Julius’ Bar, an LGBT Landmark
On December 5, 2012, GVSHP asked the New York State Office of Historic Preservation to find Julius’ Bar (a Village Award winner) eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places based upon research and documentation we provided (click HERE to see the letter), citing its critically important place not just in New York City history, but also LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trangender) history nationwide. Less than two weeks later, the State did in fact determine Julius’ eligible for State and National Register listing. This made it one of the first sites in the country to achieve this status based upon LGBT history (the first was the Stonewall Inn, which GVSHP co-nominated in 1999). And yet in spite of the recognition of this site’s place in LGBT history, it still lacks New York City landmarks protections as an LGBT site.
As background, Julius’ is located at 159 East 10th Street (aka 188 Waverly Place), in a row house built in 1826. Originally the first floor was home to a dry goods store. But by 1864 it housed a bar, and it has done so to this day, making it one of the oldest continuously operating bars in New York City. By the 1950s, the bar had begun to attract gay customers (also making it the oldest gay bar in New York City), even though State Liquor Authority (SLA) rules at the time prohibited bars from serving gay people. Many bar owners went so far as to post signs that read, “If you are gay, please go away.” The owner of Julius’ was no different, despite the growing gay clientele at the bar.
On April 21, 1966, three gay men from the New York City Mattachine Society organized a “Sip-In” (a variation on the ubiquitous “sit-ins” which took place across the country to fight for African-American civil rights), in which they visited four bars to challenge the SLA discriminatory regulations. Formed in 1950, the Mattachine Society was one of the earliest organizations in American dedicated to promoting gay rights.
Their last stop after visiting several others bars was Julius,’ where the bartender refused to serve them after learning they were homosexual. The event marked a critical moment in LGBT history, pre-dating the Stonewall riots at the nearby Stonewall Inn in 1969. Dick Leitsch, then chairman of the Mattachine Society and one of the “Sip-In” participants, noted in a 2008 interview, “the importance of this [event], I think, was that until this time gay people had never really fought back. We just sort of take in everything passively didn’t do anything about it. And this time we did it, and we won.” They chose Julius’ because it had been raided days before and was under observation. Leitsch described the events of the day:
“…when we walked in, the bartender put glasses in front of us, and we told him that we were gay and we intended to remain orderly, we just wanted service. And he said, hey, you’re gay, I can’t serve you, and he put his hands over the top of the glass, which made wonderful photographs. The whole thing ended up in court, and the court decided, well, yes, the Constitution says that people have the right to peacefully assemble and the state can’t take that right away from you. And so the Liquor Authority can’t prevent gay people from congregating in bars.” –Remembering a 1966 ‘Sip-In’ for Gay Rights, Scott Simon, NPR interview, June 28, 2008.
Above is the iconic picture that was taken by Fred MacDarrah of the Julius’ bartender putting his hand over the glass and refusing the sip-in participants service. If you would like to order this picture or others by Fred McDarrah, click HERE.
The next day The New York Times covered the incident; the headline of the article referred to the three participants as “sexual deviates,” illustrating the widespread perception of homosexuality at that time. However, as Leitsch states above, the event marked a rare yet monumental moment when the gay community chose to speak out against the discrimination they had faced for generations. After they were refused service, the three men filed a complaint with the city’s Commission on Human Rights. This led to a 1967 state court ruling that declared the SLA needed “substantial evidence” of indecent behavior to close a bar and not just same-sex kissing or touching. The decision was a landmark case that reversed years of discrimination and became a key catalyst in the eventual gay rights movement beginning in 1969.
Building on GVSHP’s securing of the determination of eligibility, on the 50th anniversary of the Sip-In in 2016, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites project successfully nominated Julius’ for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. While being on the State and National Registers is an important honor, it does not in most cases protect a site from alteration or even demolition. And while the building housing Julius’ is located within the Greenwich Village Historic District and therefore enjoys some measure of NYC Landmarks protections, the designation report makes no note of its significance to cultural, LGBT, or civil rights history, and thus could be unsympathetically altered or demolished if its architectural or other features alone were not deemed worthy of preservation. GVSHP has fought for the designation of Julius’ as an individual New York City landmark along with other significant LGBT sites, such as the LGBT Community Services Center and the former Gay Activitsts Alliance (GAA) Firehouse. In 2019, after a five-year campaign led by Village Preservation, the LGBT Community Services Center and the GAA Firehouse were both landmarked, though the Landmarks Preservation Commission has thus far refused to take similar actions with Julius.’
To learn more on our fight to designate LGBT sites, click HERE.