athletes, writers, publishers, and others, such as baseball star Satchel Paige and jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The hotel was also included in The Negro Motorist’s Green Book (often simply referred to as the Green Book), a national guide published by Harlem resident Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966 that listed welcoming hotels and other spaces for black travelers during the Jim Crow era. Harlem historian Eric K. Washington notes, “In an era when Harlem’s now iconic Hotel Theresa still loomed as a citadel of racial exclusion, Wilson conjured up his swank haven for ‘the Race’ from an earlier mixed-race watering hole on the same site, the Dolphin Hotel.”

Given the hotel’s renown and its connection to the arts community through heiress A’Lelia Walker (Wilson’s sister-in-law and hostess of the Dark Tower Tea Room formerly located on the Harlem site now occupied by the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library), many LGBT black figures undoubtedly came through the Hotel Olga’s doors. Washington notes two documented so far:

Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), known as the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, became the first African American to be selected as a Rhodes scholar, in 1907. Though largely based in Washington, D.C., as a professor of 41 years at Howard University, Locke often visited Harlem and stayed at the Hotel Olga in at least May 1924.

“Locke was the architect of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, the focus of which was the promotion of black art and culture.” -- Howard University

In 1925, Locke authored the pioneering book The New Negro, which, soon after, became one of the earliest acquisitions of the newly-formed Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints — the precursor to today’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. He was a mentor to many figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including poets Countee Cullen, who credited Locke with helping him embrace his homosexuality, and Langton Hughes.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937), who earned the nickname “Empress of the Blues” as one of the most popular and influential blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, stayed at the Hotel Olga in 1927. In that year, her signature hit songs “After You’ve Gone,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” were released. Smith also performed at the famed Apollo Theater on West 125th Street.

“The blues made Smith the highest paid black entertainer of her era, but she was just as adept at singing show tunes and more popular Tin Pan Alley fare, which became the basis of many early jazz standards.” -- Gwen Thompkins, NPR, 2018

The bisexual singer helped transform American music. Her impact was so profound that she was the only woman to be given a whole chapter in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It (1955). As of 2019, the former Hotel Olga is slated for demolition, despite attempts by Washington and others to save the storied building for adaptive reuse.

Building Information

Architect or Builder: B.W. Berger & Son Year Built: 1911

Sources

Eric K. Washington, “Selected Notable Residents and Affiliations of the former ‘Hotel Olga, Race Retreat of the Harlem Renaissance,” survey, 2014-2019. Gwen Thompkins, “Forebears: Bessie Smith, The Empress of the Blues,” NPR, January 5, 2018, n.pr/2GoDn2B. Jeffrey C. Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). Tagging-the-Past, “Hotel Olga: Race Retreat of the Harlem Renaissance,” Soundcloud, 2014, bit.ly/2WnAllZ.

Cover Photo

Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2019.

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