By Timothy Frye and Kate Lemos McHale
Editor's Note: With the coronavirus changing the very way we live our lives, Preservation Leadership Forum is committed to providing new content and information for preservationists as they work within a very different world. With that in mind we wanted to balance pandemic-related resources with a few stories we already had in progress so as to inspire and remind us why our work matters.
The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is striving to incorporate diversity and equity in all aspects of the agency’s work. Three recent initiatives show how LPC is addressing its goals to represent New York City’s diversity and complex history through designations that help tell the story of all New Yorkers.
LPC has designated culturally and historically significant landmarks since shortly after the 1965 passage of New York’s landmarks law. This law defines a landmark as having architectural, cultural, or historical significance. Generally speaking, landmarks that are designated for cultural or historical associations are usually important for reasons other than architecture or design, such as their association with people, communities, or events.
Recognizing cultural significance through landmark designation illuminates the history and experience of diverse communities, allowing us to learn from this history, while also informing how we protect the representative historic character and fabric. A building or historic district’s period of cultural significance may be sometime later than its original design and construction; as a regulatory agency it is important to understand why buildings are significant to ensure the physical features that best represent their significance are treated sensitively.
Designated in 2018, the Central Harlem – West 130th 132nd Streets West Historic District was constructed during the speculative boom that created Central Harlem’s row house neighborhoods in the late 19th century. The historic district is a significant enclave of residential architecture representative of Central Harlem’s first major phase of development, and a remarkable reminder of the substantial role that the African American community of Harlem played in creating political and social change in New York City and the nation. Our research found residents adapted many of the 19th century residential buildings to accommodate cultural, religious, civic, and political uses, from the Harlem Renaissance through the 1960s, and that the broader neighborhood context embodied an incredibly profound history of social, cultural, and political life of Harlem’s African American community and its fight for social justice.
Our research informed a historic district designation for 164 properties that highlights the original development and design of the intact late 19th century row houses, as well as their cultural and historical significance related to African American contributions to American culture and Civil Rights. The designation report carefully documents the history, significance, and integrity of the buildings. The district includes the National Headquarters for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which is significant for its association with the March and its chief organizer, Bayard Rustin. In addition, its facade was redesigned in 1928 for the Utopia Children’s House by Vernter Tandy, New York State’s first African American registered architect. Though its current appearance is not consistent with the 19th century architectural character of the block, LPC recognized Tandy’s 1928 facade as significant.
LPC has also been striving to recognize places associated with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history. In 2015 LPC designated Stonewall Inn as an individual landmark. The Stonewall Inn, consisting of two altered former stable buildings, was included within the boundaries of the Greenwich Village Historic District on April 29, 1969. Two months after the historic district was designated Stonewall was at the center of one of the most pivotal moments in the LGBT civil rights movement. It was the starting point of the Stonewall Rebellion, one of the most important sites associated with LGBT history in New York City and the nation and a catalyst for the LGBT Liberation Movement. LPC’s designation report recognized the relatively small window openings, high bulkheads, dark glass, and plywood window liners were typical features of LGBT bars of the period, meant to protect the patrons’ privacy and prevent passersby from looking in. These features are a tangible connection to its association with the LGBT civil rights movement.
Four years later in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and coinciding with World Pride NYC, LPC designated six additional sites that made significant contributions to the LGBT cultural and civil rights movements. Each of the properties designated were based in part on recommendations from the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. The individual landmark designation reports illuminate the history of these properties that hosted seminal gay theater productions, political and community service organizations at the beginning of the LGBT civil rights movement, and served as the residences of two of the nation’s most important African-American writers and civil rights activists, the James Baldwin Residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the Audre Lorde Residence on Staten Island.
Tin Pan Alley
More recently, LPC’s focus is to ensure that its treatment of sensitive and uncomfortable historical contexts are accurately documented, and enhance the public’s understanding of the reasoning and actions of people of that time period. In December, 2019, LPC designated a row of five 19th-century buildings associated with the significant history of “Tin Pan Alley,” which occupied the block of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue between 1893 and 1910. Tin Pan Alley was an important cultural moment of intense music production and innovation that had an indelible impact on the history of American popular music and paved the way for what would become “the Great American Songbook.”
Tin Pan Alley’s music publishing brought ragtime to an international public, offered unprecedented opportunities for African American artists and publishers to create mainstream American music, and saw many gain acclaim and prominence. This period also has challenging history; Tin Pan Alley arose during and reflects a post-Reconstruction context when racist policies, views, and ideology were prevalent. These injustices, in New York, and throughout the country, were reflected in offensive caricatures and stereotypes spread through mass media—including sheet music produced on Tin Pan Alley.
LPC's research drew from important scholarship, insights, and conversations with African American historians. We received many letters from descendants of African American songwriters and performers associated with Tin Pan Alley, all of which supported better understanding of the historical and cultural context for this moment in the creation of widely accessible popular music. LPC staff thoroughly researched the history of Tin Pan Alley’s music production, business practices, songwriters, and performers, the historic context of the Post-Reconstruction era, and the history of offensive racist stereotypes and caricatures spread through sheet music imagery and lyrics. This rigorous research was necessary to document and recognize the significant achievements of Tin Pan Alley African American songwriters and publishers, and to preserve the historic fabric and character of buildings that embody their significance.
Preserving buildings that embody New York’s diverse history allows us to learn from and to recognize the experiences of all communities as part of our collective memory and heritage. Properties designated for their cultural significance are an important example of that function of historic preservation.
Timothy Frye is the Director of Special Projects and Strategic Planning and Kate Lemos McHale is the Director of Research at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission is the mayoral agency responsible for protecting and preserving New York City's architecturally, historically and culturally significant buildings and sites. Since its creation in 1965, LPC has granted landmark status to more than 37,000 buildings and sites, including 1,439 individual landmarks, 120 interior landmarks, 11 scenic landmarks, and 149 historic districts and extensions in all five boroughs. For more information, visit www.nyc.gov/landmarks and connect with us via www.facebook.com/NYCLandmarks and www.twitter.com/nyclandmarks.#Inclusion#NationalRegister#Diversity#intangibleheritage