A New York City preservation organization is seeking landmark designations for a handful of civil rights and women’s suffrage sites downtown. With targets that include the original headquarters of the NAACP, the New York City Woman Suffrage League, and the organization that would go on to become the National LGBTQ Task Force, Village Preservation – Greenwich Village’s historic preservation society – is leading a campaign to recognize and protect key sites in all three movements’ histories.
“The work done by the NAACP, the National Gay Task Force, and the New York Woman Suffrage League in their early years here blazed trails and changed lives for generations that followed,” Village Preservation executive director Andrew Berman tells Lonely Planet. “And it’s no coincidence that they were all located here, within footsteps of one another. This area was an unrivaled nexus of political organizing and social and cultural innovation, and deserves to be recognized and preserved by the city of New York.”
At 17 East 13th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place, there's an unassuming brick building constructed in 1911 to accommodate a printing press – as you can see from the fading signage on the facade. The structure would continue in that tradition in the 1940s, when the groundbreaking feminist/LGBT writer Anaïs Nin chose the two-story structure as the ideal location for her personal printing press.
Music history was made within the walls of 55 Fifth Avenue, a 1912 neo-Renaissance–style office building on the corner of 12th Street. As the 1920s and ‘30s home of Columbia Phonograph Recording studios, this is where producer and civil rights activist John Hammond got the first integrated musical performances down on vinyl, and where jazz great Billie Holiday made her first records. Later, the queer African American blues singer Bessie Smith would record there, and the company that published the feminist classic The Feminine Mystique – W.W. Norton & Co. – would move in.
The 1912 Beaux Arts–style office building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street was home to the NAACP for more than 10 years, from 1914, shortly after its founding, until about 1925. It’s where the organization began its anti-lynching campaigns as well as campaigns against discrimination and segregation; it’s also where the W.E.B. DeBois-edited Crisis magazine got its start, giving Black writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston an early platform for their work, among other things.
Just up the block, the 1908 Renaissance Revival–style building at 80 Fifth Avenue was the original headquarters of the first and oldest national LGBTQ rights group in the country – the National Gay Task Force – from its inception in 1973 until 1985. According to a Village Preservation press release, “There it won groundbreaking campaigns to end the prohibition on the employment of gay and lesbian people in the federal government, got homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses, got the first meeting ever between the White House and a gay and lesbian group, and got legislation introduced extending civil rights and hate crimes protections to gay and lesbian people and ending the ban on their serving in the military – measures which in many cases have only been enacted in recent years or even weeks.”
The 1884 cast-iron building at 10 East 14th Street now houses a bank, an interior designer’s office, and condominiums, but it was once the headquarters of the New York City Woman Suffrage League. A leader in the fight for the amendment to the state constitution that would grant women the right to vote, the League played host to rallies featuring suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and labor leaders like Samuel Gompers.
“These buildings encapsulate well over a century of struggle for civil rights and equality for African Americans, women, and LGBTQ people. Amazingly, many of the battles first waged here are still being fought today or only just now reaching success,” Berman says. “With the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, and the recent Supreme Court decision finally extending civil rights protections to LGBTQ people nationally, now more than ever we should be remembering, honoring and protecting this history.” For more information, visit villagepreservation.org.