In 1972, the Mattachine Society New York, the city’s first gay rights group, mostly for men, moved its office downtown to Christopher Street, which had become increasingly popular after the Stonewall Uprising of 1969.
The influence of the organization was already being superseded by the younger and more radical activist LGBT groups formed after Stonewall. It filed for bankruptcy in 1976.
Credit: Ken Lustbader/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2019.
59 Christopher Street visible at left during dedication ceremony for the General Sheridan monument and Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth flagpole, October 19, 1936. Courtesy of the New York City Parks Photo Archive.
Founded in Los Angeles in 1950, with a New York Chapter in 1955, the Mattachine Society was New York’s first “homophile” (gay and lesbian) rights group. At the time, it was considered radical for campaigning for the rights of gay men and lesbians to simply exist openly in society without fear of arrest or persecution. Under the innovative leadership of president Dick Leitsch (who was in that role from 1964 to 1972), Mattachine challenged the State Liquor Authority’s discriminatory ban on serving gay people at the famous Sip-In at Julius’ Bar in 1966. It also worked to stop police entrapment of gay men, and provided legal advice and counsel to arrested men.
The second floor of this building was Mattachine’s last office, from May 1972 until the chapter was dissolved in 1976. The location is particularly poignant, as it is just three buildings away from the Stonewall Inn. The slightly older leaders and members of Mattachine were replaced in influence by the younger and more radical activist LGBT groups formed after the Stonewall uprising in 1969.
When the organization moved here, however, there was a spirit of optimism from a change in leadership and its relocation downtown to increasingly popular Christopher Street. Mattachine’s previous offices were at 1133 Broadway near Madison Square Park (1959-68) and 243 West End Avenue on the Upper West Side (1968-72). One member in 1972 remarked:
“The new place needs lots of work, but it’s going to be nice, particularly with the now-necessary air conditioning, and we’re hoping for lots of off-the-street socializing, many committee uses of the library and meeting rooms, much individual counseling, and lots of printing material going out: I hope they’re right, and this will be the turning point for the organization…”
Bob Zolnerzak, 1972
A number of other groups met here as well: The Eulenspiegel Society; Gay Youth, after the arson fire at the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse in October 1974, Gay Legal Caucus; and New York State Coalition of Gay Organizations. Mattachine New York filed for bankruptcy in November 1976.
Architect or Builder: attributed to Peter R. Christie and Gilbert J. Bogart
Year Built: 1853
Bob Zolnerzak, Autobiography; Mattachine – Diary 3013. Mattachine Board at 59 Christopher, May 3, 1972, bit.ly/2DAwBHc. [source of pull quote]
“Business Records – Bankruptcy Proceedings,” The New York Times, November 16, 1976, 59.
Mattachine Society Inc. of New York lease, April 26, 1972. Mattachine Society New York file, International Gay Information Center, Organizations, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.
Rostom Mesli, In Defense of Identity Politics: A Queer Reclamation of a Radical Concept (University of Michigan dissertation, 2015), 181-182.
“Statewide Services Available to Gays,” in Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley, The Empty Closet, May 1974.
Stephan Cohen, The Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: “An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail” (New York: Routledge, 2008).
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