Darcelle's drag club lands in historic spotlight
Portland's Darcelle XV drag club has long been a local entertainment landmark. Now it could find a place in the nation's history.
Darcelle's Showplace in Old Town's 110-year-old Foster Hotel building on Northwest Third Avenue could be nominated in mid-June to the National Register of Historic Places. Oregon's State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation will consider the local landmark for the national history list based solely on its connection to the city's gay community.
It's a first for Oregon. No other local site or building has been considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places based only on its connection to the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) history.
"That's a big deal," said Kristen Minor, a former architect and city planner who wrote the 64-page national register nomination report with Portland author and playwright Don Horn of Triangle Productions. "I've got my fingers crossed that we'll be able to do this."
Most sites and buildings are considered for the national history list because of their architectural style, their connection to a local historic event or person, or their part in a historic district. Some local buildings named to the national register have mentioned their link to the city's LGBTQ community, but they were listed for other reasons. This would be the first to directly connect a place with the history of the region's LGBTQ community.
Minor began working last year on the intensive research project to name Darcelle's club to the history list when Horn approached her about making the cabaret a historic site. Horn had compiled most of the information, but needed help composing the very official and detailed nomination report, Minor said.
By focusing on the club's prominence in promoting gay rights issues, Minor said they hoped to overcome other potential problems, like the building's many renovations and changes, something that could derail historic nominations. "The club and the building have changed quite a bit," she said. "It's not frozen in time. It's an entertainment venue."
If the nomination is approved, it could mean more support for similar projects in the future, Minor said. "I know there's a lot of people really hoping that if this goes through it will kind of open the door for other listings under the same general theme."
Portland's Historic Landmarks Commission signed off on the proposed nomination in early June. Minor, the commission's chairwoman, recused herself from the discussion.
Darcelle XV's Showcase is one of seven sites the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation considers Friday, June 19, for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Other local sites include the Postal Employees Credit Union building on Southeast 10th Avenue, the German Baptist Old Person's Home on Northeast 81st Avenue, the New Fliedner Building on Southwest Washington Street and the 37-building Downtown Forest Grove Historic District.
The committee meets by Skype beginning at 9 a.m. A discussion of the Darcelle XV nomination is scheduled for about 12:30 p.m.
Once a site has been nominated by the state committee, it must be approved by the National Park Service, which maintains the national register. The process sometimes takes several months.
A handful of national sites
Portland's LGBTQ community has a long history, much of it hidden. Local buildings on the national history list tell part of the story. Hotel Alma (1911) on Southwest Stark Street, also known as the Crystal Hotel, was home to Club Baths bathhouse, a gay gathering spot in the early 1970s. The hotel was named to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2009 in a group of downtown historic properties.
The Imperial Hotel (1894) on Southwest Broadway and Fourth Avenue, was a centerpiece in the 1912 city 'vice clique' scandal involving several prominent men who were part of an underground gay community. Oregon lawmakers used the scandal to strengthen the state's sodomy laws (later struck down by the state Supreme Court). The hotel was named to the national register in 1985 as part of a group of glazed terra cotta buildings in downtown.
The Selling Building (1910) on Southwest Alder Street near Sixth Avenue, held the office of Dr. J. Allen Gilbert, who in 1918 helped Dr. Alan L. Hart (born Alberta Lucille Hart) transition from female to male. Gilbert agreed that Hart's life would be better if he was allowed to transition instead of being "treated" and "cured," the traditional way those cases were handled. The building was named to the national register in 1991 because of its architectural style.
The Foster Hotel building (1910), where Darcelle XV Showcase is located, was named to the national register in December 1975 as part of the Portland Skidmore/Old Town Historic District.
Even the Northeast Portland home of Darcelle XV club owner and legendary female impersonator Walter Cole (Darcelle herself), the 1896 Elmer and Linnie Miller House, was named in late February to the National Register of Historic Places primarily because of its Queen Anne style architecture prominent in the Eliot Neighborhood and its connection to attorney Elmer Miller and his wife, Celinda. A 51-page nomination report included three paragraphs about Cole's key role in state gay rights activism.
In 2014, the National Park Service began a push to include more LGBTQ-connected historic sites on the national list. Across the country, 10 sites have been named historic places because of their connection with LGBTQ history and events. Those include New York City's Stonewall Inn (listed in 1999), ground zero for the national gay rights movement; the Henry Gerber House in Chicago; the Furies Collective House in Washington, D.C.; New York City's Julius' Bar; Cherry Grove, New York's Community House and Theater; and the Dr. Franklin K. Kameny Residence in Washington, D.C.
A stage balanced on an old safe
The three-story brick, 51,000-square-foot Foster Hotel is about a block south of the Lan Su Chinese Garden in the city's Old Town/Chinatown district. The hotel closed in 1973. Two years later, the upper floors were converted to the Lyndon Musolf Manor low-income apartments. Darcelle XV has operated a nightclub on the building's ground-floor in the former Demas Tavern since 1967. The club that has been remodeled several times in the past 50 years.
Minor said the nightclub's significant historic period was from 1967, when Cole bought the building and established his nightclub drag queen showcase, to 1975, before major renovations altered parts of the structure. (A 2007 seismic retrofit rebuilt most of the ground floor commercial area.)
"As a nightclub and drag venue, the aesthetic of Darcelle XV Showplace reflects the improvised, low-budget and self-reliant illusion of glamour that resulted from its development during this era when drag was celebrated mostly behind closed doors due to gay discrimination and the threat of harassment," Minor and Horn wrote in the national register nomination report. "The club interior has changed over time, but retains its essential components illustrating its use as a drag venue and strongly reflects the same character as the space had by the early- to mid-1970s."
When Cole began performing as Darcelle at Demas Tavern with Tina Sandell, the pub was rebuilt into a cabaret. The nightclub's first stage was two large tables "pushed together and stabilized on top of a big metal safe, next to the men's room in the southeast corner of the tavern space," according to the nomination report. "A changing room was rigged up behind a curtain hung on a wire. The first stage lighting was a slide projector set on top of the popcorn machine. On the other side of the wall, the space was used for pool tables and dancing."
World's oldest performing drag queen
Minor and Horn wrote that Darcelle XV's was important to the regional LGBTQ history because of "its open acknowledgment that drag was part of gay culture and that most of the female impersonators on stage were gay. This public acknowledgement was unprecedented during a time across the United States when being a homosexual was illegal and considered a mental illness, and drag was stigmatized even within the gay subculture."
The club "may have been one of the only places in the United States where a gay owner could be seen taking tickets at the door and then getting up on stage in drag."
Minor and Horn wrote that Darcelle XV "strongly contributed to the ongoing popularity of drag on the West Coast, and therefore to the societal acceptance of gay culture, especially drag, in the United States." Cole built relationships with prominent people across the region to help his business thrive, they wrote. That opened the door to more public acceptance of gay rights issues.
Prior to 1970, Darcelle XV was one of only two drag clubs in the nation with owners who also were featured performers. It is considered one of the longest running female impersonation cabarets on the West Coast. Even at 89, Cole still performs in full Darcelle regalia. In August 2016, Cole was named the World's Oldest Performing Drag Queen by the Guinness World Record book.
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