By Brian J. Pape, AIA
Many in the West Village neighborhood celebrated this June when the Stonewall Inn was listed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which voted unanimously to approve landmark designation of the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the first such site the Commission has landmarked based solely upon LGBT history. Similar celebrations had been held on Monday, June 21, 1999, when Assistant Secretary of the Interior John Berry announced the addition of the site of the Stonewall Uprising (June 28, 1969) to the National Register of Historic Places (as well as a listing on the NY State Register of Historic Places). This is the first site listed on the National Register for its association with gay and lesbian history.
1969 was truly the “summer of love” and turmoil, and that included the Stonewall Uprising. For me, your cub reporter, just having arrived fresh out of my Midwest college, with no money and no job, I was thrown into the upheaval that was New York, looking for a job as an architecture apprentice. To my good fortune, Tony Hoffman, a college friend of my older brother, offered me roommate status at 7th Av. and 13th St., and I remember many debates and demonstrations about the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and gay rights in the public squares of Greenwich Village. Later that summer, I married my college sweetheart, and we talked about going to Woodstock for the music festival; but without money or a place to stay upstate, and thunderstorms in the forecast, we stayed in the city. A very memorable time.
The existing Stonewall Inn building is actually a transformation that took place in the 1930’s, as the owners combined the two previously separate structures at 51 & 53 Christopher into one commercial facility for the use as a restaurant. Today, we see the unifying brickwork around arched doorways and large picture plate glass windows on the first floor, and stucco applied to the upper story surrounding small casement windows with flower boxes, with Stonewall Inn at No. 53, and the QQ Salon at No. 51.
Now, let’s go back in time to see why these two structures were able to be combined and were accommodating to the new uses, and why this fits our theme When Horses Ruled NYC.
No. 51 was originally built in 1843 as a two-story stable for A. Voorhis, and had a third floor added in 1898, only to be reduced to two stories again in 1930.
No. 53 was a stable built in 1846 for Mark Spencer, whose country mansion stood at the northwest end of the block (which at that time extended to West Fourth and West Tenth Streets, since there was no Seventh Avenue there).
So there we had two stables, probably arranged in typical fashion with large central carriage doors with smaller passenger doors at their side, all right at the street level for carriages to roll into them. Then when new unnamed owners bought the stables in 1930, they were able to put picture windows in the wide openings, and reconfigure the first floor as one contiguous space, easily accessible from the sidewalk. Separate passenger doors still lead to stairs for the upper floors.
These little buildings have seen many changes to the cityscape and cultural norms, and have adapted to the changing times, an admirable trait that serves them and us well.