April 14, 2016 at 4:10 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
New York’s oldest gay bar nominated for landmark status
Julius Bar, gay news, Washington Blade

Julius’ Bar (Photo by Christopher D. Brazee for the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project)

The New York State Board for Historic Preservation on March 23 nominated the Greenwich Village gay bar Julius’ to be put on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.

LGBT rights advocates pushing for Julius’ historic designation say they are hopeful the National Park Service will approve the nomination by April 21, which will mark the 50th anniversary of a 1966 civil disobedience action at Julius’ by four gay men that became known as a “sip-in.”

A 37-page application for the bar’s historic designation prepared by the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project says the four men were newly elected leaders of the Mattachine Society of New York, an early gay rights group.

“The new leaders were determined to change laws and regulations that inhibited the lives of gay and lesbian New Yorkers and also sought to gain as much positive publicity for homosexuals as possible,” the application states.

“The new leaders of New York Mattachine were especially interested in making it easier for gay bars to exist as legitimate businesses and to make sure that gay men who frequented these bars would not be entrapped by the police,” according to the application, which was written by LGBT Historic Sites Project official Andrew Dolkart.

The application says the action by the Mattachine members was aimed at discrediting and ending a longstanding interpretation of the state’s liquor law that prohibited bars from serving alcoholic beverages to homosexuals. It notes that the State Liquor Authority had been revoking the liquor licensed of other Greenwich Village gay bars on grounds that they served alcohol to homosexuals, who were automatically deemed to be disruptive and lawbreakers.

“Courts had held that the mere presence of homosexuals made the venue disorderly,” the application states.

It says the Mattachine members — Dick Leitsch, John Timmons, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker — modeled their “Sip-in” after the 1960s-era tactics by African American civil rights leaders who staged sit-ins at lunch counters of segregated businesses in the South. The application says the Mattachine members, who wore jackets and ties to project an air of respectability, carefully orchestrated the 1966 action by inviting the news media to cover it.

The game plan was to enter a bar or restaurant, order drinks and then announce they were homosexuals who would in no way engage in disorderly behavior. Once refused service, the men planned to file a complaint with the Liquor Authority and challenge an expected unfavorable response by the authority.

But the application notes that on April 21, 1966, Julius’ turned out to be the fourth bar or restaurant the Mattachine Society members targeted for their sip-in. The first venue, a Ukrainian restaurant that displayed a sign saying, “If you are gay, please stay away,” shut its doors rather than allow the Mattachine members to enter after news reporters informed the owner what was about to happen, the application says.

The next two restaurants, one of which was a Howard Johnson’s, did not object to serving the men drinks and welcomed them as customers, according to the application. It was at that point that the men headed to Julius’, which at the time was becoming known for its growing number of gay male customers, even though it was not considered a gay bar. Some of its employees were hostile toward gay customers, the application says.

“The four Mattachine members asked for drinks and, as they were beginning to be served, announced that they were homosexuals,” the application recounts. “The bartender said that he could not serve them and placed his hand over a glass, an action that was preserved in a now famous photograph taken by Voice photographer Fred W. McDarrah.”

States the application, “Before the reporters disbursed, the Mattachine members announced that the society would ‘file a complaint with the State Liquor Authority against Julius’, contending they were discriminated against.’ They also offered to pay any legal expenses incurred by Julius’.”

To the apparent surprise of Liquor Authority officials, coverage of the sip-in by the New York Times and the Village Voice drew attention to what some began to view as the unfair plight of gay people, who were subjected to harassment and presumably prohibited from ordering a drink at a neighborhood bar.

“The reaction by the State Liquor Authority and the newly empowered New York City Commission on Human Rights resulted in a change in policy and the birth of a more open gay bar culture,” the application states. “Scholars of gay history consider the sip-in at Julius’ as a key event leading to the growth of legitimate gay bars and the development of the bar as the central social space for urban gay men and lesbians.”

Julius’, which also operates as a restaurant, is located in two adjoining buildings on a lot at the corner of Waverly Place and West 10th Street that are believed to have been built in 1834 and 1845 respectively.

The application says a bar is believed to have first opened in the space now occupied by Julius’ in the 1860s. It notes that the bar became a speakeasy at the start of the U.S. Prohibition era in 1919. The space became Julius’ around 1930, the application notes, more than 20 years after Greenwich Village became known as a gathering place for artists, writers, Bohemians and homosexuals.

It wasn’t until after the sip-in in 1966 that Julius’ evolved into a full-fledged gay bar.

If the National Park Service approves the application and adds Julius’ to the National Register of Historic Places it will become the four LGBT related property to be so designated, said Dan McEneny, an official with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

McEneny noted that the others already on the historic places register are the Stonewall, the Greenwich Village bar that became the site of the famous Stonewall riots in 1969; the Bayard Rustin residence in a high rise apartment building in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood; and the Cherry Gove Community House on New York’s Fire Island.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which was the first to petition the state to designate Julius’ as a historic place in 2012, is now calling on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to quickly designate the Julius’ building as a landmark.

“New York City landmark status is critical because while New York State historic designation recognizes the site’s historic significance and offers tax breaks and financial assistance for preservation efforts, the state does not offer any protections against demolition or alteration, thus leaving the site in danger,” the group said in a March 24 statement.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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