May 23, 2022

After the Theme Study: Preserving LGBTQ Historic Spaces

This Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is celebrating People Saving Places, a national high-five to everyone doing the great work of preserving historic places—in ways big and small—and inspiring others to do the same. Throughout the month we are featuring various organizations and individuals who have been tirelessly doing the work of preservation, particularly in the last two and a half years. We wanted to provide space, a victory lap so to speak, for them to share their successes, challenges, and hopes for the future.

The proliferation of efforts to identify, document and preserve historic places associated with the LGBTQ community has been amazing to witness, particularly in the last few years. The history of the LGBTQ community is rich, varied, and deep, and the related historic places are as well. Not only are historians and preservation professionals presenting amazing scholarship to showcase that history, but they also are working hard to list historic places on landmark registers at local, statewide, and national levels.

It was 1999, when the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and the site of multi-day riots in 1969 that mark the most recent iteration of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (National Register). That was the first listing on the National Register of an historic site that was known specifically for its LGBTQ history. It was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 2000, and was designated a National Historic Monument in 2016; these also were first listings for an historic site known specifically for its LGBTQ history.

Stonewall Inn exterior

photo by: juan carlos peaguda/Flickr/CC-BY-NC ND 2.0

Exterior of the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Of course, there has been an abundance of scholarship on LGBTQ history that has provided those documenting related historic places with a wealth of knowledge. Unfortunately, one of the key challenges that continue to threaten those historic places is the fact that many LGBTQ historic places are located in communities that often experience revitalization.

Historically, those historic places have been allowed to exist in communities that often have been neglected, forgotten, or not considered “desirable.” And, as we know within historic preservation, neighborhood change can visit cities and towns, and that change often comes for those more marginalized communities. There has been a great deal of loss among LGBTQ historic places, and the scholarship that we have often showcases what once was. Yet, one of the best aspects of the scholarship that has been produced is that places that have not been lost will have chances at survival, and possible preservation/adaptive re-use.

The LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study

In an effort to bolster the existing scholarship that had been produced, the National Park Service embarked on an effort to create a document that focused specifically on how the agency could address the lack of LGBTQ listings on its two primary designation lists, and among its historic site and park units. Interestingly, the 2016 designation of Stonewall as a National Historic Monument coincided with the publication of the National Park Service’s LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study. This document is the most comprehensive examination of LGBTQ history and heritage from the federal government.

The theme study was born of a recommendation from the NPS Civil Rights Framework, a study that identified Civil Rights Era historic sites, that was completed in 2002. In 2014, the Gill Foundation, known for its philanthropic giving in furtherance of causes related to the LGBTQ community, awarded a grant to the National Park Foundation to fund the program that would culminate in the Theme Study.

The Theme Study itself is an exhaustive examination of LGBTQ history and culture in almost all of the community’s permutations. With scholarly essays highlighting various racial and ethnic groups, activities, vocations and general historical narratives, the Theme Study provides preservation professionals with roadmaps to historic places across the country.

Furthermore, there were examples within the Theme Study highlighting historic places that already may have been designated that had previously hidden or unacknowledged LGBTQ histories, and how that information could be included into existing historical narratives of those designated sites.

The Theme Study also helped to bolster the important existing scholarship on LGBTQ history that preceded it.

Cover of the theme study for the NPS LGBTQ Study

photo by: National Park Service

Cover of the NPS LGBTQ Theme Study.

Forward Momentum

In the wake of the publication of the LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study, there has been a flurry of activity advancing preservation efforts of associated historic places. A number of historic context studies have been completed at the state level (Maryland, Kentucky, and Washington for example), and at the local level (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Washington, DC and New York City, for example).

The cities of Raleigh and Atlanta also have commissioned historic context studies. A variety of communities also have been conducting research to document their LGBTQ history, with the goal of identifying sites that could be considered for designations. It’s great (and needed) to see smaller cities, and regions and cities away from the coasts embrace their LGBTQ histories, and seek to share those stories, and potentially preserve those historic places; those preservation efforts are needed, because there are (and have been) LGBTQ individuals in virtually every community, and contributing to the histories of those communities.

I am confident that there will be continued growth in the number of designated historic places associated with the LGBTQ community in the years to come. The momentum is there.

Image of a building storefront with a neo sign that says comedy and then Darcelle XVI marquee.

photo by: Dan Dickinson via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Exterior of Darcelle XV in Portland, Oregon.

To show the impact of this I am highlighting four historic sites that have been added to the National Register since the publication of the Theme Study, and that represent the diversity that exists within the LGBTQ community overall:

Darcelle XV, Portland, Oregon (Listed 2021): The eponymously named drag club is one of oldest continuously running clubs with the owner (Walter Cole/Darcelle) still performing. The club opened in 1967.

Lorraine Hansberry Residence, New York City (Listed 2021): Hansberry, a playwright and activist wrote the play “A Raisin in the Sun” while she lived in this residence. She also was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, working with a coalition of African American artists to advance that cause.

The Slowe-Burrill House, Washington, D.C. (Listed 2020): Lucy Diggs Slowe was the Dean of Women at Howard University, and a leader in the education of African American women in the early 20th century, and Mary Burrill was a teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, one of the best high schools in the nation during its time.

A view of a blue house with a covered patio.

photo by: Farragutful via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Exterior of the Slowe-Burrill House in Washington, DC.

First Unitary Society of Denver, Denver, Colorado (Listed 2017): The church was the site of the first same sex wedding ceremony in Colorado in 1975. It also was the home, briefly, of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies (a denomination that is affirming of the LGBTQ community).

The designation of each of these places did not occur without the determination and advocacy of preservationists across the country. In addition to traditional preservation organizations at the state and local level, there are groups specifically dedicated to the protection of sites related to places connected to LGBTQ Heritage—like the NYC LGBTQ Historic Sites Project, Rainbow Heritage Network, GLBT Historical Society—and it is largely due to their efforts that strides are being made to ensure that LGBTQ history is at the forefront of preservation practice in the years to come.

Jeffrey A. "Free" Harris is an historic preservation consultant and board chair of the Rainbow Heritage Network based in Hampton, Virginia.

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By: Jeffrey A. “Free” Harris

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