EDG leads design for new Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center

In Time for Pride

EDG leads design for new Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center

Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center opens to the public on June 28, 55 years to the day of the raid and riots at the historic bar. (Stephen Kent Johnson)

In 2016, when former President Barack Obama designated Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn (and the surrounding 7.70-acres) a national monument, he called the 1969 police raid responding to riots at the gay bar “the catalyst that launched the modern LGBT civil rights movement.” Today, 55 years to the day after the historic rebellion, the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center opens to the public. It is the United States’ first ever LGBTQIA+ visitor center within the National Park Service and is managed by the nonprofit Pride Live.

The historic bar occupied both 51 and 53 Christopher Street. The visitor center resides in 51 Christopher and has no affiliation with the next door bar at 53 Christopher, The Stonewall Inn, which opened in 2006 and has no formal ties to the original.

Rendering of the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center
Rendering of the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center (EDG Architecture + Engineering)

New York–based architecture firm EDG, which is 20 percent LGBTQIA+, was tapped for the project one and a half years ago. In an interview with AN, the project’s design director, Richard Unterthiner, explained EDG determined three design principles for the project: acknowledging the history of the space; effectively telling the story; and upholding placemaking, partnership and accessibility.

In approaching the center’s design, EDG prioritized memorializing Stonewall’s history in a compelling and accurate manner—especially difficult when there are few surviving artifacts or records. Notably, there’s only one known photo of the interior of the space. Nathan Green, EDG’s senior director of marketing, identified the “erasure of gay history” as one of the project’s challenges.

Rainbow lights form a visually compelling backdrop for the information desk. (Stephen Kent Johnson)

“The history has been erased in so many ways—the stories of Stonewall have been ‘urban-legend-ified,’” Green said. “That was a really big challenge for us: How do we acknowledge this history when the history has been erased, and wasn’t recorded very well to begin with?”

The jukebox is the same model as the one that appeared in the original Stonewall Inn bar. (Stephen Kent Johnson)

Undeterred by this obstacle, the visitor center contains several ties to Stonewall’s history and the original inn, described by Unterthiner as “little focal points around the space.” Among these, parts of the original ceiling, found in a rusted condition during construction. The remnant was laser scanned and mimicked to replicate the original.

There’s also a jukebox, the same model as the 1967 Rowe AMI pictured in the one surviving image of the interior. It shuffles a playlist curated by DJ and producer Honey Dijon, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” The space also spotlights a framed brick wall that once served as a passageway between the two buildings comprising the bar.

“This is a kind of rekindling—or bringing back to—what [the space] once was,” Unterthiner said. “Through the demolition of the space we found the passageway between the two spaces. It was a really lovely discovery: an artifact that’s the threshold that connected the two spaces historically. So it’s really important to kind of frame that and memorialize that.”

Quotes in the visitor center are from leading LGBT+ activists. (Stephen Kent Johnson)

The visitor center recalls the stories of famous riot participants, including those of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. A section of the wall elevates these historical anecdotes alongside a  temporary exhibit curated by students at Parsons. A colorful collage of posters, event flyers, and memorabilia were threaded together with a central theme: “celebrating queer spaces.”

The neon-hued, hopeful tone of the exhibit is visible in other parts of the center. A quote by activist Martha Shelley displayed in hot pink is pasted against one part of the wall. Another wall dons holograph-like, metallic archival photographs. Similarly brazen is the series of golden shovels which flank the theater space, displaying the names of the center’s sponsors, among these Donatella Versace and Google.

Throughout the space, the various methods of storytelling are bold and bright, while the space’s architecture is far more reserved. Both the ceilings and floors are white, and, despite the small size, the layout feels open. As noted by Unterthiner, “the assertion of our design and architecture was very much on the quiet side. It was important to us that we could allow these stories to be told, and allow them to be very present within the space.”

Accessibility was a key consideration throughout the design process. “We want anyone that shows up in that space to have the accessibility and the ability to partake in it,” Unterthiner told  AN. To transform the original building into an ADA-compliant space, EDG had to drop the floor to create a slightly-sloped ground. As a result, the visitor center is wheelchair accessible. In addition to accessibility upgrades, EDG added structural joists and a new roof in the back.

A collage weaves together posters, event flyers, and memorabilia. (Stephen Kent Johnson)

At the visitor center park rangers can stamp visitors’ passports. In-person and virtual tours will be available, as well as lecture series, exhibitions, and screenings in the theater space. Unterthiner described the visitor center as a “dynamic place for conversation” which “celebrates equality.” President Joe Biden and the First Lady will stop by the visitor center on its opening day, alongside Governor Kathy Hochul.

“[The visitor center] is both civically important and nationally important, but also globally important. That’s not lost on us,” Unterthiner said. “It’s really a beacon of hope.”