Architecture is the art and science of creating environments. There is not a particular style unique to the Gay community, but specific examples of buildings and gathering spaces exist that were claimed by and designed for LGBTQ occupants. Within such spaces, Gay folk’s architecture is most apparent in the interior design.
The need for security has traditionally outweighed trends that would produce a Gay aesthetic on a building’s exterior. Before Stonewall and for years afterwards, one important feature for buildings that housed LGBTQ establishments was anonymity for fear of attracting violence. The history of Gay bars and of buildings housing the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC, a Gay-friendly religious denomination) have many examples of dangers associated with being visible. These include passers-by shooting into them, tossing explosives, or setting them on fire — both when they were empty and when they were occupied.
Architectural Icon: Castro Theatre
The Gay community has been associated with theater in the USA since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Community centers built in the adjoining Gay communities of Cherry Grove and the Pines on Fire Island are both theaters as well as meeting places and venues for worship services, the first MCC church was an old theater, and the grand Manhattan nightclub, the Saint, was originally the Commodore Theater.
One building that is internationally recognized as an iconic structure for the Gay community is the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Built in 1922 in Spanish baroque style, the colonial façade (resembling a Mexican cathedral) and ornate art deco interior were part of the original design created by architect Timothy Pflueger. The marquee and vertical neon sign were added in the late 1930s.
Although the Castro was not built as a Gay edifice, its grandeur saved it from demolition as the neighborhood around it had an increasingly Gay presence from the middle of the twentieth century on. In the 1970s, plans were drawn for the Castro’s demolition. But the demographic of the neighborhood around the theater had shifted from general working class to predominantly Gay. The vintage status of the Spanish colonial exterior/art deco interior theater, with its large neon sign, pipe organ, tile work, sgraffito (Italian for “scratch” in which wet plaster is carved) murals, ornate tent-like ceiling, and chandeliers, inspired locals in the Gay community such as Harvey Milk, whose camera shop was on the same street, to push for historic San Francisco landmark status for the Castro in 1977.
Buildings designed for Gay men’s dance folklife reflect functionality and aesthetics specifically for the Gay male community. Two examples of this are the Saint and the Paradise Garage.
The aformentioned Saint in Manhattan was built within the structure that had formerly been the Fillmore East, a concert hall, which itself had formerly been the Commodore, a Yiddish theater and movie house. Renovation of the space emphasized procession (design to promote movement from one space to the next), sound quality, and an extraordinary ever-changing visual environment. The procession of the Saint was from lower to higher, and from narrow to spacious. The street level entrance led a corridor that opened up to the main bar and socializing area. From there, steps rose to an even more open in-the-round dance floor, which had a dome of theatrical scrim over it on which multicolored lights could cast patterns, and through which a planetarium light system could display the stars in the night sky. Further up, the balcony looking down on the dance floor was a darker, more intimate semi-floating space for doing recreational drugs and having sex. Like the Castro Theatre, the style of the Saint was designed to express high quality and style, but without the baroque elaboration of the Castro’s interior.
The procession of the Paradise Garage (also in Manhattan) was likewise from lower to higher, with a staircase that led from the street entrance through an actual garage to the club proper. The interior of the Garage was less elaborate than the Saint, and even more committed to sound quality. Conspicuously above the dance floor was a spacious DJ booth, and above everything was a rooftop deck for relaxation, dancing, and watching the sunrise when weather permitted.
The tradition of emphasis on grandeur and sound quality continues in Circuit party venues in which the interiors are accented with large decorative shapes, sophisticated light systems, and sound systems specifically tailored to the space to give the dance floor high quality sound. The same aesthetic considerations extend to outdoor events (many with temporary metal-framed structures) during Winter Party, Dinah Shore Weekend, White Party-Palm Springs, White Party-Miami, Ascension-Fire Island, and parties during Gay Disney Weekend.
Leave No Sign: Michfest and the Land
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michfest), an annual event near Hart, Michigan, has a minimal-impact architectural aesthetic based upon Lesbians’ respect for the Land, a spiritual-ecological ethos in which as little as possible is done to the area and its surrounding environment. All structures are purposefully temporary, and the only permanent features are power lines, wells, and a short paved path for wheelchairs. Like the Saint and Paradise Garage, the Land is a private space, and is designed to be as such with checkpoints to determine who should enter.
Author of Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire Aaron Betsky agreed to review this article and comment on it for the Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife:
I do not think that [the Castro Theatre] was ever identified with the LGBT community beyond being in the Castro [District], and the preservation battles that mattered had more to do with zoning, I think, than saving the theater… I wonder whether the dissemination of queer imagery through popular culture, namely in the work of queer interior designers in magazines and through the sets of Hollywood movies, would not be important to mention. I would also argue that Studio 54, because of its cross-over appeal, also had at least as great an importance as The Saint.
Betsky, Aaron. Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire. New York: Morrow, 1997.
Cheren, Mel, Gabriel Rotello, and Brent Nicholson Earle. My Life at the Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin’. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2003.
Higgins, Lisa. Reconstructing Gender, Personal Narrative, and Performance at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Dissertation for the Graduate School of the University of Missouri-Columbia, 2008.
Leyland, Winston. Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism. San Francisco, CA: Leyland, 2001.