As June comes to a close, we wanted to celebrate Pride Month with a look at one of the great resources of our community, the LGBT Community Center. Located at 208 West 13th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, the Center “provides a home for the birth, nurture and celebration of our organizations, institutions and culture; cares for our individuals and groups in need; educates the public and our community; and empowers our individuals and groups to achieve their fullest potential.” We’ll tell you a little more about the great work that happens here in a bit, but first we have to give you the history of the unique building that houses the Center.
Erected by the City of New York in the third quarter of the 19th Century, this Italianate brick building was originally Public School 16 and expanded in stages to meet the growing needs of the community. Built in 1869, the oldest part is the center section, 5 bays wide.
Speaking to the architecture of the building, the Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report states that:
The most conspicuous features of the school are the rusticated stone first floor with round-arched windows and the two symmetrically placed end bays projecting slightly forward and crowned with low-angle pediments.
They are connected by a handsome modillioned cornice which runs the length of the building. The end bays have round-arched windows at all floors, with stone keystones and impost blocks. The upper floors of the central portion have square-headed windows surmounted by triangular or segmental pediments, while the double windows at the center, like the main entrance doorway beneath them, are similarly square-headed with horizontal cornices at the lintels. A particularly attractive feature of the school is the manner in which the playground enclosure has been created to the west of the building. Its rusticated wall is in effect an extension of the rusticated ground floor wall of the school and it extends, with only a projecting break, across the one-story building at the west end of the property.
According to a New York Times article written by David Dunlap, “In 1938 it was reborn as the Food Trades Vocational High School, housing a model butcher shop, bakery, cafeteria and grocery store where 300 students learned to be butchers, bakers, cafeteria workers, tea room hostesses and store clerks.” Within twenty years, however, the school had fallen into disrepair and a 1961 visit by Eleanor Roosevelt set the ball rolling for the building’s next incarnation, a new vocational high school where food and maritime trades would be joined. Titled the Food and Maritime Trades High School, it welcomed 800 students. Dunlap continues, “The young mariners also studied aboard a World War II Liberty ship moored at Morton Street. Tensions were reported in the early ’70s between students, who were primarily black and Puerto Rican, and the school’s Italian neighbors. But Food and Maritime’s reputation was strong, and graduates found good job prospects.”
In 1980, the City decided to change the function of the building and leased it out to the local nonprofit Caring Community who sublet to other groups including SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) and the Metropolitan Community Church (an LGBT congregation). In 1983, Caring Community defaulted on its lease and the LGBT-focused sublets, along with local gay and AIDS activists, saw the perfect spot for a permanent home. In December of that year the New York City Board of Estimates approved the sale of the former Food and Maritime Trades High School to the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Inc., for $1.5 million.