In December 1920, Ed H. Wilson opened a small hotel expressly for Harlem’s African-American clientele. The Hotel Olga evokes little nostalgia today, but its idle 3-story building at Lenox Avenue and 145th Street was once a crucible of black tourism.
It was an era when Harlem’s now iconic Hotel Theresa still loomed as a citadel of racial exclusion. But the Hotel Olga’s registry, published weekly in papers across the country, assured intrepid travelers of a comfortable, safe and respectable sojourn to be had in New York.
Hotel Olga’s notable residents
The Chicago Defender described the hotel’s interior as “elegantly decorated and furnished with mahogany, walnut and oak furniture.” Rooms noted as “suitable for newlyweds” bore “a touch of the old Colonial style,” and bride’s rooms were offered “in color of their own selection.” The hotel was equipped with “several reading rooms” adjoining “a large library…with a variety of the best books.”
The Hotel Olga’s luxury was not lost on heiress A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of businesswoman Madame C.J. Walker and Harlem’s premier hostess. In November 1923, she threw her own daughter, Mae, a “million dollar wedding.” As Walker also happened to be Wilson’s sister-in-law–married to his brother, Dr. Wiley Wilson–his hotel perhaps figured naturally into that special occasion. Historian A’Lelia Bundles notes that Walker engaged the Hotel Olga for her grandmother Mae’s “first husband, Dr. Gordon Jackson, and some of the groomsmen and other wedding guests.”
Some of the hotel’s other notable residents included such Negro Baseball League stars as Hall of Fame pitchers Rube Foster and Satchel Paige. In June 1935, baseball kingpin Gus Greenlee–owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords–was also managing boxing heavyweight Joe Louis. His stay at the Olga effectively turned the hotel into Harlem’s de facto headquarters for the much anticipated bout between Louis and Italian champ Primo Carnera.
In early 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American instructed fans of trumpeter Louis Armstrong to “write Louis at Hotel Olga,” where he’d checked in while waging a bitter court battle against his manager, Conrad Immerman–nightclub owner of the storied Connie’s Inn. Later that same year, James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen became the first black aviators to complete a transcontinental flight from California. As soon as they landed, they “made their way…to the Hotel Olga…their first stop on their first visit to New York City,” the Chicago Defender wrote. The Milwaukee-Journal noted that the celebrated fliers occupied the Olga’s “presidential suite.”
In 1925, civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph profiled Hotel Olga proprietor Edward H. Wilson in The Messenger, the magazine he’d co-founded with Chandler Owen.
Swank “Race” hotel
Wilson conjured up his swank haven for “the Race” from an earlier mixed-race watering hole on the same site, the Dolphin Hotel. The Dolphin’s upstairs rooms appear to have been reserved for white guests only, while patronage in the downstairs saloon was majority black. Indeed, in February 1919, the restaurant’s celebrity caterer, E.J. Perry–an African-American who was perhaps better known to Coney Island revelers as “America’s most famous silhouette cutter”–quit in protest over the conspicuous absence of “the Race” behind the bar.
But Perry’s own absence didn’t stop the show. About a week later, the Dolphin invited the public to “come and dance until your mind changes” as it presented Anita Bush. The legendary African-American dramatic actress and the Lafayette Players–the stock company she’d organized in 1915–may have seemed out of character in the Dolphin’s “burlesque review” [sic] featuring “pretty girls,” but in the uncertain world of the theater it was probably nice work if you could get it.
Lawrence Chenault, one of Anita Bush’s original leading men, and the only male member in the Dolphin revue, sang “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” a popular ballad that paid homage to Red Cross nurses in Word War I. Decades later, veteran doughboy and civic leader Lester Granger recalled youthful days at the Dolphin where, over a beer and pretzels, he “could hear Mamie Smith sing her blues songs with a gusto that made the toes itch.” Smith had yet to become the first African-American artist to make a vocal blues recording with her 1920 hit by Perry Bradford, “Crazy Blues.”
The end of Lenox Oval
Since 1898, the Dolphin Hotel building (formerly called the Lenox Bridge Hotel, and before that the North End Hotel) had stood as a solitary structure on a peculiarly undeveloped block. However, the open ground was anything but idle. The block’s empty lots enriched public life through recreation by comprising the noted Lenox Oval. The through-block sandlot at the hotel building’s rear was long noted for culturally diverse athletics.
The Lenox Oval playing field was used for baseball by the Yankees; as the home field for Harlem’s own Negro League team, the Lincoln Stars; the New York Female Giants; and even by a visiting Japanese baseball team from Waseda University (which beat Manhattan College there). The field was used for soccer, track-and-field and ice skating. But in October 1919, the auctioning of the block would soon spell the erasure of the 58 lots comprising Lenox Oval.
Accordingly, the same sale of the old Hotel Dolphin property would afford businessman Ed H. Wilson an opportunity to tackle Harlem’s hotel problem. It worked out remarkably well. For a quarter century–spanning the storied Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression and WWII–Wilson’s little venture offered travelers of color a key waypoint in America’s most renowned black community.
- Chicago Defender
- Pittsburgh Courier
- Baltimore Afro-American
- New York Amsterdam News
- The Messenger
- New York Times
- The Billboard
- Various Manhattan maps; real estate guides; news photos