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Landmarks Preservation Commission Celebrates Gay Pride, Doesn’t Designate Gay Landmarks

The LPC’s slide show — just a show?

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has recently begun creating on-line slide shows to showcase various history months as represented by some of the city’s roughly 31,000 landmarked properties.  In March, they highlighted Women’s History Month, and in February, Black History Month.

Now for the first time, the LPC has also created a “Gay Pride Month” slide show for June’s LGBT Pride and History Month.  For this, the LPC, and especially the staff who put it together, should be commended.  The enlightening and useful presentation covers a broad range of landmarked sites with some connection to LGBT individuals and history.  Many are, unsurprisingly, located in the Village, with several others located in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Governor’s Island, and Upper Manhattan.  You can view the slideshow here.

Ironically, however, what the presentation lacks is a single site actually landmarked by the Commission primarily because of its significance to LGBT history.  And in most cases, the LPC’s own designation reports, which officially define the building’s significance, make no acknowledgement whatsoever of any connection to LGBT history.

Rally to save 186 Spring Street.

In fact, the LPC has a rather poor record when it comes to landmarking sites whose primary significance is LGBT history.  In truth, the LPC has never designated a single building in all of New York based primarily upon LGBT history, in spite of several requests to do so and ample opportunities in what is perhaps the premiere city in the world for modern LGBT history sites.

And it may be no coincidence that the LPC is for the first time rolling out this LGBT History Month slide show after recently facing some pointed criticism for this failure, following their refusal to save one of the most important LGBT history sites in New York from the wrecking ball.

Last year, the LPC refused to even hold a public hearing on considering landmarking 186 Spring Street, a largely-intact 1824 rowhouse which served for over a decade as a home of some of the most transformative figures of the post-Stonewall era in the LGBT civil rights movement.

186 Spring Street, prior to demolition.

Starting in 1969, just after the Stonewall Riots, 186 Spring Street, became a “gay activist commune.”  Three of the men who lived there were Jim Owles, Arnie Kantrowitz, and Bruce Voeller.  All three were involved with introduction of the very first gay anti-discrimination bill in the country.  At the time there were absolutely no legal protections against getting fired or other forms of discrimination based upon sexual orientation, and many private and public employers — including the federal government — had explicit policies prohibiting the employment of persons found to be gay or lesbian.

Forms of this bill are now the law of the land in 21 states and the District of Columbia, as well as hundreds of counties and municipalities, including New York City and State.  These three men were also among the founders of the Gay Activists Alliance, Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats (the first gay Democratic club in the country), and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, two of the country’s largest LGBT advocacy organizations, and the first national organizations to advocate for fair and accurate representations of LGBT people in the media and to advocate politically for LGBT people on a national level, respectively.

But the list of their accomplishments only begins there.  Owles was the very first openly-gay person to run for public office in New York.  It was not until 20 years later that an openly gay person, Greenwich Village’s Deborah Glick, would win public office from New York City.  Now, in addition to two City Councilmembers and three other State Legislators from Manhattan who are openly-LGBT, there are two openly-gay City Councilmembers from Queens, an openly-gay State Assemblymember from Staten Island, and an openly-gay Congressman from the Hudson Valley — changes probably unimaginable at that time.

Image via NYPL.
Jim Owles in front of his City Council campaign office.  Image via NYPL.

Bruce Voeller, who lived at 186 Spring Street the longest, co-lead the first delegation of gay rights leaders to ever meet with the White House, helped end the federal government’s ban on employing gay people, helped get homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses, got the very first piece of federal gay rights legislation introduced, and won the first Supreme Court case establishing rights for gay parents.  As Voeller turned his attention to sexual health in the 1980’s, he also conducted the first study showing that condom usage could prevent the spread of HIV, and coined the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, to replace the inaccurate and stigmatizing term “Gay Related Immune Defense Disorder,” which was at the time widely used (more history HERE).

The Stonewall Inn, after the riots. Note the sign in the window, which reads: “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine”.

This is obviously extraordinary historic significance.  So extraordinary, in fact, that New York State  took the extraordinary step of, at GVSHP’s request, determining the house eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.  Had it been listed, it would have been only the third site in the entire country listed on the registers based upon significance to LGBT history (the first being Stonewall, which GVSHP helped get listed).

