A Gay Theater and James Baldwin’s N.Y. Apartment May Get Landmark Protection
May 15, 2019
By: James Barron
The landmarks commission will consider giving landmark status to six buildings based on their historical, not architectural, significance.
All six played a critical role in the gay rights movement. One was a storefront restaurant that New York City officials described as the city’s first gay theater and the place where Off Off Broadway got its start. Another was home to a number of lesbian and feminist groups in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is moving toward considering landmark status for the six sites.
The agency was born in the 1960s in response to the anger over the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station, which the novelist Thomas Wolfe described as “vast enough to hold the sound of time.”
Since then, the commission has conferred landmark status on individual buildings and on neighborhoods based mainly on architectural significance and historical merit.
But over the years the commission has also granted landmark protection based on historical or cultural significance.
The six places under consideration do not include the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar and the site of a major turning point in the gay rights movement, because it has already been recognized. The commission gave it landmark status in 2015 because of its significance in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama designated the building and the area around it the Stonewall National Monument.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the World Pride celebration will come to New York City for the first time.
Five of the six landmarks-to-be are already in designated historic districts, so the protection afforded by landmark status would be new for only one. But Sarah Carroll, the chairwoman of the landmarks commission, said the new designations would add “an extra layer of protection” if future owners sought permission for exterior changes.
“We wanted to explicitly recognize the association with LGBT history,” she said. “In most cases, the designation of the historic districts in which the buildings already exist did not recognize this history.”
Since its start, the commission has expanded its mandate toward recognizing buildings for what happened in them, not just their presence on the landscape, with a number of other designations, among them Louis Armstrong’s house in Queens, a landmark since 1988.
A year ago, the commission created a historic district in Harlem, citing the “rich social, cultural and political life” that went on there as well as the architecture. It includes the home of the ragtime composer Scott Joplin and the national headquarters for the March on Washington in 1965.
The six most recent sites were chosen based on their contribution to gay history. Recognizing more than architecture “is really important,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, co-director of the LGBT Historic Sites Project, which recommended sites for the LGBT designations.
“In general, it’s really important that preservation move beyond just works of architecture, not to denigrate that — I’m an architectural historian,” he said, adding, “We really need to recognize places of cultural and historical significance.”
Giving the six buildings landmark status would put documentation about them in the commission’s files that would be taken into account if owners sought to make changes to the outside, Ms. Carroll said. That information, she said, “would guide our thinking” and could prove especially important for facades that “might not have been seen as typical or traditional in that particular historic district.”
She said that could be a concern for one of the six buildings, at 137 West 71st Street. It was the New York home of the writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin from the mid-1960s on.
For years he mainly lived in France and died at his home there in 1987.
But he described himself as a “commuter,” not an expatriate. The landmarks commission noted that he kept an apartment in the 71st Street building “where he worked on plays, screenplays and novels and corresponded with other prominent literary and cultural figures” when he was in New York. His niece Aisha Karefa-Smart wrote in 2013 that the building’s “energy and vitality” surged “to a fever pitch as soon as he hit the door.”
The building was built as one in a line of four rowhouses in 1890 but was altered in 1961. The original facade was stripped off, replaced with light-colored brick. Stairs leading to the parlor-floor entrance were demolished, the front door was moved down to the street level and glass-brick windows were installed next to it.
Baldwin bought it in 1965. His family sold the building in 1994, according to the current owner, Romeo Salta, who said he was “ambivalent” about a landmark designation.
“Quite frankly, we were contemplating, not in the immediate future but sometime down the line, fixing up the facade because in my opinion, it’s not a very good-looking building,” Mr. Salta said.
“I’ve got no problem with honoring Mr. Baldwin,” he said, but added, “I think there are other ways of honoring Mr. Baldwin short of declaring his old building a landmark because it has no architectural merit at all.”
The commission described another of the six buildings as the birthplace of Off Off Broadway, a four-story tenement-and-store building at 31 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village.
From 1958 to 1968, the store space was occupied by a restaurant called Caffe Cino. At the time, the commission’s staff noted in a report on the building, “portraying homosexuality in theatrical productions was illegal,” but Caffe Cino “became a center for gay artists to share their work” as the city’s first gay theater.
Playwrights who got their start there included John Guare, who later wrote “Six Degrees of Separation,” and Lanford Wilson, who wrote “Fifth of July,’’ according to the commission.
It is in the Greenwich Village Historic District, just as the Baldwin House is in a historic district on the Upper West Side.
The one building not within the boundaries of a historic district is a former firehouse once known as the women’s liberation center. The building, at 243 West 20th Street, is still owned by the city and is now rented to a group that trains women for construction and maintenance work.
Ms. Carroll said she and members of the commission’s staff worked with the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, and the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project. She said Mr. Johnson did not suggest specific sites, but he said through a spokesman that the choices “will make excellent additions” to the roster of landmarks.
The commission will decide on Tuesday whether to begin the formal process of landmarking the sites, including holding public hearings and, eventually, votes on official designation.
Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic District Council, a preservation group, called the six potential designations “a terrific step forward to recognizing unrecognized history.” But he and William Dobbs, a historically minded advocate, said they wished the commission would designate more landmarks of significance in the gay rights movement.
Mr. Dobbs mentioned a building on the corner of 14th Street and the Avenue of the Americas that was the meeting place of the Gay Liberation Front, the first activist organization formed after the Stonewall rebellion. That building has been sold to a developer and is being demolished.
“The story of these landmarks is they get torn down,” he said. “It’s especially painful because there aren’t very many LGBT landmarks.”