That Time I Wanted...
An Exploration of Harlem’s Space-Age Fever Dream
Inside the Historic Greater Refuge Temple + How It Inspired Post-Imperial’s New Collection
Words by Keith Taillon
Photography by Zoran Jelenic
There is a church in Harlem, a confection of mid-century multicolored optimism, which inspired this season’s collection from Post-Imperial. The building’s facade is a jarring contrast from the surrounding architecture: twenty-four bar stripes in rotating shades of red, blue, and green. It commands attention among an otherwise brown- and gray-scale streetscape. Turning the corner and seeing this space age fever dream is a surprise and a delight every time. Any Harlemite would know it by sight, if not by name.
The church is the “Greater Refuge Temple,” or at least it has been since 1945. Originally, the site housed a dance hall known as the “Harlem Casino.” This was no gambling house; the word “casino” comes from a centuries-old Italian term for a country cottage or villa. Casinos like Harlem’s, built for dining and dancing, dotted the city’s landscape for a generation.
“The coming of this institution is a menace to our children and our schools,” warned one Harlem preacher in a fiery 1904 sermon. His anxiety was that of a man watching the world change in real time. The subway reached Harlem that same year, bringing all the vice and excitement of the City along with it. Harlem transformed from a leafy, majority-white suburb into a humming urban center.
The ritual of coming together, and of honoring the past, is stitched into the fabric of Post-Imperial’s designs.
The Casino sold in 1910 to entertainment mogul and lifelong Harlemite Marcus Loew. He gutted the building and converted it into a 1,600-seat theatre. The new “Loew’s 7th Avenue” featured Vaudeville revues as well as moving pictures, a modern entertainment venue for a modern era. It stayed in business until about 1934, when it succumbed to the economic pressures of the Depression. The building sold again in 1945 to an evangelical congregation which rechristened it “Greater Refuge Temple.”
“When we moved to the new temple [in 1945] we thought we were something!” recalled congregant Mother Norris in a 2008 interview. “We were hot stuff! And we dressed. Hats, [and outfits of] all different colors.” In the first four decades of the twentieth century, Harlem had transformed into America’s “Black Mecca.” Black New Yorkers moved uptown by the thousands, lured by the prospect of space and stability. There, they endured overpriced lodging, segregated theaters, and white neighbors willing to fight their arrival block by block.
But they also found community: a place to establish and carry on with traditions passed down through generations. Churches proliferated in Harlem. They anchor and define many blocks of the neighborhood to this day. To walk Harlem’s streets on a Sunday morning is to be serenaded by the mixed echo of a thousand choirs singing, the lyrical legacy of a people’s rise and Renaissance a century ago. For congregants, these spaces serve not only as places of sanctuary, but as loci of rituals and practices passed on, one generation to the next, from ages and ancestors lost to memory.
The Greater Refuge Temple gained its colorful facade in the late 1960s, as the nation was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. The old theatre’s interior was stripped down to steel beams and rebuilt with curved white plaster panels rising to a skylit dome. Its exterior was transformed into a striped riot of color. Journalist David W. Dunlap described it as “24 elongated mosaic lozenges—emerald, bronze, gold, jade, periwinkle, and cornflower.” It refuses to fade into the background. It calls out to passersby, demanding to be seen, and welcoming all to enter and take part.
This new collection for Post-Imperial was inspired by the stripes of the Greater Refuge Temple’s facade. The building’s colorful stripes are echoed in hand-dyed patterns of indigo, azure, and lime. Their African-inspired patterns honor the past and present which interweave everyday life in Harlem. The ritual of coming together, and of honoring the past, is stitched into the fabric of Post-Imperial’s designs. Like the church’s stripes, these pieces from Post-Imperial command attention. They are imbued with the strength and values of countless generations passed down, one to the next: the values of community, of color, and of ritualistic perseverance.
Keith Taillon is a freelance writer and historian living in Harlem, New York. He is currently working as the historian for the Fifth Avenue Association and is a regular contributor of historic & travel columns to The Daily Beast. His Instagram @KeithYorkCity seeks to bring lesser-known city history to light.