Preserving LGBTQ+ Landmarks: The Warehouse

Max Chavez, Sr. Architectural Historian at 106 Group, has built a career spearheading successful advocacy campaigns, resulting in city-level recognition and international prominence. Before joining 106 Group, he played a pivotal role preserving The Warehouse in Chicago’s West Loop. Let’s unpack what made preservation possible…

In the 1970s and 80s, historic preservation took off in the United States—the practice of protecting, conserving, and maintaining buildings, objects, landscapes, or other artifacts of historical significance. It acts as a powerful tool for both storytelling and community representation. But LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, and Queer) heritage sites were (until recently) considered too new for what a city deems as historically significant. These sites of importance also tended to be places like clubs, bars, and bathhouses, where proving cultural significance as a landmark is difficult.

Shifting culture though, largely thanks to social rights advances, and work done by other preservationists regarding LGBTQ+ heritage preservation, has helped frame these stories as worth commemorating. The Warehouse, currently one of only three LGBTQ+ landmarks in Chicago, exemplifies this shift.

The Warehouse

The Warehouse was first opened as a Gay nightclub for Black and Latino men with Frankie Knuckles, an openly Gay Black man, as the resident DJ. It’s a Queer heritage story that includes the birth of House music and acts as a symbol of liberation and resistance.

Regardless of being a locally and internationally significant Queer story, The Warehouse had no protections around being preserved. Since many significant LGBTQ+ sites of significance around Chicago – Little Jim’s (the first gay bar in Boystown), Belmont Rocks, Chicago Coliseum, and more – had been demolished during the City’s urban renewal or through other development pressures. When The Warehouse was sold in 2022, having Chicago honor it as a Black and brown LGBTQ+ landmark was critical.

Preserving LGBTQ+ landmarks in Chicago is no easy task though. Obstacles in the way of getting a heritage site honored as a landmark include:

  • The Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS), a City-wide building study, lacks cultural criteria on LGBTQ+
  • Urban renewal and its impact on build environments of LGBTQ+ communities of color
  • No financial incentives for incorporating historic fabric into new developments
  • No existing LGBTQ+ historic context statements
  • Strict LGBTQ+ architectural integrity criteria for landmarks—designating a landmark typically involves historical, cultural, or architectural significance, but not always its connection to a group or community
DJ Frankie Knuckles
Overcoming the Obstacles to LGBTQ+ Preservation

Specifically with regards to The Warehouse, there’s an intersectionality (music history + Black and brown LGBTQ+ experiences) that really appealed to a wide audience and helped amplify the story.

Max and his team at Preservation Chicago launched a petition to help people voice their support for saving The Warehouse. Within weeks, they had racked up around 14,000 signatures from around the world to save The Warehouse and quickly captured the attention of city officials who agreed that swift action was required to save the building. Normally, it can take months or years to mobilize all the labor needed at the city level to landmark a site—but the landmark process started only three weeks after they announced the building as one of the most endangered sites in Chicago. A dedicated and robust house music community in Chicago were also thrilled to spread the word and publicize the petition.

The dance floor of The Warehouse. Photo Credit: Frankie Knuckles Foundation
Queer Stories Told Through Historic Preservation

For City Planners, preserving and honoring LGBTQ+ heritage sites provide an effective mode of storytelling. LGBTQ+ historic preservation acts as an anchor for largely marginalized communities, develops a sense of pride and ownership, and elevates Queer stories.

Before, like with The Warehouse, historic preservation of LGBTQ+ heritage sites relied heavily on petitions and a flood of public support. But amendments to the National Historical Preservation Act now include LGBTQ+ heritage sites. These amendments show a positive shift in cultural attitude, and provide preservationists with tools, funding, and resources.

The Warehouse, 206 S. Jefferson St
The Warehouse - Birthplace of House Music, 1906 & 1917, 206 S. Jefferson Street, Vernon W. Behel. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky.
Max Chavez

Max Chavez, Sr. Architectural Historian at 106 Group, has built a career spearheading successful advocacy campaigns, resulting in city-level recognition and international prominence.

Ben Duckworth

Ben is a proposal writer for 106 Group, with a background in copywriting and professional communications.