Where Once There Was History, A Hole in the Ground

Working in historic preservation, you know that you win some and you lose some.  The forces of real estate in New York are quite powerful, and as passionately as New Yorkers feel about the character and spirit of their city and their neighborhoods, there’s no denying the big money interests are going to win some of these battles.  You just have to dust yourself off and move on the next fight.

But some losses really stick in your craw — sometimes because what was lost was so extraordinary; sometimes because the loss was so unnecessary; and sometimes because the City’s failure to act to landmark and protect the site in question was so frustrating, and so specious in its rationale.

And sometimes, it’s for all of these reasons, AND because a great piece of history has been replaced by nothing more than a hole in the ground.

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Where more than a hundred years of history once stood…

That’s the current situation with three beloved sites with very special and unique histories, which GVSHP (and many others) fought very hard to try to get the City to save through landmark designation.  But in each case the City refused, and now each is just a rubble-strewn void where a great piece of our city and our neighborhood’s history once stood.

They are:

The former Mary Help of Christians Church, School, and Rectory, East 12th and 11th Streets, west of Avenue A, in the East Village.  GVSHP and our allies fought hard to save this beautiful edifice with a rich connection to the Italian-American immigrant experience on the Lower East Side.

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Going, going gone…Mary Help of Christians Church and rectory before and during demolition.

The church was completed in 1917 and its design based upon the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin, Italy; the school was built in 1925, while the rectory appeared to date to the 1850’s.  Allen Ginsberg lived across the street from the church for many years and immortalized it in his writings.  The property, sold by the Archdiocese of New York, included a large open yard which would have allowed substantial development without having to demolish the church.  However, neither that argument, nor the finding by GVSHP that the church (though not the yard) was built on the site of a former catholic cemetery, and that in all likelihood many of those bodies had never been removed from the site, nor vociferous protests, convinced the developer to save the historic structure nor the City to landmark it.  It was demolished in 2013, and sadly, has remained nothing more than a huge hole in the ground ever since.  The developer plans to build apartments and retail space on the site, though for reasons that are unclear, the site has lain fallow. You can read GVSHP’s landmarking nomination for the site here, with a complete history of the site and historic photos.

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The vast site between East 12th and 11th Streets, west of Avenue A, where the church, school, and rectory once stood, as well a large yard which could have allowed for substantial development while preserving the historic buildings.  The tenement in which Allen Ginsberg lived and wrote about Mary Help of Christians can be seen in the back left.

The Ezra Weeks-Daniel Ludlow House at 54 MacDougal Street in the South Village.  This federal house located at the head of King Street was long a visual gateway to the South Village, but it was special for so many other reasons as well.

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54 MacDougal Street, pre-demolition.

The house, built in 1820, was not only connected to some of the most important figures in American history, but to the first (and one of the most notorious) recorded murder trial in the United States, as well as to some great late 20th century pop cultural history.  The house was built upon land owned by Aaron Burr, and had remarkable connections to both Burr, the 3rd Vice-President of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father, first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Chief of Staff to General George Washington whom Burr killed in a duel in 1804.  In 1997, it was featured in the movie ‘Men in Black’ as the home of Rosenberg’s Fine Jewelry; while the venerable home may have survived space alien attacks on the big screen, it was not able to survive the onslaught of development pressure which washed over the South Village in conjunction with the rezoning of the adjacent Hudson Square district to allow high-rise residential development.  In spite of voluminous evidence GVSHP provided of the historic significance of the house, the City refused to landmark it or the surrounding section of the South Village south of Houston Street.  GVSHP is still pushing to get this final section of the South Village landmarked, and is hopeful that the new administration and new Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair will reconsider their predecessor’s decision.  Though the house was demolished in early 2013, it has remained nothing more than a hole in the ground since, with development plans for the site unclear.  More details on the building’s history and images can be found in GVSHP’s landmark nomination for the house here.

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The site of 54 MacDougal Street today.

186 Spring Street, between Thompson and Sullivan Streets, in the South Village.  Like the nearby 54 MacDougal Street, 186 Spring Street had some interesting recent pop cultural history — for many years until it was sold in 2012, it was owned by and served as the home of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, son of playwright Israel Horovitz.

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186 Spring Street.  The City issued demolition permits to a developer who did not own rights to the house the same day the federal government declared the house eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The house dates to 1824, which made it one of the oldest surviving structures in Lower Manhattan, but it was the history connected to the house in the 1970’s and early 1980’s which made it so extraordinary.  Shortly after the June 1969 Stonewall Riots, the house became a commune of sorts for gay activists, mostly those connected to the Gay Activists Alliance, whose headquarters was a few block away at a former firehouse at 99 Wooster Street.  Three particularly prominent activist lived here: Jim Owles, Arnie Kantrowitz, and Dr. Bruce Voeller.  The three were key players in having the very first “gay rights” or anti-discrimination bill in the nation drafted and introduced in New York City and in Albany; since that time, such legislation has become the law of the land in twenty-one states and the District of Columbia, as well as hundreds of municipalities and cities across the country, and is the basis for federal legislation which has been passed by the U.S. Senate but not the House of Representatives.  Voeller also played a key role in having the very first federal gay rights bill introduced, in getting the federal government to drop its ban on employing gay people, arranged the first meeting of gay leaders with the White House, won a groundbreaking Supreme Court case establishing the rights of gay parents, helped get the American Psychiatric Association to drop its categorization of homosexuality as a “mental illness,” co-founded the National Gay Task Force (now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), the first national gay rights organization, conducted the first tests showing that condom usage could stop the spread of HIV, and introduced the term “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” or AIDS, to replace the inaccurate and stigmatizing term “Gay Related Immune Deficiency Disorder,” or GRIDD, which was then commonly used.  Owles was the first openly gay candidate for public office in New York, and was a co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, of GLAAD, now one of the largest LGBT organizations in the country.

On this basis, at GVSHP’s request, the house was found eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places, one of only a handful of such sites across the country so deemed based upon their connection to LGBT history.  However, the same day that the federal government issued this determination, the City issued demolition permits for the building to a developer, thus placing finality on its refusal to consider the house for lanmdmark designation, as repeatedly requested by GVSHP.

Because it turned out the developer did not have full legal possession of the house (the house apparently had been used as collateral for a bank loan), work on a planned new development at the site could not proceed after the rush to demolish, and the site has been tied up in a legal battle between the developer and the bank.  For the past two years, it has sat empty and barren, with nearly all traces of the house which stood here for nearly 200 years, and its incredible history, gone.  More information on the house can be found in our letters to the Landmarks Preservation Commission here and here; the press release, photos, and video of a demonstration and press conference by GVSHP and leading LGBT rights activists to save the house can be found here.

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186 Spring Street today.

If you would like to help push for the landmark designation of the remaining section of GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District, which includes the sites where 186 Spring Street and 54 MacDougal Street stood, as well as the surrounding blocks, please just click here.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.