BY ANDY HUMM | The Landmarks Preservation Commission heard testimony on Tues., June 23, on whether to designate the adjoining sites of the original Stonewall Inn, which launched the rebellion that sparked the modern L.G.B.T. rights movement, as an official city landmark. The commissioners then took the unprecedented step of immediately moving to make a decision. The commission’s unanimous vote represented the first time a site had been landmarked specifically for its role in L.G.B.T. history and came just in time for the 46th anniversary of the rebellion, which will be commemorated by the Pride March on Sun., June 28, the actual anniversary.
Preservationists, political leaders and activists –– including some rebellion participants –– turned out to testify in favor of the designation. Even the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry trade association, spoke for it.
“We don’t come here often,” the group’s spokesperson said to some laughter.
Stonewall Rebellion participant Jim Fouratt also supported the designation, despite his contempt for the bar itself. He stressed that the “outside, not the inside” of the place should be landmarked.
“It was an awful place,” Fouratt said.
Others, including Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who was not at the hearing, remember it as a dive, but at least one where men could touch while dancing. That, Lanigan-Schmidt said, was “revolutionary.”
Michael Devonshire, one of the L.P.C. commisssioners, aknowledged, “It’s not a pretty building. To quote from ‘The Boys in the Band,’ ‘Who is she? Who was she? What does she hope to be?’ ” But historically, he said, it is a “fantastic spot” recalling “a period of struggle for dignity for the L.G.B.T. community.”
Veteran gay activist Rick Landman, a former chairperson of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 1, noted that there was precedent of the commission having designated a Village building for other than its architectural merit.
“The commission landmarked the building where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred for its historical nature and not the architectural significance of the building,” he noted. “We commemorate the birth of the garment union and labor and safety laws at that location each year. So the L.P.C. has already granted an individual designation for a building’s historical significance.”
Anita Isola, a lifelong Village resident who said her parents had their wedding reception at the old Stonewall Inn, wanted it landmarked because it was there that “a global movement started right in our neighborhood.”
Many who spoke at the hearing cited the immediate militant L.G.B.T. organizing that sprung up following the rebellion’s several nights, as well as the commemorative marches that began in cities from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco the following year. Pride marches now number in the thousands around the world, including in places where they are prohibited by law, such as Russia.
Historian David Carter, whose 2004 book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” is widely considered the definitive account of the rebellion, said that the organizing that grew out of Stonewall “transformed the very small pre-existing homophile movement into a mass movement.”
It is the history that took place in June 1969 that won the designation. During the raid on the bar, “the community stood up to police oppression and discrimination,” said openly lesbian Councilmember Rosie Mendez. She also cited the role that Stonewall has played as a gathering point for L.G.B.T. demonstrations ever since, most recently for marriage equality campaigns lost and won. It is where the community will gather the evening of the fast-approaching U.S. Supreme Court decision day on marriage equality.
Stonewall participant Martin Boyce, 67, who was there the first night of the rebellion, said everyone is a beneficiary of that revolutionary moment.
“In some ways or other, we are all Stonewall veterans,” he said. “Please do this.”
In general, the commission has been reluctant to landmark sites of purely cultural or historical significance, focusing more on preserving the city’s architectural heritage. The sites of the original Stonewall Inn — 51 Christopher Street (today a nail salon) and No. 53 next door (a newer bar also called the Stonewall) — were originally built as stables in the 1840s. They were combined into a commercial space in 1930, opening as the Stonewall Inn restaurant in 1934 and as a gay bar in 1967 using the same name.
Much credit for this push is being given to Jay Shockley, who started advocating for the site’s designation as a commission staffer in 2009, and has since retired after 35 years at the agency. He is working with the newly formed New York City L.G.B.T. Historic Sites Project to push for more official recognition of locations of historical and cultural rather than architectural interest. In an increasingly gentrified West Village, Shockley worried that Stonewall’s intact facade — which will now be protected by the city — could have yielded to someone like retailer “Marc Jacobs putting in a glass storefront.”
The city designation protects the facade for the first time –– something that none of the property’s other historic designations, on both the National and the New York State Register of Historic Places –– accomplished.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation under its director, Andrew Berman, picked up the cause in earnest over a year ago, hoping that a new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and a new commission chairperson, Meenakshi Srinivasan, would take a fresh look at the issue.
Srinivasan credited her research staff and the many advocates they heard from. She lauded the Stonewall Rebellion for “liberating millions of L.G.B.T. people all over the nation,” and said she hoped “everyone will celebrate” the designation.
A Village resident herself, Srinivasan said that she is open to designating other such cultural and historical landmarks for all communities. There was a push at this hearing for future consideration of Julius’ bar on W. 10th St., the L.G.B.T. Community Center on W. 13th St., and 99 Wooster St., where a converted firehouse was employed by the Gay Activists Alliance and other groups for political organizing and social life for several years after Stonewall, until it was destroyed by arsonists.
A parade of political leaders and their aides spoke out for the designation, including Public Advocate Letitia James and openly gay Councilmember Corey Johnson, whose district includes Stonewall.
“We must preserve the building not just for the L.G.B.T. community but for every community,” James said. “Every community needs to understand the story of the rebellion and of standing up for individual rights.”
Johnson spoke of his first trip to New York City at age 17 and recalled heading to the Stonewall right off the bus.
“The sense of wonder I had as a young person,” he said, was something he wants future generations to be able to experience.
Members from leading preservation groups also spoke up for the designation, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation — which is considering the Stonewall as a possible National Treasure — the Historic Districts Council, which is made up of community groups from across the city, and Andrew Scott Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University.
Dolkart was the lead author in the effort to get the Stonewall designated as the first L.G.B.T. site ever listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, and then as a National Historic Landmark.
“This hearing has been a long time coming,” he said.
Preservation consultant Ken Lustbader wrote his Columbia thesis — “Landscape of Liberation: Preserving Gay and Lesbian History in Greenwich Village” — more than two decades ago.
“The facade is a vernacular architectural expression of L.G.B.T. history in New York City,” he said. Referring to gay bars’ history before the rebellion, he said, the building’s exterior, with its unique windows, embodies “the story of police hostility and mafia control.”