Preservationists, Backed by Pols, Press LGBT Historic Site Push

BY SAM SPOKONY | Support is growing for an effort by preservationists to secure stronger and more specific landmark protections for three local sites that played key roles in the city’s LGBT history. All three sites — the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, Julius’ Bar at 159 West 10th Street, and the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street — already lie within landmarked districts, the first two within the Greenwich Village Historic District and the third within the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District. Changes to the buildings at the three sites, therefore, already require approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The story of the June 1969 riots at the Stonewall is known around the world, but few recall that Julius’, the city’s oldest gay bar, was the site of a 1966 “Sip-In” protest that helped in overturning a state law that banned serving alcohol to “homosexuals.” The Wooster Street site, a firehouse in the 19th century, served from 1971 to 1974 –– until it was destroyed by arson –- as the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance, a dissident group that splintered off from the Gay Liberation Front, the original post-Stonewall LGBT group in New York.

The LPC designation reports for the two landmarked districts date back to the late 1960s and early ‘70s — the Greenwich Village report, in fact, written months before the Stonewall Riots — and they do not cite the significance the three buildings have in LGBT history. As a result, preservationists are asking the LPC to either individually landmark each building or to update their historic district reports with information on their roles within the gay rights movement.

Johnson, Chin step up in effort to explicitly recognize Stonewall Inn, Julius’, GAA Firehouse

“This is long overdue, and it’s a vital step toward further preventing future changes to these sites that could compromise their history,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), which is leading the push.

While Stonewall was named a national landmark more than a decade ago and is also listed on New York State’s Register of Historic Places and Julius’ has been cited as eligible for both the state and federal registers, Berman stressed that the Wooster Street site has not to date been considered for any commemorative status or protection

GVSHP is building support among elected officials as well as LGBT advocacy and other preservationist groups. Those backing the effort now include City Councilmembers Corey Johnson and Margaret Chin, State Senator Brad Hoylman, State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Public Advocate Letitia James.

“It would be a tragic loss to the city’s history and communities if we do not act to protect these sites from future development and give them the recognition they deserve in the designation report,” Johnson and Chin wrote in a joint February 20 letter to LPC chair Robert Tierney. The LPC has also heard from leaders of both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation League of New York State as well as from Glennda Testone, executive director of the LGBT Community Center.

To date, the only response from LPC is executive director Kate Daly’s acknowledgement that all three sites will be included in the group’s ongoing, citywide study of culturally significant buildings that already lie within historic districts, a process that makes them potential candidates for individual protection or for inclusion in amended district designation reports.

Berman said he is “perplexed” by the LPC’s inaction.

“This should be a no-brainer, and it’s really surprising to me that [LPC] hasn’t been more receptive and given a clear ‘Yes’ on this,” he told this reporter.

Saying he doesn’t believe Tierney, first appointed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, will remain at the helm of LPC much longer, Berman added, “So now we’re looking to see who the new chair will be, and hopefully that person will be more receptive to this.”

When asked for comment on whether Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the preservationists’ push, his office did not respond.