BELLOWS FALLS—A small group of community leaders recently met with State Historic Preservation Officer Laura V. Trieschmann in the offices of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project to work on getting Vermont LGBTQ heritage sites on the state and national historic registry.
The process may start in Bellows Falls.
It is no coincidence that this meeting, in the Mary Exner Block, took place a few doors down from the restaurant Popolo, the former site of Andrew’s Inn.
In the 1970s and 80s, Andrew’s Inn housed a disco, bar, hotel, restaurant, co-counseling site, and community space. It primarily served the local LGBTQ community — and scores of visitors coming from Boston and New York looking to escape the city.
The inn not only gave LGBTQ people a place to feel safe and meet others, it became an intersection of the gay- and women’s liberation movements, back-to-the-landers, and other radical groups.
This past summer, Green Mountain Crossroads, the area’s rural LGBTQ community and advocacy organization, presented an oral history project on the Andrew’s Inn. That exhibit is currently available for public viewing in the lobby of RAMP’s headquarters in the Exner Block.
Although Popolo is located in the downtown Bellows Falls historic district, Andrew’s Inn has no recognition from the national or state registers.
“For awhile after it closed [in 1984], when anyone mentioned the Andrew’s Inn, it was ‘wink wink, nod nod’ without really mentioning that it was a gay club,” said John Leppman, Chair of the Rockingham Historical Commission.
“But here we are in 2017,” Leppman said, adding, “[These are] our neighbors we’re talking about. They’re part of our history.”
Push for recognition
The National Park Service began a push in 2014 — with congressional funding — to register and recognize places important to marginalized peoples, through the Underrepresented Community Grants.
This funding goes to state historical preservation offices to support “the survey, inventory, and designation of historic properties that are associated with communities currently underrepresented in the National Register of Historic Places and among National Historic Landmarks.” (www.nps.gov)
Some of the first grants went to historically black colleges and universities, Appalachian peoples’ trails, and places of importance to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in California.
“From there, it’s not much of a jump to registering LGBTQ places,” Trieschmann said, noting that in December, 2016, representatives from the park service contacted her to get Vermont in on the program.
Trieschmann called the meeting at RAMP to begin the conversation, start amassing a list of relevant sites, and bring more people and organizations into the project. The state historical society, the Pride Center, and the Vermont Folklife Center were mentioned as possible partners.
One goal is to get these places noted on the national registry, but recording them on a state level will help preserve and archive them, too, Trieschmann said.
Robert McBride, Executive Director of RAMP, founded the non-profit in 1995, and has been instrumental in bringing visual art, music, and theater to the region — as well as affordable artist housing and retail space to the Exner Block, which RAMP renovated in 2000.
“I came to Bellows Falls because of the Andrew’s Inn in 1981. I was coming to a dinner party. I ended up buying a house here,” McBride said.
“Robert [McBride] and I have had conversations in the last couple of years about how a piece of our town’s history is not as well preserved as it should be: the active gay bar in Bellows Falls in the 70s and 80s. Fortunately, many people who can help preserve its memory are enthusiastic” about doing that, Leppman said.
“I’m really interested in the intersection between culture, art, film, and activism, and Bellows Falls has the opportunity to meld those in a significant way, and Andrew’s Inn represents a capstone,” said Susan MacNeil, who works with RAMP and recently retired as the executive director of AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region.
“There’s a richness to this area’s importance to LGBT history,” said Representative Bill Lippert, D-Chittenden, who has worked in the Legislature to promote LGBTQ rights.
Former three-term Speaker of the House Michael J. Obuchowski, who “chose to take up marriage equality after the [state] Supreme Court ruled gay and lesbian couples [in “Baker v. Vermont] have constitutional rights,” is from Rockingham, Lippert noted.
A pioneering state
Vermont’s civil unions law, passed in 2000, allowed gays and lesbians legal recognition of their relationships. It was the first affirmative legal step in the U.S. toward nationwide marriage equality.
At the meeting, attendees brainstormed other local places and people integral to the LGBTQ movement. Guilford received three mentions, for being the home of the late Ron Squires, the first openly gay member of the state legislature; John Scagliotti, filmmaker and producer of In the Life, the first LGBT news magazine on PBS; and the Packers Corners arts colony and commune, which had numerous LGBTQ members.
The next step is to call a “big meeting in the statehouse,” said Trieschmann, who noted her office can be a catalyst for this project, and she can facilitate this process.
Trieschmann told The Commons, “there are many different ways to preserve and present this history. Oral histories, registries, and roadside markers” are just a few.
“As an architectural historian, I know the building-related questions to ask,” she said, “but I need help with the social questions to help get the history out and present it without glossing over the LGBTQ [aspects]. I want to be respectful of what we’re trying to capture and how to present it.”
Lippert, who identifies as a gay man, presented an idea. “In November, 2015, I was lying in bed, thinking about the African-American History Trail and I said to myself, ’We should have an LGBT history trail in Vermont!’” Lippert said.
“That’s a fabulous idea!” Trieschmann said.
HB Lozito, executive director of Green Mountain Crossroads, said having a history trail could help drive tourism and awareness of LGBTQ people and their contributions to history and culture.
“It would be interesting to look at other [history] trails. Where do they overlap? Can we weave them together and present a complete history of who we are, together?” McBride said.
Lippert urged Trieschmann to make sure lesbian women and transgender people were included and could talk about their lives. “They did not have the same experiences as those identifying as gay men,” he said.
Lippert also cautioned against glossing over some of the uglier aspects of recent history.
“This has not been a welcoming society to [us],” he said, adding, “we need to look at the oppressive structure of our culture. We shouldn’t forget that people were not celebrating our community back then. It was secretive. We had no protections.”
Lippert gave the example of The Hi-Hat Lounge, a popular Burlington spot for gay and straight people to mingle, which was sold and renamed Nectar’s in 1975. “The police came into The Hi-Hat because two men were dancing together,” he said. “You have to understand the context.”
“There should be some sensitivity toward members of the community who want to remain hidden for safety reasons,” said Lozito, who offered the analogy of trans people hesitating to change their gender markers on government documents “because it can make them easier to find.”
In a follow-up conversation with The Commons, Trieschmann acknowledged the real potential for violence against LGBTQ people, and how to preserve heritage sites while keeping people safe.
“We do that protection with archaeological sites. We keep that information private and it gets redacted,” she said. “Those needing access to the information get vetted,” she added.
“Historical preservation is community-based,” said Trieschmann, and “this has to be a community-supported effort” — including the communities it’s recording.
Although the common benchmark for identifying historical places is 50 years, she said that won’t apply to LGBTQ heritage sites.
“The recent past is changing so fast. There’s a need to document it before it’s gone. I don’t think the 50-year rule should be part of the criteria here,” Trieschmann said. “We should document, and document as much as possible.”