The memorial plaque commemorating the site of the Up Stairs Lounge fire has been given a facelift. The restoration effort was part of an international project to clean and restore LGBT+ monuments around the world.
The project is being directed by artist Ryan Leitner who has received a Traveling Fellowship from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University to clean and restore homosexual monuments in the Netherlands and the United States. Leitner will document his experiences in a short film. The City of New Orleans worked with Leitner to refurbish the plaque, which may be found at 604 Iberville Street in the French Quarter.
Vincenzo Pasquantonio, Chair of the City of New Orleans’ Office of Human Rights & Equity, worked with Leitner to coordinate efforts at City Hall during the project.
Reflecting on the origins of his restoration project, Leitner observes, “Over the summer, I curated an exhibition on LGBTQ history titled “Celebrating Resistance,” and worked with different archival projects to create an exhibition of news articles and program materials from historic LGBTQ events that I felt were being forgotten. Half-way through the research, I realized that there are a number of markers and monuments that go unrecognized in our community. Finding inspiration in the maintenance work by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, I found that the best artwork I could make for my community is to give back to the work that has already been made. Like any other family, a chosen family in the queer community must be nurtured and well taken care of. I want this project to stand for that sentiment.”
Last year Leitner and his husband, Robert Fieseler, moved to New Orleans. Fieseler is the author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. Fieseler also serves on the Board of Directors of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, which provided additional funding for the restoration project.
The 1973 arson at the Up Stairs Lounge claimed 32 lives and remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history. Until the Pulse Massacre in Orlando in 2016, it was the deadliest crime against LGBT+ people in the nation’s history.
Leitner notes, “Since our community does not come from a specific place or culture, we don’t always have a stable standing ground to carry on the work of our predecessors. Some of these monuments and plaques have gone into disrepair and could use people to revitalize them as important visualizers of our culture.”
The plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former Up Stairs Lounge had been dedicated in 2003, the 30th anniversary of the fire. The bronze plaque lists the names of those who died in the arson and contains the following inscription:
“At this site on June 24, 1973, in the Upstairs Lounge, these thirty-two people lost their lives in the worst fire in New Orleans. The impact went far beyond the loss of individual lives, giving birth to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights movement in New Orleans.”
In the 16 years since the plaque was installed, it has suffered from neglect and occasional acts of homophobic vandalism.
Leitner’s restoration project adds to the growing attention the Up Stairs Lounge arson has enjoyed in recent years. The fire has traditionally been neglected or underrepresented in LGBT+ historical narratives. Memorial services, second-line parades, and other commemoration ceremonies have accompanied significant anniversaries of the fire. Serious research into the fire and its legacy is more recent. Three books have been published about the fire: Johnny Townsend’s Let the Faggots Burn (2011), Clayton Delery’s The Up Stairs Lounge Arson (2014), and Robert Fieseler’s Tinderbox (2018). The fire has also been the subject of two documentary films—Royd Anderson’s The Upstairs Lounge Fire (2013) and Robert Camina’s Upstairs Inferno (2015).