Whitmanites make surprise appearance at hearing to call for landmarking of poet’s house
Preservation advocates made their case at a city Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing for landmarking poet Walt Whitman’s only still-existing New York City house — even though the property was not on the agenda.
The group spoke out Tuesday during a hearing about six Manhattan and Staten Island properties that were significant to the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. The LPC is considering those properties for designation as individual landmarks.
They include the Women’s Liberation Center in Chelsea, novelist James Baldwin’s residence on the Upper West Side and poet Audre Lorde’s house on Staten Island.
“One very obvious site of importance to the history of the LGBT community is missing from the list today,” Walt Whitman Initiative board member Brad Vogel said in his testimony at the hearing.
“What about Walt?” he asked.
Whitman, who was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1840s, is widely considered America’s greatest poet. His frank depiction of men loving men was revolutionary in American literature.
Whitman lived at 99 Ryerson St. in Clinton Hill from May 1855 to April 1856. During that time, he published the first version of his ground-breaking work “Leaves of Grass.” It is a modest rowhouse, covered in vinyl siding, but is imbued with a powerful history, Vogel said.
“Whitman began to give voice to his sexuality when he lived in the house; his father died in the house; he received a famous letter and visit from [Ralph Waldo] Emerson while living in the house, which catapulted him to true renown,” Vogel said.
Vogel spoke on behalf of the Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House, whose online petition calling for the property’s landmarking has garnered more than 5,600 signatures.
Coalition members argue that Leaves of Grass House is one of New York City’s oldest buildings associated with someone who today would be identified as an LGBTQ+ person.
And, they argue, there is no time to landmark it like the year that marks both the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the celebration of Whitman’s 200th birthday.
House owner opposes landmarking
“Saving 99 Ryerson St. is not the right thing to do,” Frances Scanlon said in her testimony on Tuesday. “It is indeed the only right thing to do.”
Scanlon borrowed phrases from the Bard of Brooklyn’s poetic vocabulary in urging commissioners to landmark 99 Ryerson St.
“I am asking you collectively to become as if a leaf of grass and sway on the right side of history’s breeze,” Scanlon said. “Do not surrender to the overly formalistic stoic elements that would elevate form over substance.”
Jason Koo, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called Brooklyn Poets, praised Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as a “groundbreaking achievement.”
According to city Finance Department records, 99 Ryerson St. belongs to the Horacio Downs Living Trust. As the Eagle previously reported, a woman who reps the trust has told preservationists the owners plan to tell the LPC they prefer the house not be landmarked.
The preservation agency does designate properties whose owners oppose landmarking.
‘A cradle for extraordinary art’
In her testimony, Professor Karen Karbiener, the president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, told the Landmarks Preservation Commission the house’s “working-class vibe” is a fitting reminder that Whitman came from humble roots.
The ordinary-looking house was “a cradle for extraordinary art,” she said.
Gary Glazner, the founder and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, spoke about the international impact of Whitman’s work. Glazner said a passage of Whitman’s poetry probably inspired Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece painting “Starry Night.”
After an evaluation in 2017, Landmarks Preservation Commission staffers decided Whitman’s house didn’t rise to the level of an individual landmark. Preservationists have answered the agency’s objections with a 13-page rebuttal.
Last year, City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo — who represents the district in which 99 Ryerson St. is located — and other elected officials wrote a letter calling for Leaves of Grass House to be landmarked.
After Tuesday’s hearing, a Landmarks spokesperson didn’t speak specifically about 99 Ryerson St or whether it’s a worthy LGBTQ+-related landmark. But she did say, “LPC will continue to identify and designate properties that reflect the City’s rich history, including its LGBT history.”
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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