This issue of Change Over Time, focused on LGBTQ heritage, is published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, a key turning point in the LGBTQ rights movement.1 It is ironic that Stonewall, a seedy, Mafia-run bar in New York City that had a brief run from 1967 to 1969, is now the most officially recognized LGBTQ historic site in the country, if not the world, given that twenty-five years ago the first attempt to secure federal recognition was rebuffed due to “lack of context.”2 Today, its significance, stemming from a police raid and its aftermath, is not in question, nor is the fact that it was popular with a diverse cross-section of the LGBTQ community in spite of the general oppressive climate of the era. What is not widely known is that the site’s significance is derived from events that occurred outside the bar on the un-gridded streets of Greenwich Village and not inside the space itself (Figure 1). Another aspect of importance, and of some confusion, is that the Stonewall Inn, which closed soon after the uprising, had occupied two architecturally undistinguished buildings at Fifty-One and Fifty-Three Christopher Street. In 1930 these two buildings were combined at the ground floor into one commercial space and were unified with a single façade. Soon after the Stonewall uprising, the buildings were divided into two distinct spaces, and since then have been leased to various commercial businesses. Today, apart from the removal of the iconic “Stonewall Inn” sign, the two façades remain intact.3 Fifty-One Christopher Street, the site of the main historic bar, is now vacant and for lease and Fifty-Three Christopher Street houses the current Stonewall bar. The Stonewall bar of today has no association with the historic bar and was opened in the early 1990s. Its current owners have become important stewards of the Stonewall legacy.
While the above facts provide context, they also lay bare the complexities associated with the identification, documentation, evaluation, and interpretation of LGBTQ place-based sites. The official recognition and interpretation of Stonewall exemplifies myriad conservation challenges: the recognition and regulation of a historically and culturally important site without architectural significance as the primary determination; the exploration of changing values from a place of oppression to a place of celebration; the need to document multiple narratives to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ community; and the impact of alterations and changes in use on authenticity. I often question if the site would be so revered and appreciated without the current Stonewall bar as a tenant.
Yet Stonewall has become a symbol and easy-to-understand—albeit limited—calling card for what defines an LGBTQ historic site while simultaneously conveying the importance of LGBTQ place-based heritage. Unfortunately, the focus on Stonewall perpetuates the myth that the first act of American LGBTQ resistance erupted in June of 1969 in New York City and minimizes similar occurrences that preceded it at Cooper Do-Nut in Los Angeles in 1959, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, and the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles in 1967 (Figure 2).4 It overshadows the much older, richer, and geographically diverse LGBTQ past that can be documented centuries earlier.
The emphasis on a bar also limits public understanding of the various categories of LGBTQ historic properties—a catchall term for sites, buildings, structures, objects, landscapes, and historic districts. These can be sites that are self-referential, emphasizing LGBTQ history, as well as those sites that illustrate the community’s broad cultural influence and…
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