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Landmarks vs. National Monuments: How Safe is the Stonewall Inn?

In late April of last year, President Trump signed an Executive Order aimed at reviewing all National Monuments created under the Antiquities Act since 1996.  As the Stonewall National Monument, designated in 2016, would fall within this review, many individuals and advocacy groups have voiced their concerns that the current administration might strip the monument of this status, as was done to some other National Monuments in Utah. Some have even gone so far to express concern that such a move could result in Stonewall being demolished.

Fortunately, so far the administration’s review of National Monuments has not resulted in any change in the status of Stonewall.  But since the issue has come up, we thought we’d explain why even if that did happen — if Stonewall were stripped of its National Monument status, as has been done elsewhere — it would not result in the site’s demolition or destruction.

What is a NYC Landmark?

To really understand the issue, it’s important to understand the difference between a New York City landmark and a National Monument.  For NYC, a landmark is “…a building, property or object that has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation.”  In NYC, there are currently over 36,000 landmarks, including individual, interior and scenic landmarks and sites located within historic districts.  Buildings or historic sites that are landmarked are protected from being demolished or altered in a way that fundamentally changes its character.

Stonewall Inn. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 2015, GVSHP successfully led the charge to have the Stonewall Inn was designated a NYC landmark.  In addition to gaining the protections mentioned above, the Stonewall also became recognized as the first ever NYC Landmark designated based upon LGBT history.

What is a National Monument?

In 1906 Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which gives the President the “authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.”  National Monuments are similar to National Parks but can be created from any land owned or controlled by the federal government.  Unlike areas for National Parks, which tend to be selected for their natural beauty, geological features, and recreational opportunities, National Monuments are frequently chosen for their historic significance.

Dedication ceremony officially designating the Stonewall Inn as a national monument to gay rights on June 27, 2016 in New York City. (Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt)

In 2016, President Obama designated the area of Christopher Park and the block of Christopher Street bordering the park as the Stonewall National Monument, becoming the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to LGBT rights and history.

What does this mean for The Stonewall?

The trickiest part in discussing the Stonewall National Monument is what exactly it encompasses.  From a purely technical standpoint, the National Monument is only within the confines of the park area, as ownership of Christopher Park was transferred to the federal government in order for the monument to be created.  However, when discussing the scope of the history that the monument commemorates, this includes The Stonewall Inn and the surrounding streets.  The Stonewall Inn is a privately owned building and a NYC landmark; even if the National Monument designation were to be removed, it would not put the status of the building in jeopardy.

It should also be noted that the Stonewall Inn lies within the Greenwich Village Historic District, thus making it the relatively rare “double landmark” (GVSHP fought for the individual landmark status for Stonewall because when the Greenwich Village Historic District was designated in April, 1969, the Stonewall Riots had not yet even happened, and thus the designation report for the district — the governing document which guides how it is regulated, and what changes can or cannot be made — makes no mention of this building’s important modern history or significance).  This would also help protect it from demolition.  Additionally, in 1999, GVSHP successfully co-nominated the Stonewall Inn for the State and National Registers of Historic Places, making it the first site ever listed based upon LGBT history. While largely honorific, this also ensures that any State or Federal action does not harm the history or significance of the site, thus ensuring that the two entities not subject to New York City landmark restrictions — the State of New York and the Federal government — could not come in and destory the building either.

Removing the national monument designation for Stonewall would no doubt be a significant setback in recognizing LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) history and the associated civil rights movement, as well as the key role that New York played in it.  But fortunately with the many layers of protection and regulation the Stonewall Inn has, even if that should occur, the monument should be safe for some time to come.

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