RAMSA’s Greenwich Village walking tour highlights the role of the built environment in New York’s queer history

Shaping a Social Movement

RAMSA’s Greenwich Village walking tour highlights the role of the built environment in New York’s queer history

Jones (center) speaking at the New York City AIDS memorial. (Michael Bilsborough/RAMSA)

On June 20, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) hosted a walking tour from Washington Square Park through Greenwich Village, highlighting locations important to queer history while offering a consideration of the larger role of the built environment in shaping social movements. 

Led by partner Michael D. Jones and design technology specialist Joseph Ortiz, the tour covered over a dozen sites, including places of conflict, celebration, and memorialization. Jones is a cofounder of RAMSA’s Q+ committee, whose mission “is to promote the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in architecture both in New York and across the design professions as a whole.” In 2019, Jones cofounded the committee with associate Lok Chan, hosting educational events, tours, and lectures including a discussion with Andy Campbell, author of Queer X Design, a yearly Pride logo design competition which has raised funds for the Ali Forney Center, and an exhibition about LGBTQ spaces in New York. 

The tour began with 2 Fifth Avenue, an apartment building immediately north of the Washington Square Park Arch, where former playwright and activist Larry Kramer, who was outspoken in response to the AIDS crisis; activist Edie Windsor, the respondent in the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, which overruled part of the Defense of Marriage Act; and former New York City mayor Ed Koch all resided. Moving out of the park, the tour stopped outside of Eve Adams’s Tearoom, a short-lived yet important lesbian bar run by Eve Adams, which was closed for disorderly conduct, resulting in her deportation. Adams was later killed in the Holocaust.

Ortiz (left) and Jones (right) speaking about Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera outside of the Women’s House of Detention. (Michael Bilsborough/RAMSA)

The tour also visited the site of the former Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the first queer bookstore in the U.S.; the Women’s House of Detention, where inmates (many of whom were queer) rioted during the Stonewall Riots; and the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, home to the first AIDS ward on the East Coast and now an apartment building, providing a range of not only building typologies, but ways in which particular buildings have been host to pivotal social and political events. 

Moving past buildings, the tour also visited the future home of the Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera Monuments, commemorating two important transgender activists, the New York City AIDS Memorial, and the Stonewall National Monument. While individual sites of commemoration and memorialization serve a purpose, Jones also emphasized the importance of Greenwich Village as a neighborhood to the gay rights movement. Particularly in the case of the Stonewall Riots, Jones argued that they could not have happened in the way that they did without the site’s surrounding winding streets; the lack of Haussmannization and urban renewal (also fought against by residents) in the neighborhood made for different conditions for a riot. Also not to be lost is the changing composition of the neighborhood—the Village was not always home to the level of affluence currently present there, and the class composition of the neighborhood has changed since the peaks of the Gay Liberation Movement.

In characterizing the importance of the tour, and architectural education’s role in larger education efforts about topics like queer history, Jones said: “Not all buildings must have beautiful architecture to be of historical significance… It’s important to save these buildings and to pass down their stories to future generations. Queer history has often gone unrecorded, and while I grew up around some of it, many of our younger staff don’t know this vital history.”

The Q+ committee is currently planning an exhibition on designers who died from AIDS, including former RAMSA interior design director Raul Morillas, who died in 2005.