An early headquarters of the NAACP in Greenwich Village and home to numerous civil rights and activist groups moved one step closer to being landmarked.
The 12-story Beaux Arts style building, located at 70 5th Avenue, was built in 1912 by architect Charles Alonzo Rich and almost immediately became, in the words of one chronicler, “a haven for radicals and liberals.”
In addition to the NAACP, the building housed the National Civil Liberties Bureau, a group formed to assist conscientious objectors during the first World War before it changed its name to the American Civil Liberties Union; the League for the Abolition of Capital Punishment; and the Citizen’s National Committee for Sacco-Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants and anarchists who were sentenced to death after a highly politicized murder trial.
“While here, the NAACP undertook groundbreaking, successful campaigns which affected the lives of millions and altered the course of history in our country,” wrote Geoffrey E. Eaton, President of the organization’s Mid-Manhattan branch, in a letter of support, adding that the NAACP’s agenda was “highly controversial and faced widespread opposition.”
It was at this site, wrote Eaton, that the NAACP began its campaign to fight lynching by flying a flag with the words, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” an image that has become iconic in the decades since. It also fought the racist portrayal of African Americans in D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster but now disgraced white supremacist film “The Birth of a Nation,” released in 1915.
Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation, said the neighborhood at the time saw “politics, art and commerce, all coming together,” and feeding off one another, “creating a whole bigger than the sum of its parts.”
Jon Ritter, an architectural historian at NYU, said that on architectural merit alone, 70 5th Avenue deserves to be landmarked. But he argued that landmarking is shifting away from the orthodoxy of 50 years ago, when it focused far more on Anglican churches or the pristine rowhouse architecture of the old Anglo-Saxon ruling class, in an effort to also take into account the people and history within these structures.
“How do we preserve a broader swath of historical buildings to tell a broader tale of our history and our heritage that goes beyond the patronage of elite, white men?”
The building was calendared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on January 19th, a critical step in the process to ultimately being landmarked. The Commission has yet to schedule a date for a public hearing on the building, which will take place in the coming months.
Arun Venugopal reports for the Race and Justice Unit at Gothamist/WNYC.