Wednesday 28 June 2017

Heritage Spotlight : Homing In On Stonewall

On this anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 I’m going to look at the iconic area that means so much to the lgbt heritage of the USA. Starting with Greenwich Village I’ll home in on Christopher Street and finally the Stonewall Inn itself. This will not be a history of the inn after the 1969 riots but a look back to discover that the lgbt legacy of the area goes back beyond the 20th century.

We’ll start in pre-colonial times. The Native American nation called the Lenape named the area of present-day West Village Sapokanican. The Lenape nation covered much of colonial New England. They were notable in that they didn’t conform to the traditional gender roles in Native American society. If a woman wanted to be a warrior she could. If a man wanted to stay at home to tend to agriculture he could. This was not usually the case in other east coast tribes.

Sapokanican was a marshy area on the coastal edge of the Lenape’s vast territory. It included Manhattan, which is an Anglicised version of the Lenape name. The Dutch were the first European colonists to arrive. One of colonists was Everardus Bogardus, an ancestor of pioneering gay activist Harry Hay (as explained here). Another colonist named his Manhattan estate Greenwijck. The British arrived in 1664 and Greenwijck became Greenwich.

The legacy of Sir Peter Warren (1703-1751) is the one which still dominates Greenwich Village and the area around Christopher Street. Warren was an Irish admiral whose ships protected the American colonies from the French. His most successful encounter with the French was his participation in the capture of Louisville, Nova Scotia, in 1745. In gratitude the Governor of New York gave him a tract of land to add to the 300 acres he had bought in 1741 after marrying a previous governor’s daughter. The present Christopher Street marks the southern boundary of Warren’s estate. On the 1766 map below I’ve encircled the location of the Warren mansion with a red circle. The original line of Christopher Street is indicated by the red line.

Here we encounter our earliest lgbt link to colonial Greenwich Village. Sir Peter Warren was able to establish his naval career, and thus lay the foundations of his Greenwich Village estate, through the influence of his mother’s family. Their rise to prominence in the Irish navy was influenced by an earlier ancestor who was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. In turn, the Chancellor got his appointment through the influence of his own mother’s family, the Beauforts, who were the senior male-line descendants of the “Queen” of England, Edward II. Sir Peter Warren’s marriage brings more lgbt connections. His wife was a grand-daughter of Stephanus van Cortlandt, another of Harry Hay’s ancestors.

After the death of Lady Warren in 1771 twenty years after Sir Peter’s the estates were split into three parts, one each to their two surviving daughters and one grand-daughter. The daughters married aristocrats. Charlotte, the eldest, married the 4th Earl of Abingdon, and here I have a personal connection. The earl was born and raised in an old medieval manor house in Lincolnshire now called Gainsborough Old Hall. I worked there as a tour guide for 6 years in the 1990s and am a life member of the Friends of the Old Hall Association.

Sir Peter’s second daughter married Charles Fitzroy, Baron Southampton, a 3-times great-grandson of the other “Queen” of England, James I. The youngest daughter married a lowly colonel called William Otis Skinner. They both died before the Warren estate was split up but their daughter got their share.

All three family names or titles of the Warren daughters and grand-daughter – Abingdon, Fitzroy and Skinner – became names of streets or areas in Greenwich Village. Today only the first of these names remains in the form of Abingdon Square. Skinner Street was later renamed Christopher Street. As for Sir Peter Warren’s house, it eventually ended up in the ownership of Abraham van Nest (1777-1864) and it was demolished after his death, making it the last remaining rural area in Greenwich Village to be lost. The illustration below shows the mansion as it looked in van Nest’s lifetime. The site, if you know New York at all, is the block bounded by West 4th Street, Bleecker Street, Perry Street and Charles Street (which was renamed Van Nest Street until 1936).
But where did the Christopher name come from? Has it got any connection with the Warren estate? Yes, it does. In 1787 when the estate was being split up a portion was bought by Richard Amos, a trustee of the estate. This portion passed to his heir Charles Christopher Amos in 1799. Though it is stated on various websites that Charles Christopher Amos began naming streets after himself it is more likely that they were named later on. Amos Street is now called West 10th Street.

The original structure of the present Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street (No. 53, the taller half) dates from 1843 when it was built as stables for Mr. A. Voorhis. The Voorhis, or Voorhees, family were prominent in the Dutch colonies and into the present century. There was a family of wealthy silversmiths called Voorhis living at the eastern end of Christopher Street. They gave their name to an apartment block which was demolished in 1913-14 to make way for the 7th Avenue subway. Across 7th Avenue is Christopher Park in which the Stonewall National Monument stands.

The lower half of the Stonewall Inn was built in 1846 as stables for Mark Spencer whose mansion was just behind it. The Voorhis half continued to be stables until it was joined with the Spencer half in 1930. Very soon afterwards it appears to have been converted into a small tearoom called Bonnie’s Stone Wall Inn. No-one has discovered who this “Bonnie” was. Whether it was the owner’s actual name or a nickname we don’t know. A look at the 1930 and 1940 US census for Christopher Street didn’t provide me with any clues. Neither is it certain why the name “Stone Wall” was used. It is certain, however, that it has nothing to do with the Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Eventually Bonnie’s Stone Wall Inn became just Stonewall Inn. The mysterious Bonnie and the curious Stonewall name, added to the venue’s prohibition and mafia heritage, helps to create a legendary reputation that survived the riots of 1969. It remains a site of importance to national as well as lgbt heritage.

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