On June 18, 2019, Village Preservation scored a big victory five years in the making — persuading the City to landmark two more LGBT historic sites: the LGBT Community Center at 208 W. 13th Street and the former Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street. Until now, there has only been ONE site in all of New York City landmarked for its connection to LGBT history: the Stonewall Inn. In 2015, after a year and a half campaign led by Village Preservation, the City landmarked Stonewall, making it the city’s first landmark designation based upon LGBT history. At the time Village Preservation also proposed the LGBT Community Center and the former GAA Firehouse for landmark designation, but at the time the City refused to consider the other sites.
Designation of new landmarks means new designation reports for those landmarks, written by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which are chock full of great research and historic information about the buildings. Today we will take a deep dive into the former GAA Firehouse’s designation report, which like the designation reports for all of the thousands of landmarked buildings in our neighborhoods are available on our website.
The legacy of Stonewall Riots was the inspiration for a nationwide movement to secure LGBT civil rights. Very soon after the uprising, a large number of lesbian and gay organizations were established. Most of these new organizations embraced more public and politically radical activist methods. These groups have sometimes been called the “Gay Liberation Movement” to distinguish it from the earlier, less activist “Homophile Movement” of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis. The difference in tenor with previous events was obvious; as one participant noted: “it was clear that things were changing. People who felt oppressed now felt empowered. They were ready to insist on their rights rather than just ask for them.”
The Gay Activists Alliance was established in December 1969, six months after Stonewall. A leading organization in the gay liberation movement, founding members included Arthur Bell, Arthur Evans, Kay Tobin Lahusen, Morty Manford, Martin Robinson, and James (Jim) W. Owles, who served as the organization’s first president. Owles claimed to be first “avowed homosexual” to campaign for public office. Membership in the organization was open to all people, regardless of sexual orientation. The Constitution of the GAA promoted a “one-issue” approach, focusing almost exclusively on gay rights and the “liberation of homosexuals.” It was a structured, political, non-violent organization in which policy decisions were made democratically – by male and female members at weekly general meetings run by Robert’s Rules of Order. It lobbied the City Council and State Legislature to pass civil rights laws that would end discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing. GAA also filed a class action suit in New York that led to the end of sodomy laws in 1980. The group’s most famous activist tactic was the “zap,” a direct but non-violent, sometimes humorous, public confrontation with politicians and celebrities that was intended to promote the cause and generate media attention. GAA disrupted many events, organized well-attended marches and demonstrations, and held protests and sit-ins to shape public opinion and government policy.
Early GAA meetings took place at the Church of the Holy Apostles (a New York City Landmark) at 300 Ninth Avenue, at 28th Street. A committee began looking for a “community center” towards the end of 1970. Membership was growing and a large meeting space was needed, as well as smaller rooms for offices.
GAA leased 99 Wooster Street from April 1971 until October 1974. During this era SoHo was a lively hub of creative energy and activity. Loft living in former commercial buildings by certified artists was legalized by the Board of Estimate in January 1971 and there were a growing number of commercial art galleries, cooperative galleries, and alternative (non-profit) spaces.
A three-story, three-bay facade with neo-Grec and Queen Anne-style ornament, 99 Wooster stands on the west side of the street, between Spring and Prince Streets. The firehouse was built in the early 1850s and was substantially redesigned by the prolific fire department architect Napoleon Le Brun & Son in 1881-82.
In August 1973, while GAA was leasing the building, SoHo was designated a historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On October 8, 1974 the second and third floor offices were destroyed by arson and the building suffered significant damage. As a result of the fire, GAA was evicted from the building.
Read more about the former GAA Firehouse’s incredible history in its designation report here on our website.
The former GAA Firehouse is one of ten buildings in our neighborhood Village Preservation fought to have landmarked which were landmarked in June of this year, all of which, like the firehouse, have LPC designation reports which can be found on our website that have rich historical details about each of the buildings: 817 Broadway, 826 Broadway, 830 Broadway, 832-834 Broadway, 836 Broadway, 840 Broadway, The Roosevelt Building at 841 Broadway, The LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street, and the former Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street.