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Memorializing Our Neighborhoods’ Remarkable Past One Plaque At A Time!

Village Preservation Historic Plaques

Not that long ago, someone strolling down one of our neighborhood streets could have been forgiven for not looking up from their iPhone, except perhaps to avoid walking into oncoming traffic. All that started to change 11 years ago, when we launched our historic plaque program. These days, not looking increasingly means missing out on a chance to learn about exceptional individuals who walked these streets before us and about momentous events that transpired right where we are standing. The historic plaque program aims to educate the public about the remarkable history of neighborhoods, memorializing individuals, movements, and venues that played a major role in changing our world. Our 22nd plaque will honor jazz great Charles Mingus, one of the leading figures in 20th century American music. As of this writing, you can still register to attend its unveiling ceremony (here).

Charles Mingus

As we get ready to unveil our latest plaque, we look back on the plaque program, and on a few of the noteworthy stories and figures that it has helped keep in the public’s mind.

Westbeth Artists Housing

Throughout their history, our neighborhoods have attracted more than their share of artists, visionaries, intellectuals, and trouble-makers. This general assortment of square pegs in conventional society’s round hole found here a welcoming and stimulating environment in which to live, work, and gather. One of the sites on which we placed a historic plaque has for decades functioned as all three. In 1970, Westbeth Artists Housing, a former Bell Telephone Labs facility, opened its doors as the nation’s first subsidized housing complex for artists. It had been the site of numerous technological innovations, such as the television, the radar, and the video telephone. Then, it became an early example of adaptive reuse in the hands of, at the time little-known architect Richard Meier. The complex became a vital artist environment containing live-work spaces, galleries, and studios for hundreds of artists, including such notables as Gil Evans, Diane Arbus, Merce Cunningham, and Ralph Lee, who launched and for many years ran from his studio one of the neighborhoods more exuberant public celebrations, the Halloween Parade. (Check out photos and video of the plaque unveiling ceremony here.)

70 Fifth Avenue

Among the numerous local sites that served as hotbeds of intellectual exchange and progressive activity, few have as remarkable a history as 70 Fifth Avenue, a building for which we helped secure landmark protection. This 1912 Beaux Arts-style office building served as the center of operations for organizations that had a profound impact on how we see the world, those with whom we share it, and our place in it. This address served as the headquarters for the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil right organization, and for several others human and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU, the League for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, the Women’s Peace Party, the League for Industrial Democracy, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and the Near East Foundation, which led the effort to try to prevent the Armenian genocide. In addition, this building also housed W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis magazine, the first magazine ever published for African Americans and a leading voice in the civil rights movement and a launching pad for Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. We memorialized the impactful work that took place in this building with a plaque on May 10, 2022. (Check out photos and video of the plaque unveiling ceremony here.)

Martha Graham

The attraction that our neighborhoods has exerted on generations of artists should come little surprise, given the number of art scenes that have historically flourished in our area. Many of these artists created important, influential, and celebrated work. A few, however, chartered entirely new artistic directions, profoundly altering their respective fields. Martha Graham was one of them. Graham revolutionized the dance world. Perhaps the pivotal figure in the creation of modern dance, she became one of the most important dancers and choreographers of the 20th century. During the early decades of the last century, her company, the oldest dance company in the country, was located at 66 Fifth Avenue, right next to 70 Fifth Avenue. The company’s work during this period reflected many of the political preoccupations in the immediate vicinity. We placed a plaque on this site in honor of Graham’s tremendous legacy on June 18, 2015. (Check out our photos and video of the plaque unveiling ceremony.)

Harran II, by Frank Stella

Another trailblazer found his base of operations just down the street from the Martha Graham studio: Frank Stella. A painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Stella has shaken the contemporary art world several times over, becoming one of the leading figures in minimalism with his geometric patterned painting, and then spearheaded experiments with shaped canvases and three-dimensional constructions. From 1978 to 2005, his residence and studio was located at the eye-catching, historic building at 128 East 13th Street, another threatened structure that we helped save from demolition. Originally a horse auction mart for the city’s elite, the space then served as a women’s assembly-line training center during World War II. We memorialized this history and Stella’s work with a plaque on November 8, 2021. (Check out video of the plaque unveiling ceremony here.)

American jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus (1922 – 1979) (in white shirt) and his band perform at the Five Spot Cafe (2 St. Marks Place), New York, New York, August 22, 1962. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

We are now set to honor an innovative giant in yet another artistic medium. Charles Mingus set a new standard in jazz bass playing, composed prolifically using a jazz vocabulary that transcended musical genres, and broke new ground in the art of collective improvisation. He graced our neighborhood with regular performances at local jazz venues and lived in the area at several locations, including 5 Great Jones Street, where we will be placing our 22nd historic plaque

To learn more about the extraordinary events, groups, and individuals memorialized through Village Preservation historic plaques, you can check out our page on the program, where you’ll find a map showing the location of all the plaques, information about each of them, and pictures and videos of their unveiling ceremonies. Make sure to keep checking it, we have only gotten started. 

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