Remaking New York's LGBT Community Center

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By William Lamb / Published by Dwell
A $9.2 million renovation looks to the future while preserving the past.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York last week showed off the substantially complete, $9.2 million overhaul of its headquarters on Manhattan’s West 13th Street—a transformative collaboration between the Brooklyn-based RSVP Architecture Studio and N-Plus Architecture and Design.

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The 1,900-square-foot, multi-purpose Lerner Auditorium has been retrofitted to serve as a performance space, lecture hall, and theater.

"This renovation has really transformed this space to make it more open and social and bright, and really able to accommodate everything that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community can dream of in New York City," said Glennda Testone, the center’s executive director.

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In The Kaplan Assembly Hall, a cluster of cast-iron columns and a drop celeing were removed, giving the space a more open feel. In addition, blocked windows were restored and sound insulation was installed. Murals that Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Barbara Sandler, George Whitman, and others painted for the 1989 Center Show, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the gay-rights movement, were preserved and illuminated with new LED lighting.

The center moved into the building, which dates to the 1840s, in 1983 in the full throes of the AIDS epidemic, and the structure served as an in incubator and meeting spot for Act Up and other rights groups. The center embarked on the renovation in 2013 to remake an environment that had grown somewhat cold into a welcoming space that mores easily fosters social interaction and to better serves the needs of the community it serves.

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The reconfigured lobby was conceived as a series of elliptical orbits, including the reception desk (pictured) and a similar desk that will host a Think Coffee cafe. Significant structural work was necessary to remove load-bearing masonry walls and columns.

The transformation is perhaps most striking in the Kaplan Assembly Hall on the ground floor. The large space was reconfigured to remove what Brian Ripel of RSVP Architecture Studio described as a "forest" of cast-iron columns." An unsightly drop ceiling was removed and windows were uncovered, making for a brighter, more expansive space. Murals that Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Barbara Sandler, George Whitman, and others painted for the 1989 Center Show, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the gay-rights movement, were preserved and illuminated with new LED lighting.

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The center's library and archive were consolidated in a new light-filled space that includes workspace for volunteer archivists and visiting scholars, a large meeting table, and 1,000 linear feet of library shelving.

"We’ve gone to great lengths to preserve the tremendous history of the center and the unique art and the unique feeling of the things that happened here over the last 31 years," Testone said, "but we also wanted to significantly improve the functionality of the space and make sure that we could do whatever we wanted to do in the future."

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In the refurbished second-floor hallway, an archival photograph was enlarged and placed on a set of glass doors.