Earlier today, around 40 gay activists and onlookers including State Senator Tom Duanes and City Councilmember Danny Dromm gathered in SoHo today in front of 186 Spring Street, the site of a nearly 200-year-old house that they argued played a major role in gay rights and AIDS activists history in the 1970s. The activists accused Canadian developer Stephane Boivin of buying the house, originally erected in 1824, from Beastie Boy member Adam Horovitz while making public promises that Boivin would preserve the house. Instead, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) discovered that the developer reneged on his promise and filed plans with the city to demolish the historic site in order to build new condominiums. (Boivin has not responded to the coalition calling for 186 Spring’s preservation, and one was unavailable for comment with the Village Voice.)
GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman was the first to speak. He cited the “incredible history and relationship to early gay rights” 186 Spring has and accused New York City of “refusing to recognize how important this site is.” He called the house a “gay commune” where, in a much more difficult time for the LGBT community, homosexuals were free to come and go and always had a place to stay. Its two most famous residents were Jim Owles, the first openly gay candidate for public office in the city who also lobbied for anti-discrimination laws and founded the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, and Dr. Bruce Voeller, who got homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorder and made the federal government lift its ban on employing LGBT workers.
“The building can still be saved, ” Senator Duane said. “Based on its architecture alone, it deserves to be saved.”
Unfortunately, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission feels otherwise. In a letter to Berman, the Commission Chair, Robert Tierney, said that it was “initially determined that the building at 186 Spring Street did not rise to the level of an individual landmark due to extensive alterations.”
And therein lies the problem. The LPC has already examined the building according to the GVSHP’s claim that its architectural merit alone was worth saving. But 186 Spring, over 200 years old, has been altered from its original form, and its historic value as a brick and mortar structure alone isn’t enough to halt the demolition. Still, it’s alarming that the LPC has yet to mark a single LGBT haven fit for preservation, including Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots (The Stonewall Inn has been recognized federally as a National Historic Landmark).
Duane also appealed to the historical importance of the building, saying, “Maybe the generation from now isn’t going to get it, but the generation after is going to want this building.”
Councilmember Dromm agreed. “LGBT youth, they don’t have any sense of LGBT history.” A teacher of 25 years, Dromm called for a LGBT history curriculum in New York City schools before adding, ” The people who lived here made major, groundbreaking, history-making contributions” to the 1970s gay movement. They didn’t fight solely for gay rights, but against AIDS, which in the 1980s was referred to as “Gay Related Immune Defense Disorder.” It’s the disease that took resident Jim Owles’ life in 1993. He died in the arms of his lover, Allen Roskoff, who took the mantle as president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and was undoubtedly the fieriest speaker today at the presser.
“This is a unique, incredible place, where people’s lives were saved,” Roskoff said. He lived there for a time with Owles. “Think about the amount of gay youth who would’ve committed suicide, who would’ve stayed in the closet!”
The speakers together made a rousing argument for the integrity and historical importance of 186 Spring, accurately equating its importance to that of a national black or women’s landmark. Still, it felt conference was too little, too late. Even though, according to Berman, Stephane Boivin plans to demolish the building in September, there’s technically nothing stopping him from tearing it down tomorrow.
“This is where we fought!” Roskoff said. “This house cannot be replaced.”