Historic preservationists and gay rights activists have won a skirmish in their campaign to save 186 Spring Street, a SoHo townhouse that sheltered a number of gay rights activists in the post-Stonewall era—earning landmark designation eligibility from the state and national historic registers. But without a designation from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the house’s demolition still looms as the most likely possibility.
Earning a spot on the State and National registers would be a coup for the preservationists. “It’s truly historic—only one other place in the United States has been placed on the state and national registers in relation to gay and lesbian history,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The other place, also in Manhattan, is the Stonewall Inn.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, gay rights leaders Bruce Voeller, Jim Owles and Arnie Kantrowitz, among others, lived in the house, hammering out the movement’s goals after Stonewall and confronting the early years of the AIDS crisis.
Unfortunately the designation—which preservation advocates sought after they learned of Canadian developer Stephane Boivin’s plans to knock down the townhouse—would not prevent a structure from being altered or demolished. Nor can it be placed on the Register without the owners’ consent, a development that seems unlikely given the owner’s plans to knock it to the ground.
A designation from Landmarks Preservation does have the power to protect a building from demolition, but the LPC rejected the building’s landmark application, citing the building’s highly-altered state and lack of architectural integrity.
Mr. Berman said that the federal-style row house, which belonged for years to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz before he sold it this spring to Mr. Boivin’s company Nordica, has not been significantly altered since it was built. But most importantly, it has really not been altered at all since the 1980s, when the historically significant activities took place inside—a standard he said was used by the state and national register in conferring their designations.
Built in 1824, the federal-style row house lies outside of any existing historic districts. When Mr. Boivin submitted an application to demolish the property earlier this year—most likely to expand the seven-story , mixed-use project that he was planning next door—the Greenwich Village Society jumped into action, touting the structure’s significance as the only row house of its kind that had not been significantly altered in the (also unlandmarked) South Village historic district.
The house’s role in the gay rights movement—a much stronger argument for preservation—didn’t surface until several months later, with the preservationist’s cause earning support from politicians like State Senator Tom Duane, who spoke about how the activists who lived there had made possible his achievements as the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive elected official in the New York City Council and the New York State Senate.
Mr. Berman pointed out that the historic designations would make Mr. Boivin eligible for a number of tax benefits and other financial incentives. We doubt, however, that his company, which has displayed a stony resolve thus far, will be swayed, especially considering his plans to replace this and two neighboring townhouses with a seven-story high-end apartment building. Mr. Boivin has not yet returned The Observer’s request for comment.
The LPC told The Observer that a national and/or state register designation would not lead it to reconsider its decision because it uses different criteria than the registers, and has a different purpose—to regulate future changes—something that the registers only do in a very limited way.
“When NYC LPC considers a site for designation, it determines whether a site is at least 30 years old, and is architecturally, historically and/or culturally significant to the development and character of New York City, New York state and/or the nation,” wrote LPC spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon in an email.
Mr. Berman said that the LPC has never landmarked a building because of its role in gay and lesbian history. The Stonewall Inn, protected because it lies within the Greenwich Village historic district, nonetheless cannot lay claim to its own designation. Preservationists hope the commission will make history this time out.