Seventy Fifth Avenue is hard to miss. Built in 1912, its stately cream columns and arched windows stand in striking contrast to the more contemporary brass and glass New School University Center across the street.
Seventy Fifth’s design is certainly a reminder of old-world architectural sensibilities, but that is hardly the most interesting thing about it. The work that happened inside decades ago is what sets this building apart – work that confronted Americans with the country’s centuries-long acceptance of racial terrorism. Yet today, there’s no indication that anything notable ever happened at the site.
This Beaux-Arts style building designed by Charles Alonzo Rich sits south and west of Union Square without landmark status or recognition of its importance. But in a few weeks that may change. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on March 23 to consider designating the building a landmark, and a vote is expected to take place in a few weeks.
For more than two years, Village Preservation, an organization that works to document and preserve the architectural heritage of the surrounding neighborhood, has lobbied to get New York City to designate the historic building a landmark.
“We discovered this treasure trove of incredible civil rights history here,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation. “The building was a nexus for political and social justice activity.”
That activity began with one of its first tenants, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which moved into the building in 1914. Then in its infancy, the NAACP solidified its place as the most influential civil rights organization in the United States during the eleven years it operated from 70 Fifth.
It had good company there. The American Civil Liberties Union’s earliest iteration was founded in the building. Around the same time, The American Federation of Teachers, The Women’s Peace League and the League for Industrial Democracy, among other progressive groups, made 70 Fifth Avenue their home base.
“In the case of [70 Fifth Avenue], you are not just celebrating the building. You are celebrating the fact that this edifice housed these ideas,” said C. Daniel Dawson, a prolific photographer, curator and professor in the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University.
With such an important history, one might think the city would have granted 70 Fifth Avenue landmark status long ago. The fact that it hasn’t follows a larger trend of preservation in New York – and across the country – which has passed over crucial parts of the American story. As of February 2021, only around 3.5% of the listings in the National Register database, the federal government’s official list of sites deemed worthy of preservation, explicitly identified “Black” or “African American” as an area of significance or cultural affiliation.
“Preservation tools have been disproportionately deployed by communities that have access to resources and influence at any given moment,” said William Raynolds, a preservationist and professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
The endeavor to landmark 70 Fifth is part of an ongoing effort to rectify that history. Understanding the work that took place at the site is a vital component to that process.
A Home for a Nascent Movement
In the early twentieth century, most Americans were aware of lynching. The gruesome public spectacle was an undeniable aspect of life in the South. At the same time, most Americans had never witnessed one, creating an age-old conundrum for groups like the NAACP: out of sight, out of mind. That is, until the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas.
On May 8, 1916, Washington was accused of murdering the wife of his white boss. The 17-year-old, unable to sign his name, confessed to the crime by signing with an X.
At his trial, he was sentenced to death after just four minutes of deliberation. Seconds later, a mob stormed in, threw a chain around his neck and dragged Washington toward City Hall. Hundreds of angry townspeople ripped his clothes off and mutilated him, taking parts of his body as souvenirs. He was tied to a tree, doused in gasoline and set on fire. Over 10,000 people gathered to watch, jeering as the teenager took his last breaths. Washington’s charred body was later dragged through the streets. No one was charged for his death.
None of this surprised the mayor of Waco. In fact, he had tipped off a local photographer, Fred Gildersleeve, that Washington would likely be lynched after his trial. Lynching photos were popular as postcards, and Gildersleeve would be able to sell them. Photos of a lynching, especially one this violent, would be easy money.
Hundreds of miles away, in an office building in New York City, these horrific photos became the cornerstone of an internationally recognized anti-lynching movement. The NAACP published an eight-page photo essay depicting Washington’s burned corpse in its magazine, The Crisis. The photo-essay made its way across the country and galvanized New Yorkers and the wider American public, all from 70 Fifth Avenue.
From this same perch, the NAACP challenged discriminatory voting legislation in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and won; fervently protested the deeply racist (and extremely popular) film The Birth of A Nation, which had sparked the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan; and demanded equal treatment for Black soldiers.
But perhaps the organization’s most notable operation while headquartered in the building was its anti-lynching campaign that began after Jesse Washington’s death. In 1917, the NAACP organized one of the first mass demonstrations in the country against racial terrorism. Over 10,000 New Yorkers participated in a silent march to protest lynching.
