The 19th-century building that's home to New York's LGBT Center was once a school
With Pride Month in full swing, we’re looking back at the history of the building that houses the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, often just referred to as the Center. For more than 30 years, this organization has served New York’s LGBT community through health and wellness programs; arts and cultural events; and recovery, wellness, parenthood, and family support services.
Prior to being home to The Center, the building already had a long history of serving its community. It originated as School No. 16 in the Ninth Ward, and would later become known as Public School No. 16. Its construction date is a bit contested; although most researchers contend that this building predates the Civil War. The trusty AIA Guide to New York City suggests that the center portion was constructed in 1844, possibly by Thomas R. Jackson, the head draftsman in the office of Richard Upjohn, one of New York’s most prolific designers. Jackson also designed Grammar School No. 47 (an exclusively all-girls school) for the NYC Board of Education in 1855 in the Anglo-Italianate style. This building shares a likeness with Public School No. 16 so it is plausible that he was the designer of record for the building.
Designed in the Italianate style that was prevalent in New York City from the 1840’s through the 1870’s, this brick building featured a "rusticated stone first floor with round-arched windows and the two symmetrically placed end bays projecting slightly forward and crowned with low-angle pediments" and "connected by a handsome modillioned cornice which runs the length of the building." The building would expand throughout the next few decades, and by 1899 has increased its footprint to include a lot to the immediate west. This latest expansion was most likely completed under the direction of Charles B.J. Snyder, the architect and engineer who was widely recognized for his well-designed and aesthetically pleasing school buildings built between 1891 and 1923.
Yet within a few decades, this handsome and utilitarian building would fall into massive disrepair. As David Dunlap wrote in the New York Times, by 1921 Public School No. 16 was named to a "worst" list which described the building as having "plumbing wet and foul," "rooms small, dirty and dingy," and a "need for ventilation top to bottom." To really drive the point home, the committee responsible for this report added that "sending young children to the schools on its list was tantamount to criminal negligence."
Within three years, the school ceased to exist as Public School No. 16 and became a vocational institution called the West Side Vocational High School. Another transition would occur in 1938 when the school became the Food Trades Vocational High School, "housing a model butcher shop, bakery, cafeteria and grocery store where 300 students learned to be butchers, bakers, cafeteria workers, tea room hostesses and store clerks." In the early 1960s, the school was yet again renamed the Food and Maritime Trades High School, which accommodated 800 students, offering practical courses for the teens in the area entering the food and maritime service industries. This school would last for almost twenty years, until it was announced that the school would be consumed by another vocational school uptown.
Per Dunlap’s article, in 1980, the city announced it would lease the building to the non-profit organization Caring Community, which sublet space to groups such as SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) and the Metropolitan Community Church—groups that would soon comprise the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. In 1983, when Caring Community defaulted on its lease, "leaders of gay organizations and AIDS advocacy groups saw an opportunity to put a roof over their heads." The building was auctioned off and by December 1983, the sale was complete (at a cost of $1.5 million), and the LGBT Center was born.
Within its first year, 60 groups met frequently at the Center; today, more than 300 call it home. This expansive building offered its constituents available meeting space, which was a major organizing tool for the LGBT movement during the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, national groups such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers and Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) had their early beginnings at the Center.
And in the wake of the recent attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, it becomes even more apparent that a center such as this serves as a beacon of hope and solidarity for the community. Through the Center’s mental health programs, it’s offering counseling and support to those who need it after the devastating attack.
This vital benchmark and pillar of the community came into existence during a time of crisis, and more than 30 years later, the Center has endured as a cultural landmark and invaluable community asset. The Center’s mission of empowerment, strong community building, celebrating diversity, and advocating for justice and opportunity resonates now more than ever. Not only is it an important structure in terms of NYC architecture and preservation, but it also serves a vital purpose.