Figuring out the size of the Savoy

By Sharon Davis

Savoy Ballroom
c.1950s – External view taken by Austin Hansen sometime in the 1950s. Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL Image ID 1702781, courtesy of The Estate of Austin Hansen.

Known Floorplans

Figuring out the size and dimensions of the Savoy Ballroom is a tricky task for a number of reasons. No architectural blueprints for the building have as yet been uncovered. We have two floorplan illustrations of the Savoy Ballroom, but neither are architectural drawings. Rather, they are ballroom layout illustrations for hospitality purposes, showing the location of the tables, boxes and loges for reservations.

Savoy Ballroom Floorplan
“Savoy Ballroom Floor Plan” The New York Public Library Digital Collections (Image ID 5194527). Original held by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division). Source
The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide
The Savoy Ballroom Reservation Guide (undated) courtesy of Ms Irene Phipps in memory of her father Edgar Phipps. See the full document here.

 

These two floorplans do not have any scale or give any dimensions. Furthermore, the proportions of the ballroom are not even consistent between the two floorplans.

To make matters worse, descriptions of the size of the ballroom (and particularly the size of the dancefloor) vary wildly between historical accounts, and seem to have become exaggerated as the ballroom passed into the mists of myth and legend. Many accounts of the size of the dancefloor would make the building too large to fit on the block! Thus my investigations begin…

 


The Savoy Ballroom Site

The Savoy Ballroom building, which had been on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, was demolished in 1959. A residential complex named Delano Village was built on the site. In 2006 Delano Village was renamed Savoy Park in honour of the Savoy Ballroom. Here is Savoy Park today, on the site of the Savoy Ballroom:

Savoy Park Aerial View
Savoy Park today, on the site of the Savoy Ballroom. Aerial photograph courtesy of Counts Design Landscape Architecture.

 

Google Maps aerial view of Savoy Park
Google Maps aerial view of Savoy Park (screenshot saved 30th December 2017).

 


Comparisons with Savoy-Era Maps

Here is a 1932 map I found via the wonderful DigitalHarlem.org project. The Savoy Ballroom is highlighted in the second map.

1932 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan, Vol. 4 & 5, published by G.W. Bromley & Co. Courtesy of DigitalHarlem.org
Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan, Vol.4 & 5, published by G.W Bromley & Co, 1932.

1932 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan, Vol. 4 & 5, published by G.W. Bromley & Co. Courtesy of DigitalHarlem.org

 

If I layer this 1932 map with a Google Map of the area today, I can see that the block that the Savoy Ballroom was on, and the two neighbouring blocks, were all demolished and combined to make Savoy Park.  But the twin buildings on the block opposite the Savoy are the same today!

 

Even more satisfyingly, if I layer the 1932 map over the aerial view, we get a real sense for the scale of the Savoy.

 

We can see in these maps that the twin buildings that stood opposite the Savoy Ballroom still stand today, unchanged. The Savoy building appears to be an identical width to the buildings opposite. Coley Wallace, who worked as a bouncer at the Savoy in the early 1950s remembered that the entrance to the Savoy was right in the centre between 140th and 141st streets. So when you stood at the entrance to the Savoy looking out, as a bouncer often would, you would see the sky through the split between the two identical buildings across Lenox Avenue (thanks to SavoyPlaque.org for that anecdote).

So if we measure the width of these buildings, we should be pretty close to the width of the Savoy building. It turns out to be 200 feet, give or take a few feet.

Measuring the building opposite the Savoy (approximately 200 feet)
Measuring the building opposite the Savoy: approximately 200 feet wide (±5 feet)

 


Savoy Ballroom
1939 – Savoy Ballroom marquee in the day time, original colour photograph, not retouched. Source: Unknown.

Street & Pavement Widths

I guessed that the width of New York streets and avenues would be documented, and indeed I found them published by the New York Bureau of Buildings in the 1892 edition of The World Almanac. In the Almanac, Lenox Avenue is referred to as 6th Avenue, its original name (today called Malcolm X Boulevard).  Avenue and street widths include the pavement. The block width does not include pavements.

New York Bureau of Buildings in the 1892 edition of The World Almanac
New York Bureau of Buildings supplies the width of New York streets and blocks. Source: The World Almanac 1892.

 

So now I know that:

  • Lenox Avenue was 150 feet wide, include the pavement (45.72m)
  • 140th Street and 141st Street were both 60 feet wide, including the pavement (18.29m)
  • The block that the Savoy Ballroom was built on was 199 feet 10 inches long (60.91m)

 


Calculations

I have decided to work on the assumption that the building was 200’ x 70’ external dimensions (60.96m x 21.34m).  This takes everything above into account, with rounding to the nearest reasonable whole number in feet.  Margin of error ±5 feet.

Savoy Ballroom dimension calculations by Sharon Davis
Savoy Ballroom dimension calculations by Sharon Davis

 

Therefore both known Savoy Ballroom floorplans appear to be overstating the depth of the ballroom (and differing from each other in this regard also).  But since we have no other plans to work from,  they will still need to be our reference for this project. Studying photographs of the interior of the ballroom shows that these floorplans are accurate in content, just not to scale. So if I re-scale them to match my calculated dimensions, we get:

Savoy Ballroom re-scaled floorplan by Sharon Davis
Savoy Ballroom re-scaled floorplan by Sharon Davis

 

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