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A Proud History

The Re-Opening of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center

September 2001

Article: A Proud History: The Re-Opening of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center
Photo: Cosette Simon

On July 12, the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New York joyously re-opened the doors to its original location after nearly three years of renovation. The event was celebrated with a ribbon cutting ceremony and an open house. Needless to say, the project had its bumpy periods; it's difficult enough to get a contractor to renovate a kitchen in New York, much less re-do an entire building, and keep to schedule. But thanks to the efforts of the project management team, the task was recently brought to successful completion.

The buildings on West 13th Street that house the newly renovated (and more inclusively re-named) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Services Center have a marvelous history. The central building was erected in 1844, and it remained unchanged until the 1870s. Initially it was owned by a private school society, a few years before the New York City Board of Education, created in the later 1840s, existed. It was built on three lots, leaving plenty of room for expansion. In the 1850s, the new Board of Education took over the building and constructed the façade as it exists today, building outwards to the street from the original set-back position. In the 1870s, the east and west wings were built on either side of the structure.

In the 1890s, the Board bought two more adjacent lots and built a playshed for the younger students. Things remained much the same until the 1930s, when the last major renovation came in the way of a Work Projects Administration (WPA) effort: outhouses were removed from the yard and indoor bathrooms were installed.

Shortly thereafter, the building was converted into the Food and Maritime Trades High School. It was linked to a teaching ship at the foot of Christopher Street; classes and "hands-on" sessions were held at both locations. Additional power was added to the building, along with stoves; huge baking ovens were installed in the former playshed. Also, a large butcher shop was built, separate but adjacent to the existing buildings.

In the 1970s, with the many changes that society had undergone, there was little need for Food and Maritime education; the building ceased to function as a school. It was leased to an organization named Caring Community that sponsored social assistance programs such as Meals on Wheels. Caring Community began subleasing parts of the space to the gay and lesbian oriented Metropolitan Community Church, Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), The Media Network, Friends of the Earth, and Partnership for the Homeless. Early in 1983, due to a fiscal crisis, the City declared the building excess, and announced plans to sell it at auction. All the resident groups wanted to remain in the space. At the very same time, the lease of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) was expiring at its location, as was that of the St. Mark's Clinic. These two groups merged and moved into the Center.

Hard workers
Photo: Robert Woodworth

A Community Center Is Born

The resident groups began to outreach to other interested organizations. AIDS awareness was becoming a primary issue at the time, and GMHC was interested in the building, also. After much strategic debate, the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, Inc. (LGCSC), was incorporated in July of 1983, created to provide a sole entity to purchase the building. The new organization was a compendium of all the existing groups in the building. There had long been an outcry, since right after the Stonewall actions in 1969, for a community center; it now seemed as if the dream could materialize.

Extensive meetings and lobbying transpired, and the New York City Board of Estimate, then responsible for real-estate sales, was convinced not to auction the building. The Board set the price at $1.5 million, and required a 10 percent down payment to effect the sale to the LGCSC. The required $150,000 was raised via a rapid fundraising drive, canvassing individuals for personal loans of $1,000, to be paid back in one year with no interest. Amazingly, the money was raised and the LGCSC went into contract with the City. Closing occurred in December of 1984; the City did and still does hold the mortgage. An architectural firm was chosen for renovations, Francoise Bollack Architects; this same firm has done all designs and renovations since, including the current, all-encompassing building renovation.

An Expanded Building for Expanded Needs

The original plans for the current renovation project began in 1994; the permanent staff at the LGCSC has doubled since then, however. By the time the project began, current needs for equipping the significantly larger staff with workspace, as well as providing ample public space for groups and programs, were much greater than projected. Plans were fluid and kept changing to meet the expanding needs while the funds were being raised. In the midst of it all, an unusual opportunity presented itself: a house across the street from the Center came up for sale, at 221 West 13th Street. The LGCSC bought the house, and that acquisition has created even more space.

Another coup for the LGCSC: The Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) agreed to pay for renovation of all mental health and social service spaces in the new Center, including the youth program. These programs will be housed in the long, low building that emanates from the former playshed, to the right of the main building. Renovation of that space will begin now that the main building is completed. Thanks to the OASAS grant, funding is not an issue.

The overall scope of the project has doubled due to the success of the capital campaign. In 1992, $3 million was raised to get the ball rolling. The first project was to get a certificate of occupancy; as a school, and a very old one at that, specs on the building had never been necessary. Now, to be used in a different function, the building needed to have its specs first defined, documented, and then brought to standard, to receive a legitimate Certificate of Occupancy. Once this was completed, the estimate for all the work was raised to $5 million. Thus, components needed to be removed from the overall project, such as air-conditioning and new hot-water heating. In June of 1995, however, when the capital campaign for the major renovation kicked off, more money was raised then expected, and "add backs" started replacing "take outs." Air conditioning and new hot-water heating were back! In December of 1998 the demolition began.

The renovated LGCSC lobby
Photo: R.L. Davis

New Features: Lobby, Café and More

A major design issue in this renovation concerned the lobby, which was always too crowded; behind it was an assembly hall, which people had to mill through in order to get to many other locations. To resolve this, the old stairwell at the central entrance has been removed, and a new one, topped by a skylight, has been installed at the back of the lobby, behind the new reception area. There is now plenty of light, open space in the lobby.

Also in the new Center, there is a large café on the second floor, open to the public and equipped with Internet access. Robert Woodworth, coordinator of the renovation project for the LGCSC, told of how the need for a public space, a "hang out" space if you will, was discovered. Such a space, though small, existed in the lobby of the pre-renovated building, but in the temporary quarters on Little West 12th Street, there was none. Many complaints were received, and ultimately additional space was rented in the Little West 12th building to meet this need. Once the importance of public space was determined, it was worked into the new plans.

After all the delays, changes, unexpected crises and expanded needs, the beautiful new Center opened in July 2001 (the originally anticipated completion date had been January 2000). But the learning process that ensued during that extra time helped ensure that the Center will be meeting its clients needs in a truly effective fashion.

Initially, the number of programs won't increase but the quality of delivery decidedly will. Also, and very important: people who are disabled and couldn't previously get to events on upper floors will now be able to do so. Elevators, handicapped ramps and a motorized chairlift have all been installed.

A program that HIV-positive persons use frequently is the Center Mediation Services/Project Resolve. This team attempts to resolve conflicts, such as landlord-tenant and other similar disputes, via mediation and without going to court. The obvious benefit of this is the money saved on legal fees; a by-product is significant stress reduction.

All of the Center's other Mental Health and Social Services programs -- Project Connect (substance abuse), CenterBridge (bereavement), Gender Identity Project, Youth Enrichment Services -- provide HIV/AIDS intervention and prevention services. The Information and Referral staff produces a comprehensive HIV/AIDS Referral Directory. In addition to Body Positive, groups that use the Center and specifically address HIV/AIDS include ACT UP, Healing Singing, Health-Education-AIDS Liaison (HEAL), and the HIV-positive meeting of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. Other groups offer programming and/or services related to HIV/AIDS although they are not organized solely for that purpose. Among them are Gay Men of African Descent, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, the Imperial Court of New York, Gay Circles, and Bisexual Gay Lesbian Transgender Youth of NY (BiGLTYNY). And, for amusement and learning, the Center has an extensive library with gay and lesbian literature, non-fiction and periodicals.

For information on any of the programs available at the Center, you can call 212-620-7310. But it's a better idea to go in person, if possible, and see the beautifully wrought space that has been created, and is now available, for all of us to use.

Ronald C. Russo is a freelance writer living in New York City and a frequent contributor to Body Positive.

Back to the September 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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