186 Spring Street, New York | New York Observer | 14348
A red brick row house at 186 Spring Street, New York has been demolished despite being a landmark of New York’s gay history.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the house sheltered a number of prominent gay rights activists, among them Bruce Voeller (who was a leader in the fight against AIDS), Arnie Kantrowitz and Jim Owles, who was the president of the Gay Activists Alliance, an influential organization that emerged in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots. Recently the building had been owned by Adam Horovitz, a former Beastie Boy. It has now been demolished to make way for a seven-story luxury apartment block.
The Landmarks Commission denied preservationists’ most recent plea to landmark and thereby save the building, on the corners of Spring and Thompson streets, a part of the city that is defined as much today by the vast quantities of cash flowing into its real estate as it is by its historic architecture and cobblestones.
“What they did was homophobic, and as Jim Owles was my partner for many years, not only do I consider it an act against the movement, but I take it personally,” said Allen Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club.
While Mr. Roskoff admitted that it never would have occurred to him to seek landmark designation for the building— “I’m not a preservation person” — he argued the commission should look for opportunities to landmark the community’s history. “I think if you had a landmarks commission that is sympathetic to the gay community, they would have supported it.”
The city’s failure to designate it, or any other building, a landmark based solely on its place in the LGBT rights struggle, is at best an oversight and at worst a slight. The landmarks commission counters that it already has preserved many important gay rights landmarks, albeit as part of a larger historic districts.
Elisabeth de Bourbon, the commission’s spokeswoman, pointed to the Stonewall Inn as a good example of gay rights history being preserved.
“The primary goal of designation is to protect the bricks and mortar that embody the cultural significance. For us designation is not an honorific, it’s a regulatory mechanism that allows the city to protect its historic resources.”
In rejecting 186 Spring, the commission asserts that the real monument to the Gay Activist Alliance has already been preserved and that 186 Spring Street’s role in the movement was peripheral rather than central. In its letter outlining its reasons for rejecting the house’s application for landmark status, the commission notes that its research indicated that Jim Owles and Arnie Kantrowitz lived in the house for only about a year in the early 1970s, when the Gay Activist Alliance was headquarted in The Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street (which is located within the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, and thus protected).
Although Bruce Voeller lived in the home for a decade, the commission contests that his role in the movement’s history is not influential enough to warrant landmarking his onetime house:
“A review of histories suggests that Dr. Voeller was a later and more of a ‘transitional figure’… between the radical post-Stonewall period and a more mainstream professional activism.”
New York city has yet to landmark a building because of its role in gay and lesbian history. The commission also rejected an application to landmark the Pyramid Club at 101 Avenue A, which played a central role in 1980s drag culture, although the building will be included in the soon-to-be created East Village Historic District, giving it a protected status.
“I think the recognition is important,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “I think it’s important for the commission to say this is an important part of our city’s history, this is an important part of our city’s culture.”
The LGBT community has not, however, taken up the cause as vigorously as the preservationists. Andy Humm, a journalis and activist said that while the demolition of 186 Spring Street is a shame, the gay community has been focused on bigger, more important battles than protecting historic sites. “You can give us some of the blame in the community I suppose,” he said. “Have we been focused on this? I don’t think we have. But look, we’re a movement that has been more about the future… and frankly, we have this huge homeless LGBT community that doesn’t even have basic housing.”