Often overshadowed by other cities with prominent LGBTQ histories, most notably New York City and the Stonewall Inn National Monument (designated on June 24, 2016), Los Angeles is making strides in recognizing and preserving its own rich LGBTQ heritage.
In 2014, the City of Los Angeles completed its LGBT Historic Context Statement as part of its ongoing SurveyLA initiative. Buildings and historic places such as The Black Cat and the Margaret and Harry Hay Residence have been successfully designated as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments (HCMs) for their associations with important LGBTQ events and people in the past.
Despite growing awareness of these places and stories a number of buildings with significant historical ties to LGBTQ communities are currently at risk or have already been lost.
In 2011, the preservation community and Silver Lake residents were shocked to discover that the building housing the former gay bookstore, A Different Light, was demolished without warning, despite ongoing efforts to designate it as a local landmark.
Many other significant community anchors have been lost before their stories could be fully understood and brought to light. The demolition of Cooper's Donuts, a popular coffee shop in Downtown L.A. within the transgender community, has contributed to the overshadowing of its history. In May 1959, the business was the site of a significant clash between law enforcement and trans men and women, who resisted police harassment and arrest at a time when large numbers of people were imprisoned for "masquerading." The subsequent uprising predated better-known struggles at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, The Black Cat, and the Stonewall Inn in New York.
Preservation within a community as diverse and broad as this one poses a number of challenging questions.
How old does something need to be in order to qualify as historically significant, and who decides?
How do we tell stories through places that may evoke painful memories or not be fully understood?
And how do we ensure that all voices and stories are heard, even when they may be at odds with one another?
Increasingly, the Conservancy has been involved in advocating for places with LGBTQ heritage.
Since 2010, the City of West Hollywood has proposed redesigning and renovating Plummer Park, including demolishing its Great Hall/Long Hall. From 1987 to 1996, the Los Angeles chapter of the international advocacy group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) met weekly in the New Deal-era building. The property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (you can read the nomination here).
Significant Nightclubs at Risk
Also in West Hollywood, Faring Capital, the owner of The Factory, proposed demolishing the industrial building for a new hotel and retail project in 2014. The Factory has a rich history, serving originally as the Mitchell Camera production facility and, from 1975 to 1988, as the site of the iconic gay discotheque Studio One.
This threat landed The Factory on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2015 list of America’s Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places, in large part due to its LGBTQ history. The West Hollywood Heritage Project is one of the main groups advocating for its preservation.
Hollywood’s Circus Disco, established in 1975 as a haven for gay Latinas/os, was demolished in 2016 as part of a major redevelopment underway at Santa Monica Boulevard and Las Palmas Avenue. The club provided its patrons with a strong support system and served as a meeting place for political and social organizing.
The owner of Jewel’s Catch One in Los Angeles’ Mid-City, regarded as the first large scale nightclub to cater to black members of the LGBTQ community, closed the club in July 2015 and announced plans to sell the building. A new owner purchased the building in November 2015 and the club reopened in January 2016.
Taken together, these three nightclubs tell a critical story about race, gender, class, and sexuality in Los Angeles. Establishments such as Catch One and Circus Disco initially opened their doors in response to rampant discrimination experienced by lesbians and LGBTQ people of color at well-known institutions like Studio One.
These places were more than just bars; they served as vital community centers.
Circus Disco brought activists from broader civil and labor rights movements together with advocates in various LGBTQ communities. The owner of Catch One also opened a neighboring residential HIV/AIDS center for homeless women and children living with the disease. Studio One, despite its exclusionary door policies, played an important role in fundraising for HIV/AIDS research and treatment.
Because none of these three properties has been landmarked, they all lack formal protection from demolition or inappropriate alteration, making proactive efforts to preserve the tangible links to this history all the more critical.
As with many places that have cultural significance, as opposed to architectural, historic LGBTQ sites may be vulnerable to demolition or excessive alteration before their stories can be fully understood.
Recognizing cultural significance does not mean preserving every old building in Los Angeles. All landmarks must meet a threshold of significance based on nationally accepted standards and criteria. Yet, rightly, these criteria include not only architectural merit or pedigree, but the people and events that, together, convey our rich cultural heritage.
Jurisdictions near and far have made great strides in recognizing and protecting places of cultural significance. Los Angeles and other cities in the county have started down the path of embracing the full breadth of our heritage. While we have only scratched the surface, this is a journey that the Conservancy fully supports.
You can make a real difference in the efforts to preserve Los Angeles’ LGBTQ heritage! Here’s how:
Share Your Story
LGBTQ historic places embody the experiences of the people who lived this dynamic history. Your voices are an essential part of understanding and celebrating this rich heritage, and we want to hear your stories about the people and places that matter to you and your communities. Share your story now!