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Exploring LGBTQ+ History in NoHo

One of the many benefits of preserving buildings is it provides access and connection to the valuable pieces of human history connected to them. A prime example of this is 647 Broadway, which in addition to being an architecturally significant building in the NoHo Historic District, played an important role in LGBTQ+ history during two distinctly different eras.

645-647 Broadway, 2024.

No. 647 Broadway was originally constructed, along with its neighbor, no. 645, in 1858-1859, as store and loft buildings. During this time, the area was transforming from a residential to commercial neighborhood. Historically, this area, along with today’s SoHo and the eastern portion of Tribeca were known collectively as the Warehouse District, and did not acquire their current names until the latter part of the 20th century.

Shortly after no. 647 was completed, Pfaff’s, a restaurant and beer saloon, opened in its cellar, and extended to vaults below the sidewalk in front of the building. Pfaff’s remained here from 1859 until 1864, and holds a very significant place in LGBTQ+ history, 19th century Bohemian culture, and was a regular haunt of esteemed Poet Walt Whitman. The restaurant was named for its owner, Charles Ignatius Pfaff, who was born in Germany, and ran the establishment as a beer and wine cellar in similar fashion to a German Rathskeller.

Advertisement in the Saturday Post, September 10, 1859. Courtesy of Karen Karbiener, Walt Whitman Initiative; NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project.

Pfaff’s is one of the earliest known LGBT spaces in New York City. From 1859-1862, Whitman would regularly visit the establishment with his partner Fred Vaughn. Whitman even wrote about Pfaff’s in an unfinished poem, which described “[The] vault at Pfaff’s where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse, while on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway…”. He also is said to have composed his famed same-sex love poems entitled “Calamus” here.

Walt Whitman, Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While hanging out at Pfaff’s, Whitman befriended John Frederick Schiller Gray (also known as Fred Gray), and became a member of the Fred Gray Association, which was allegedly one of the first gay men’s clubs in the United States.    

Like many of the historically manufacturing buildings in NoHo, No. 647 Broadway has since been transformed into loft style apartments. In 1965, one of those became home to David Mancuso, who in 1970 began hosting esteemed all-night invitation-only house parties out of his apartment. The first of these took place on Valentines Day, 1970, and was was called “Love Saves the Day,” thought to be a hidden reference to LSD. Mancuso acted as the musical host, and as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, had guests of different races, sexualities and economic backgrounds in attendance. Mancuso hoped that these parties would help break down societal barriers in these areas.

David Mancuso, Image Courtesy of the New York Times.

The parties were fittingly named “The Loft,” and in 1973, the landlord allowed for Mancuso to remove the wall between his and the adjacent Loft at 645 Broadway. This new and much larger space was able to accommodate nearly 500 guests. The following year, 1974, the parties were moved to an even bigger space at 99 Prince Street. The Loft has been cited as the most influential party of its era, and aspects of it were later replicated in notable nightclubs including Paradise Garage and Studio 54. The Loft parties became a model of the pan-sexual, LGBTQ+-inclusive club and dance scene which emerged in the 1970s, and came to define the scene in the decades that followed.

Much of this information comes from Village Preservation’s Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, which has been recently expanded to include more important sites of LGBTQ+ history. Throughout the year and to mark Pride Month, we host numerous events highlighting our neighborhoods’ LGBTQ+ history.

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