Village Preservation has long paid tribute to the widespread impacts players in our neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo have had on the civil rights and social justice movements in the United States. Few places in America have contributed as much to these histories in such a concentrated area. In 2017, we launched our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, which currently features more than 200 sites of significance. We are always on a mission to uncover further layers of history, and we were excited to recently learn about former US Ambassador and LGBTQ activist James C. Hormel’s connection to Spring Street. Here’s the scoop, along with a few other important stories nearby (you can read more about these, and many others, on the map).
190 Spring Street
In June of 1969, James Hormel purchased the row house located at 190 Spring Street, between Sullivan and Thompson Streets. Constructed circa 1824, the three-story-plus-attic Federal style building was altered in 1962, and was originally one of a row of at least three houses (more on that below). Serving as a two-family home by the time of Hormel’s purchase, he resided in the lower triplex, while renting out the upstairs duplex apartment.
James Hormel was America’s first openly gay ambassador, and one of the very first openly gay people to ever serve in such a high-level federal position. Initially put forth by President Bill Clinton in 1997, his nomination was fiercely opposed by several Republican senators, who strongly disagreed with Hormel’s gay rights activism, including his belief in the right to same-sex marriage. So resolute was their opposition to appointing any “gay advocate” to such a high-level position, that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi ultimately blocked the vote in its final hours (it was only just over twenty years earlier that elsewhere in our neighborhood gay rights advocates had succeeded in removing the long-standing ban on any gay or lesbian person from serving in any form of federal employment). President Clinton only finally succeeded in appointing Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg in 1999 during a Senate recess, thus circumventing the otherwise requisite approval.
In his memoir, “Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador,” Hormel briefly reflects on his years living on Spring Street, and mentions a fire that broke out during his time there. Now, thanks to one of our constituents and his former upstairs tenants, we have learned more:
On a hot summer’s day in 1972, when Hormel still owned and lived in the property, but happened to be out of town, an electrical fire broke out at the garden level of his unit. There were no windows facing Spring Street on that level, so the fire had already advanced considerably by the time neighbors noticed smoke pouring from the street-side windows at the floor above. Thankfully, no residents were home at the time. However, the Fire Department had to break down doors and smash window panes in order to access the entire building and verify that no one was inside.
When the upstairs tenants returned home from work that evening, they found fire trucks parked in front of their home, and were welcomed by a gaping hole in their roof: the firefighters had destroyed the skylight in order to let smoke escape. They went to bed with assurance that NYPD officers would stand guard over their temporarily window- and front door-less house. This incident contributed to Hormel’s decision to sell the property and move to Hawaii later that year. Thankfully, the building was repaired and remains standing. It was designated a landmark as part of the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District in 2016, the result of a years-long campaign by Village Preservation.
186 Spring Street
Though now also situated within the Sullivan-Thompson Historic District, this lot to the east of 190 Spring Street unfortunately suffered a worse fate. The house at 186 Spring Street, which was also part of the original circa 1824 row, was demolished in 2013, prior to the city’s eventual designation of the district and in spite of the State Historic Preservation Office’s determination that the building was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
186 Spring Street was home to a number of important figures of the gay rights movement, serving for a time as a sort of “gay commune.” Bruce Voeller, who lived in the building, co-led 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, and helped get homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses, among other important achievements. Another resident, Jim Owles, was the first openly gay person to run for public office in New York. Our map and resources continue to tell these critical stories, despite the loss of the physical building.
99 Wooster Street
On a brighter note, in 2019 we were thrilled to finally succeed in a five-year push to achieve individual landmark designation for two buildings of significance in LGBTQ+ history: The LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street and the former Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street.
Located just around the corner from 186 and 190 Spring Street, 99 Wooster Street is the former home of the Gay Activists Alliance, one of the most highly influential LGBTQ+ groups of the post-Stonewall era. Founded by Marty Robinson, Jim Owles, and Arthur Evans in 1969, just a few months after the Stonewall Riots (and, coincidentally, soon after Hormel moved in to the house around the corner) the Gay Activists Alliance was an offshoot of the Gay Liberation Front. The Alliance moved into the formerly-abandoned city firehouse on Wooster Street in 1971, and it became the first dedicated gay and lesbian organizational and social center in New York City.
In 1974 the GAA was targeted by arson and was subsequently forced to cut back on services. They officially disbanded in 1981. In 2019, Village Preservation successfully advocated for the building’s designation as a New York City landmark, one of the first buildings in the city to be designated based upon its importance to LGBTQ+ history.
Check out our ever-expanding Civil Rights and Social Justice Map to discover more!