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, edited The Crisis from an office in the stately building. The first issue was released in 1910 and is still in publication today.
“The magazine was a way of expressing the opinions of the organization, but it was also an outlet for great artists and writers of the time,” said Berman of Village Preservation.
The Crisis featured writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Its articles on the horrors of anti-Black mob violence throughout the country helped bring attention to the issue and pushed the government to act. But beyond that, it helped situate the struggle for Black liberation internationally.
“Du Bois had a larger focus when he ran The Crisis,” said Dawson. One of the magazine’s main through-lines was that the Black struggle was not uniquely American; it highlighted Black writers and topics that affected the entire diaspora. While being edited in 70 Fifth, the magazine reached a circulation of over 100,000 people.
The New School currently owns the Fifth Avenue building and has maintained it well. But other buildings tied to Black history across the country have not been as lucky and are at risk if not already lost.
The Whole Story
To understand the state of preservation today, it’s helpful to look at the history of the practice. In the U.S., architectural preservation efforts first emerged in the nineteenth century. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, formed in the 1850s, is often recognized as one of the movement’s original organizations. The association, a group of hand-picked women from wealthy families, rescued George Washington’s estate by purchasing it. (Members still preserve the estate today.)
Similar organizations formed as the young nation began solidifying its place in the world; it was deemed vitally important to preserve what was recognized as the country’s foundational, heroic history. It was a movement spearheaded by elites — the realm of private citizens and not the government.
By the early 1900s, the first major federal legislation for preservation, The Antiquities Act, was passed. The law allowed the president to declare sites of importance as national monuments.
But historic preservation, as the federal initiative we recognize today, stems from The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The bill created the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program. It was seen as a triumph for preservationists across the nation as it recognized the importance of the work and put a framework in place for federal funding.
But even with a federal framework and funding, the buildings and physical spaces related to Black history were often overlooked, which is perhaps not surprising. At the time of the National Historic Preservation Act’s passing, the country was still in the throes of the civil rights era. And five decades later, equitable representation is still far from a reality.
The push to shape the American narrative through public space remains; it is of increasing importance as the country grapples with its exclusionary past.
“It’s not enough for history to live entirely in text,” said Raynolds. Spaces that are maintained and protected determine who is remembered and who is, sometimes deliberately, forgotten.
In New York City, work is being done to address this exclusion. “At least for the last 20 years or more, there has been pressure to make sure that we designate landmarks that represent the full range of the city’s history,” said Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic and the New School’s Joseph Urban Professor of Design.
Village Preservation’s efforts are part of a nationwide movement to discover and preserve buildings that help tell a more complete story of American history. One of the organization’s most recent finds is 88 East 10th Street, the home studio of Selma Hortense Burke, one of the most celebrated sculptors of the 20th century. Her bust of President Franklin Roosevelt was used as a model for his image on the dime, and she ran a school for artists and sculptors out of the East Village building, an exceptional feat for a Black female artist of her time.
“In the first few years [of New York City’s Landmark Commission], there was a tendency to lean toward fancier, more famous buildings that rich white people often built for other rich white people,” said Goldberger. “This was not a conscious intention of anybody, but they were looking toward some of the most obvious grand buildings.”
More Than a Landmark
As historic preservation in the U.S. expands its scope, its practitioners are considering more holistic approaches to the work. If 70 Fifth Avenue receives landmark status, someone passing by still may not grasp the depth of its significance.
“A building like that might very well ask for more than a landmark,” said Raynolds. “There is really fertile ground at 70 Fifth Avenue for additional creative interventions.”
Goldberger said that when the pandemic ends, he hopes the New School will use 70 Fifth’s hopeful landmark status as an opportunity for education.
“It would be a great idea to devote one of the building’s ground floor galleries to the history of the building, not just for the public, but so that the students who go to school there every day know something of the history of the building in which they are doing their work,” he said. “It would probably make them like it all the more.”
While a landmark designation for 70 Fifth Avenue would offer a broader representation of what New York City sees as valuable, historic preservation in the U.S. still has a long way to go. The photo essay pieced together by the NAACP in its 70 Fifth office exposed Jesse Washington’s horrific, public murder and launched an anti-lynching campaign around the country. However, residents and visitors walking past Waco City Hall today see no sign of the atrocity that happened there. According to local reports, the city may recognize the place of Washington’s death with a landmark later this year. But for now, it is just a parking lot.
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.