Cherry Grove’s Community House and Theater officially designated a Historic Site by National Register For Historic PreservationAround the Nation, Online Only, Top Highlights Thursday, June 13th, 2013
NEW YORK – The Cherry Grove Community House and Theater in Fire Island has been added to the official list of the National Register of Historic Places of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The house, believed to be the oldest continuously operating gay and lesbian theater in the U.S., is only the second site of its kind in the state and third in the country to achieve this honor and recognition as an LGBT site. The others are Stonewall Inn in New York City and the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny House in Washington, D.C. This designation was made possible by the site’s recent recognition in the New York Register of Historic Places.
“We are honored and tremendously thrilled,” said Diane Romano, president of the Cherry Grove Community Association, Inc. (CGCAI), which owns and operates the house. “This house has been the heart and soul of Cherry Grove for more than six decades and holds a unique and iconic place in the lives of gay men and women everywhere. We believe it has always had exceptional historic significance, and it’s so gratifying that both New York state and the National Register think so too.”
According to Thom Hansen (Panzi), president of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove (APCG), which manages the theater’s theatrical and arts offerings, “The APCG has continuously produced theatrical productions since 1948, from plays to musicals to classical recitals, and has hosted some of the greatest talents, gay and straight, over the decades. This national recognition and designation mark an important part in our history and serve as a reminder to everyone of how vital our theater is – not only to Cherry Grove, but also to the LGBT community.”
Over the decades, the community house has hosted hundreds of local theatrical productions and has hosted performances by internationally known entertainers. Its roster of famous visitors and residents includes poet W.H. Auden; playwright Tennessee Williams; three internationally famous 20th-century fashion photographers, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman and Paul Himmel; actresses Nancy Walker, Tallulah Bankhead and Hermione Gingold; comedienne Kaye Ballard; performer Julie Wilson; and New Yorker journalist Janet Flanner.
Hansen noted, “This year’s performance lineup includes singers Ann Hampton, comedienne Lea DeLaria, a classical music recital and some very special local productions featuring Cherry Grove’s legendary artists.”
Carl Luss of national law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, took the lead on compiling the complex and thorough nomination submission on behalf of CGCAI on a volunteer basis. The extensive application process involved gathering many relevant historical facts and stitching together a compelling story to demonstrate the historical value of the structure. Luss is a past recipient of a Community Honors Award from the association for his contributions to Cherry Grove community development projects.
“I am thrilled to have been able to forefront this rarely documented, pre-Stonewall LBGT history to national recognition,” said Luss, a legal assistant at the firm.
Added Michael Lehmann, a partner in Manatt’s New York office, “The house is a valuable community organization and I am gratified that we had the chance to participate in this process to gain it national recognition.”
Originally built in 1945 in Sayville, N.Y., the community house was floated on a barge across the Great South Bay to Fire Island. The application for recognition highlights the exceptional historical significance of the community house. Fire Island gradually evolved from a summer vacation beach colony into “America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town.” The community house is unique in the security it provided to members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community back in a time when acceptance was rare.
The association, organized in 1944, influenced the community’s development by facilitating gradual social acceptance, self-affirmation and integration of its gay and lesbian residents into Cherry Grove’s governing affairs and civic life. Cherry Grove was the first, and for many years the only, gay geography in the United States.
The building now houses the theater, community archives and meeting rooms, but once served as a firehouse and a church. Its original barnlike shape has been modified and added to over the years to accommodate residents’ needs.
Romano said she hoped the designation would assist the association in its efforts to raise $700,000 to repair, restore and renovate the house.
“We could have razed the structure and started over,” she said, “but the community house has served as a powerful and emotional symbol of the creative lives and progress of gay Americans struggling – first to be invisible and more recently for recognition – in our culture. It means too much to be torn down.”
Cherry Grove is one of some 20 communities that sprang up along the 30-mile long barrier beach known as Fire Island over the past two to three centuries. Originally it was a fishing outpost and family picnic destination for residents of the mainland. During World War II, it was an important civil defense post and a Nazi U-boat spotting gateway into New York Harbor. By the mid-20th century, Cherry Grove had become a safe haven and refuge for homosexuals, notably those in the arts. Today, there are 250 houses in Cherry Grove. Its two-mile stretch of pristine beach attracts tens of thousands of visitors each summer.
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