Gay Rights Activists Join Campaign to Save Historic Soho Townhouse

springstreet Gay Rights Activists Join Campaign to Save Historic Soho Townhouse

Steve Ashkinazy of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City discusses the house’s history at a press conference today. (Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation)

It turns out that the federal-style rowhouse at 186 Spring Street has lots of friends in high places. Unfortunately, it may not have made them soon enough.

Today, in the latest bid to save the Soho townhouse from demolition, gay rights activists and local politicians rallied in front 186 Spring Street, highlighting the building’s role in gay rights and AIDS activism. The house served as a kind of gay commune for activists and organizations in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz sold the house earlier this year to Canadian developer Stephane Boivin, who claimed he wanted it for “personal use,” then hastily submitted an application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking to demolish the property. The $5.5 million property is in fine condition, but it seemed that Mr. Boivin never had any plans to live there. It was, after all, right next door to the seven-story, mixed-use property that he was already planning.

The house may be historic, but it’s not yet landmarked, and the LPC promptly approved Mr. Boivin’s application.

But now gay activists have emerged to urge the house’s preservation on grounds of not only architectural history (built in 1824, it’s the last structure of its kind that has remained more or less intact in the also-nonlandmarked South Village area), but social history. Because the building housed both gay rights heavyweights Bruce Voeller and Jim Owles, activists claim that it played a key role in the post-Stonewall gay rights movement and the early days of the fight against AIDS.

“It is deeply disappointing to me that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has deemed 186 Spring Street unworthy of landmarking,” wrote New York State Senator Tom Duane in a statement.  “As the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive elected official in the New York City Council and the New York State Senate, I stand on the shoulders of legendary activists who called this 1824 federal-style row house home. I would not have not been able to accomplish all that I have—and the LGBT rights movement and fight against HIV/AIDS would not have come as far as they have—were it not for the incredible work done at 186 Spring Street by Jim Owles, Arnie Kantrowitz, Bruce Voeller and others who lived here.”

The LPC cited the building’s highly-altered state and lack of architectural integrity in declining to landmark it, shortcomings that the house’s supporters deny are significant enough to stop the landmarking process.

“The contributions this house and its residents made to shaping our culture and making our society fairer and more just are almost impossible to measure,” said Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation director Andrew Berman in a statement.

kvelsey@observer.com