Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Parks service declares Chicago house newest LGBT national landmark

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

               Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The former home of a prominent gay rights activist in Chicago is now the country’s second LGBT site to be deemed a National Historic Landmark.

The Henry Gerber House in Chicago joins New York City’s famous Stonewall Inn, considered the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement, as a federally recognized historic landmark 15 years after the gay bar received its designation.

Timed to coincide with Pride month, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who signed off on the landmarking, and the National Park Service announced the news this afternoon (Friday, June 19).

“The National Park Service is America’s storyteller, and it is important that we tell a complete story of the people and events responsible for building this great nation,” stated Jewell. “As we honor the pioneering work of Henry Gerber and the pivotal role this home played in expanding and fighting for equality for all Americans, we help ensure that the quest for LGBT civil rights will be told and remembered for generations to come.”

Given city landmark status in 2001 by Chicago officials, the residence is where Gerber lived in the early 1920s when he formed the Society for Human Rights, the first American gay civil rights organization, according to its listing on the Chicago Landmarks website. It is located at 1710 North Crilly Court in the Windy City’s Old Town Triangle neighborhood.

As the Bay Area Reporter noted in a story in January of 2014, the federal landmarks program worked with University of Michigan at Ann Arbor Professor Michelle McClellan and her students on the nomination for Gerber’s house.

Starting in 1924, the house served as the headquarters and meeting place for the Society for Human Rights. The Society’s members held lectures, published a newsletter that was the earliest-documented gay-oriented periodical in the country, and worked to change the minds of legal and political authorities, noted the park service.

The Society’s chartered status and newsletter “were unprecedented” in the history of the gay rights movement in the U.S., according to the park service, and preceded better-known efforts by more than two decades. Although the house was the site of the earliest documented efforts toward LGBT emancipation, added the park service, the social and political climate led to the swift dissolution of the Society in 1925 after police arrested Gerber and several other members.

Although no warrant was produced, Gerber was taken into custody and his belongings confiscated. The organization’s collapse illustrates substantial obstacles in the struggle for civil rights, noted the park service.

“The struggles and achievements of Henry Gerber within the walls of this house resonate in the ongoing LGBT civil rights movement,” stated National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “The desire to share his story is part of the National Park Service’s ongoing commitment, as it approaches its Centennial in 2016, to preserve and tell a more complete, inclusive, and diverse history of our country.”

The Gerber house recognition comes as park service officials seek more LGBT sites to add to the National Register of Historic Places and for consideration to be designated as a National Historic Landmark. There are more than 2,500 noteworthy archaeological and historic properties recognized by the National Historic Landmarks Program.

Work is also underway on a National Historic Landmark LGBTQ Theme Study and proposed framework for the National Park Service, which includes an online map of LGBT historic sites from across the U.S. The document is set to be completed in 2016.

As part of its National Park Service LGBTQ Initiative, the federal agency has asked historians, preservationists, and archivists who specialize in LGBT history to suggest sites that warrant being listed on the national register or designated as historical landmarks.

According to park service officials, just six properties in the country have been granted some form of federal historic preservation recognition specifically due to their relationship to LGBT history. The other four sites are in the National Register of Historic Places, described by the park service as “the nation’s inventory of properties deemed central to its history and worthy of recognition and preservation.”

The quartet comprises the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence in Washington, D.C. (listed 2011); the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut (listed 2013); and Fire Island properties the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater (listed 2013) and the Carrington House (listed 2014).

Kameny in 1957 was fired from his federal government job for refusing to answer questions about his sexual orientation. Considered “the father of gay activism,” he died in 2011 at the age of 86.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Ingram Merrill, a celebrated American poet who died in 1995 at the age of 68, and his partner, David Noyes Jackson, who died in 2001 at the age of 76, bought their Stonington home in 1956. Merrill wrote almost all of his important works, including 25 volumes of poetry, three plays and two books, while residing in the house.

The Carrington House is considered “an important link” in Fire Island’s development as a gay resort area on the East Coast. The Cherry Grove property opened in 1948 and is considered the country’s “longest continuously operating gay and lesbian theater.”

— Matthew S. Bajko, June 19, 2015 @ 1:36 pm PST
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