Tracy's New York Life | A Blog About Life in New York City: Goodbye to a Doll's House in Harlem

Monday, January 7, 2013

Goodbye to a Doll's House in Harlem


Written and photographed by Joann Jovinelly

Little girls have treasured Madame Alexander Dolls for decades

For New Yorkers, the Madame Alexander doll hospital in Harlem was a place to bring dolls that had been “loved too much.”   

While the doll hospital didn’t exactly reset bones and suture wounds, seeing the quiet closure of the 80-year old factory and showroom this past December did mark an end to the toymaker’s storied presence in Upper Manhattan. Beyond the façade of 615 West 131st  Street — once a factory that assembled Studebakers — was a fantasy world that rivaled anything that could be found at FAO Schwarz.
Long, winding hallways, chaotic design stations, rows and rows of fabric bolts and antique sewing machines, and more than 600 classic dolls from the 1920s to the present lined the rooms and play areas. Those lucky enough to make it to a lavish party room reserved only for hosting doll-tastic celebrations encountered still more dolls. Those even luckier assembled Madame Alexander dolls to take home.     


More than 600 classic dolls lined the halls and play areas at Madame Alexander
 
Part showroom, factory, and funhouse, the Madame Alexander Doll Company was an intriguing time capsule. It was as much a look at the decades-old machinery that helped create and finish the dolls as a glimpse inside the mind of its matriarch and visionary, Russian immigrant Beatrice Alexander (1895–1990).

The “hospital” concept is one that was with the company since its inception. Beatrice’s father had operated the nation’s first-ever doll hospital in Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century, and while she was a child, Beatrice often played with the broken dolls while they awaited repair. 

During World War I, when imported dolls were scarce, Beatrice began handcrafting dolls for children whose existing toys could not be mended. The rest is history. 

By the time she was in her early twenties, Beatrice Alexander had her own successful doll company, launching new designs—including the first ever dolls with “sleepy” eyes that closed and the first officially licensed dolls that depicted beloved characters from films and books such as Little Women and Alice in Wonderland.

The Heritage Gallery at Madame Alexander

By the time of the Great Depression, the Madame Alexander Doll Company was not only on the map, but it had succeeded in making toys that rivaled the era’s most popular. Alexander’s dolls were also the first made from hard plastic.

The company steadily gained in popularity throughout the twentieth century and was run entirely by Beatrice Alexander and her children until she was well into her 80s. In 1988, she retired, and in 1990, she passed away at the age of 95. The factory had been at its Harlem location since the 1950s. 

This past June, the Madame Alexander Doll Company—including the contents of the showroom and factory—was sold to Kahn Lucas Lancaster, a toymaker based in midtown Manhattan.

Now the future of 615 West 131st Street belongs in the hands of Columbia University. It was part of an eminent domain land seizure by the university and the city of New York, and is currently part of Columbia's expansion into the Manhattanville section of Harlem.

The future of the dolls is unknown. Apparently, Madame Alexander has already relocated, including the company store, doll hospital, and birthday parties. "We'll let you know when those are back in business — expected in 2013," read a message on their website last month.



Lovely, colorful dolls in the party room at Madame Alexander

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