By Amanda Davis
New York City is home to countless historic and cultural sites associated with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, yet only one—the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village—has been officially recognized by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). That site, designated a New York City Landmark by the LPC in June 2015, had previously been listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and named a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Last summer President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument with boundaries that include the two buildings that housed the original bar, even though federal ownership only applies to nearby Christopher Park. Stonewall also became a New York State Historic Site last year.
As important as Stonewall is in telling the history of the LGBT community, it’s not the only site out there. Across the country and overseas, preservation professionals have begun taking a more serious look at the importance of preserving the LGBT community’s long “invisible” history. As Jay Shockley, co-director of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, has pointed out, it’s ironic that so many LGBT preservationists have worked for decades to protect the country’s built heritage, yet only 11 of the more than 92,000 sites on the National Register have been listed for their LGBT significance.
The Creation of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
The project’s origins go back to the early 1990s, when preservationists Andrew Dolkart, Ken Lustbader, and Jay Shockley (now our co-directors) were part of a group known as the Organization of Gay and Lesbian Architects and Designers (OLGAD). The group created a fold-out map of lesbian and gay historic sites in Greenwich Village, Midtown, and Harlem, which was a new concept at the time.
In 2014 Dolkart, Lustbader, and Shockley applied for and were awarded support from the National Park Service’s Underrepresented Communities Grants Program, which aims to expand the diversity of the National Register. With additional fundraising, they were able to launch the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project in August 2015, which is when I joined as project manager.
As preservation professionals, we all have experience conducting cultural resource surveys. However, the LGBT community’s history had been kept hidden for so long that it just didn’t seem right for our findings to only exist in report form. We knew that an interactive online experience centered around a map of historic sites would be the best way to get this history out there and appreciated by people, especially the LGBT community. It also has the potential to engage and inspire LGBT youth, most of whom are not taught this history either in the classroom or at home.
We’ve been fortunate to work with a New York–based web design team who really got behind our vision to translate the decades-long practice of surveying historic properties into an interactive website that everyone, regardless of their familiarity with the preservation field, can enjoy and learn from.
Documenting New York City’s LGBT Past
So far, we’ve tracked hundreds of historic sites throughout the city’s five boroughs, with the oldest dating to the early 19th century.
Our interactive map allows people to discover former residences of notable LGBT artists, writers, and activists; important gathering places such as bars, clubs, and community centers; renowned educational and cultural institutions that LGBT people have helped foster; public works of art and architecture; demonstration locations where activist groups fought for LGBT equality and AIDS awareness; and performance venues where LGBT performers and crews have entertained generations of audiences.
The initial map features 100 historic sites, but we’ll continue to add more in future phases. It was important to us that this first group be as diverse as possible, showcasing sites from the five boroughs that range from the earliest history of the city to the 1990s. Each historic site type is color-coded, and historic narratives, archival and current photos, film and audio clips, and ephemera bring these sites to life.
We’ve also come up with a number of cultural significance tags that people can use to search. Someone interested in learning about historic sites connected to the arts, for example, can click on the theater, music, dance performance, and/or visual arts tags. This will leave all relevant sites on the map, such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s house in Greenwich Village, Carnegie Hall in midtown Manhattan, or the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens.
Curated Themes and Tours
We’re also excited about the potential for multiple curated themes and tours, which will help guide people through the many historic sites on the map. Some would make for great walking tours as well. For our web launch, we are featuring 10 themes, including ones associated with influential LGBT African Americans; important community spaces in the pre-Stonewall era; and the impact of LGBT architects, landscape designers, and preservationists on the city’s built environment.
One of the most important aspects of the website is a form that anyone can fill out to suggest historic New York City places. We review each submission and conduct additional research before potentially adding it to the map.
Our project seeks to bring awareness to an incredibly important, but little known, part of New York City’s history through the very places where that history happened. It also serves as an educational resource and provides a starting point for additional scholarly research. As a result, we hope that the project will lead to more city landmark designations as well as state and national register nominations for sites associated with the LGBT community.
Amanda Davis is the project manager of the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project and has worked as an architectural historian in New York and Los Angeles.