But what did the LPC do?  They refused to landmark the building, or even move ahead with the proposed South Village Historic District, of which this house was a part, which could have saved it as well if they felt that individual landmark status was somehow unwarranted.

Their rationale?  A combination of specious arguments about how the house was too altered, and the people who lived there either not central enough to the LGBT rights movement or lived there for too short a time (Voeller, by their own admission, lived there for over a decade).  But as architectural historian Andrew Dolkart pointed out (who has written many of the LPC’s own designation reports), a much different standard was applied to the landmarked Louis Armstrong House in Queens, which was much more highly altered.

The landmarked Louis Armstrong House, Queens.  Highly altered from its original appearance, it nevertheless remained true to the time of its historic significance when Armstrong lived there, much like 186 Spring Street.

So instead, just after the State issued its determination of eligibility, the City issued demolition permits.  The developer, who had previously publicly stated that he intended to preserve the house, made quick work of demolishing the tiny structure in the fall of 2012.  Now, it sits as a hole in the ground, as the developer is being sued by a lender who claims he had no right to demolish the structure, as it was being used as collateral for a loan.

Unfortunately, this is not the only time the LPC has refused to designate an LGBT landmark.  In 2007, GVSHP asked the LPC to consider landmark designation of 101 Avenue A, an incredibly architecturally distinctive 1876 tenement with a ground floor used for generations as a German immigrant social hall.  But since 1979, the former hall had served as the home of the Pyramid Club, which had a profound impact upon the LGBT cultural scene in the early 1980’s, and was considered the birthplace of politically and socially conscious drag performance art, as well as the long-running Wigstock Festival.  And it was based upon this combination of unusual factors that GVSHP proposed it for landmark designation.

101 Avenue A, with the Pyramid Club in the ground floor.

Here too the LPC refused to consider designation, though fortunately, unlike 186 Spring Street, the building was not immediately threatened (here, too, by the way, the State differed with the City, and declared the building eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places).

Fortunately in 2011 GVSHP and our allies were able to get the LPC to expand the proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District to include this building and several other key sites.  However, apparently the LPC’s  willingness to do so, and their evaluation of 101 Avenue A’s significance, had nothing to do with its LGBT history, as it gets no mention in the entry for the building in their designation report for the district.  This text is the official record of a building’s significance and what guides how it is supposed to be regulated, and protected, by the LPC.

Which bring us to the other sites in the LPC’s “Gay Pride Month 2013” slideshow.  Here again the work of those LPC staff members behind it deserves high praise, for drawing the connections between LGBT history and individuals and many of the sites highlighted.

But in all too many cases, what is presented in the slideshow is not present in the LPC’s actual designation reports, and therefore has nothing to do with the history which the LPC has officially recognized, or committed to protect in the future.  Many of the key sites from the slideshow and from New York’s LGBT history like Stonewall Bar and the former Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse have no mention whatsoever of their LGBT history in their designation reports.

To be fair, the Stonewall Riots did take place two months after the Greenwich Village Historic District was designated, and thus could not have been mentioned in the original designation report.  But the LPC has had nearly 45 years to correct this.  In 1999 and again in 2000, the federal government recognized the Stonewall Riots’ significance by naming Stonewall and the surrounding area to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and then a National Historic Landmark.  The LPC has neither amended its designation report to ensure that the LGBT significance is recognized and protected by future actions of the Commission, nor designated Stonewall an individual landmark on this basis, which could be done as well.

Flyers for the Pyramid Club, ca. 1981.

That’s not to say the LPC has never recognized LGBT history in its designations.  Webster Hall’s designation report includes reference to the drag balls and gay and lesbian gatherings which took place there, as do the designation reports of several other sites GVSHP fought to have landmarked, such as the Gansevoort Market Historic District, the Weehawken Street Historic District, and the South Village extension of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

But in all these cases, the LGBT history, while referenced, is far from the primary reason for designation.  The LPC is yet to say that a single building or site in New York City deserves to be protected because of its connection to LGBT history, the way it has for underground railroad sites, the African Burial Ground, the Apollo Theater, or many other sites rightfully designated for their significance to African-American history.

Thus as we celebrate LGBT Pride and History Month, we also recognize that we still have a long way to go before sites of LGBT historic significance get the protection and recognition they deserve from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

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