Project Update

Earl Hall at Columbia University Listed on National Register of Historic Places

March 14, 2018

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRESS CONTACT
Ken Lustbader, NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
p: (917) 848-1776 / e: ken@nyclgbtsites.org

 

Earl Hall at Columbia University
Listed on National Register of Historic Places

Important venue for LGBT gatherings nominated by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project for its affiliation with the Student Homophile League, the first gay student organization in the country, founded at Columbia University in 1966.

 

New York, NY – This week, Earl Hall at Columbia University was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, following its nomination by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project and in recognition of Earl Hall as a venue for meetings and dances of the Student Homophile League, the first gay student organization in the country.

In 1966, Columbia University became the first collegiate institution in the United States — and possibly the first in the world — with an LGBT student group. In the fall of that year, sophomore Robert Martin (using the pseudonym Stephen Donaldson) founded the Student Homophile League following a meeting with Columbia University and Barnard College representatives, religious advisers, and two of the most important national leaders for gay and lesbian rights, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The small student group had the support of the university chaplain and, thus, gained space in Earl Hall, the center of student religious life. The university officially recognized the group in April 1967. In 1970, the Student Homophile League became the more activist Gay People at Columbia (also known as Gay People at Columbia-Barnard), which sponsored a series of popular Friday-night dances in Earl Hall’s auditorium.

Earl Hall was nominated to the State and National Registers of Historic Places by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a cultural heritage initiative and educational resource dedicated to broadening people’s knowledge of LGBT history. In so doing, the Project is acknowledging sites that are important to LGBT history as well as those that illustrate the community’s influence on American culture at-large. This is the fourth LGBT historic site the Project has successfully nominated to the State and National Registers since 2016.

“We are delighted to see Earl Hall listed on the National Register of Historic Places, following our nomination,” said Andrew Dolkart, Project co-director and lead author of the nomination. “Columbia University’s Earl Hall hosted the first student gay group in America, the Student Homophile League, later Gay People at Columbia, founded in 1966. Earl Hall was also the site of pioneering monthly gay dances that were key social events for younger gay men and lesbians. We are thrilled that the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, with the support of Columbia University and the New York State Office of Historic Preservation, has been able to prepare the documentation that resulted in the Federal government’s recognition of Earl Hall’s significance to LGBT history and American history. Too often LGBT history is either hidden by institutions or simply unknown due to a lack of focused efforts at documentation and education. The Project’s work to reverse that trend is immensely important, and the State and National Register listings are validation of LGBT history’s significance to all Americans.”

Earl Hall’s addition makes six buildings on the Columbia campus to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the first for its LGBT significance. The listing concludes a long process of archival research as well as oral history interviews of people who attended the dances and social events, culminating in the Project’s nomination of the Earl Hall site.

Earl Hall is exceptionally significant in the period 1970-1985 for its association with the gay dances held in the ballroom in the period before the AIDS epidemic forever changed social life for gay men. The first gay dance open to the public was held at Earl Hall on June 19, 1970, and the dances soon became a rare publicly accessible event that provided primarily young gay people with a safe social space to gather and socialize. Over the next five years, the importance of the dances increased.

In 1981, the AIDS virus began its destructive path through the gay community. As the epidemic spread and one method of transmission was identified as sexual contact, the year 1985 marked a watershed in the understanding of the severity of the crisis in New York City. The year 1985 also marks the year when AIDS became a national issue. The death of several celebrities from AIDS, notably Rock Hudson and Ricky Wilson, the opening of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, and the premier of the television drama An Early Frost, brought the enormity of the crisis to general public awareness. In the same year, the drinking age in New York State was raised to twenty-one, and most bars began requiring identification. This meant that most of the younger gay students were more restricted in where they could dance legally, and the Columbia dances became a more important social venue.

As those who attended the dances can attest, the mixers were welcoming to younger gay men and lesbians, accepting of everyone no matter how they looked or dressed, and were more low key than events at venues such as bars, clubs, and discos. Thus they were an important social space and they played a vital role in bridging the gap between the pioneering early days of gay rights advocacy at Columbia and the often AIDS-related political activism that became evident beginning in the late 1980s.

Visit Earl Hall on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project website (click here).

About the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is a cultural initiative and educational resource that is documenting historic sites connected to the LGBT community throughout New York City. Its interactive map features diverse places from the 17th century to the year 2000 that are important to LGBT history and illustrate the community’s influence on American culture. The Project is nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places and developing educational tours and programs. For more, visit www.nyclgbtsites.org, or follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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