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In Fight to Protect LGBTQ+ History, Too Many Landmarks Remain Unprotected South of Union Square

LGBTQ+ Pride and History Month is upon us. As we take the time to honor the struggles and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community in New York City and beyond, there remain numerous sites that speak to the history yet remain unprotected under our landmarks laws and vulnerable to demolition. Village Preservation has been advocating for landmark designation of these structures and many more within our proposed South of Union Square Historic District.

80 Fifth Avenue (left); press conference announcing the formation of the National Gay Task Force, 1973

One of these historic structures can be found at 80 Fifth Avenue, an exquisitely detailed Renaissance Revival–style building dating to 1908. From 1973 to 1986, 80 Fifth was the home of the National Gay Task Force (today known as the National LGBTQ Task Force), the first national LGBT rights organization in the United States. In that initial 13-year-long period of its existence, the Task Force achieved pioneering social, legal, and political change and laid the groundwork for more in years to come.

For example, in 1973 the organization was able to have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, where it had been categorized as a mental illness. Two years later, it successfully advocated for overturning the decades-long ban on gay people in federal employment. In 1977, the task force organized the first meeting of any LGBTQ+ group with the White House, leading to policy changes at the Bureau of Prisons, the Public Health Service, and eventually the Democratic Party platform. In the late 1970s, it conducted surveys of hiring policies within corporations and in police departments, leading to protections against discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.

The task force also led the national response to a wave of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals. In 1982 it spearheaded its Anti-Violence Project, which focused on data gathering on anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, something virtually unheard of at the time, producing reports that were considered authoritative regarding homophobic violence. The organization’s efforts also laid the groundwork for passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act in 1990, the first federal law to address sexual orientation. These were just a few of the National Gay Task Force’s accomplishments in its time at 80 Fifth Avenue.

That building is not the only one in the South of Union Square Historic District worthy of protection based on its association with LGBTQ+ history. Just a little over a block to the south on Fifth Avenue, for example, is No. 55, home of Columbia Phonograph Recording Studios and Okeh Phonograph Recording Studios from 1926 to 1934. Here, openly LGBTQ+ performers recorded their work, including blues singer Bessie Smith and jazz pianist Garland Wilson.

Almost 20 years later, from 1952 to 1959, the ground floor of 86 University Place housed the Bagatelle, also known as The Bag, a popular lesbian bar operated by Barney Gallant and frequented by famed lesbian writer and activist Audre Lorde as well as pulp novelist Ann Bannon. Such establishments were considered illegal — that plus the fact that many Greenwich Village–based gay and lesbian bars were run by the Mafia meant regular raids by the police. Should such a search take place, Bag employees would switch on a red light, giving patrons a chance to scatter or hide any arrestable activity, which included dancing with someone of the same sex or wearing gender-inappropriate clothing.

Hotel Albert (left); author Samuel Delaney (photograph by Kyle Cassidy)

The Hotel Albert at 23 East 10th Street, among other addresses (thanks to conjoined buildings built from 1875 to 1924), was considered a hub for radical and creative figures, Many were LGBTQ+, including Salvador Dali, Walt Whitman, Anaïs Nin, Andy Warhol, and Samuel Delany, who lived at the hotel in the 1970s.

Also in the 1970s and into the ’80s, the two-story 795 Broadway was home to the Robert Samuel Gallery/Hardison Fine Arts, a trailblazing gallery that brought homoerotic photography by gay male artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar to the fore.

795 Broadway (left); self-portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe 1980

The proposed South of Union Square Historic District encompasses other historic structures essential to LGBTQ+ history that are also worthy of landmark designation; read more about that history, unprotected and unrecognized by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, here. You can also take action to ensure these structures remain as part of our streetscape by signing our advocacy letter here.

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