EAST VILLAGE — The first of many commemorative plaques honoring historic Village landmarks was unveiled Wednesday night at a former hub for radical thought on East First Street that operated during the 1800s.
The ceremony, courtesy of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and bankrolled by neighborhood fixture Two Boots Pizza, kicked off a program that will commemorate important historical locations throughout the East Village, NoHo and Greenwich Village.
The inaugural plaque at 50 E. First St. commemorates the Justus Schwab Saloon, which once stood as the epicenter of political and social activism during the mid- to late-1800s.
The GVSHP and Two Boots are planning to afix descriptive plaques to numerous locations in the area celebrating historical figures, neighborhood institutions and notable architecture.
"We don't always know when we pass buildings the incredible history that happened there," said GVSHP executive director Andrew Berman, as he addressed a crowd from the stoop of the East First Street brownstone between First and Second avenues.
"If we don’t work hard to note [the history], it will simply disappear."
Berman and Phil Hartman, the owner of Two Boots Pizza, talked about the project for several years before it became a reality Wednesday.
"It had a long gestation period," said Hartman, who recently celebrated 25 years of business in the neighborhood, and has locations across the country.
Berman and Hartman hope to install at least one plaque each year at a cost of several hundred dollars apiece. The one unveiled Wednesday honors Justus Schwab, a radical labor organizer who lived from 1847 to 1900. At the location he ran a saloon that played a critical role in the life of the city during the time, according to the GVSHP.
"We are a community of pizza eaters and lovers, but we are also a community of artists," said Hartman, who has long been a champion of neighborhood art, decorating the original Two Boots location on Avenue A with murals and mosaics made by local artists.
Hartman said his investment came out of a concern that the area's new and young residents would have any concept of the neighborhood's artistic and radical past.
"Historic preservation is just one piece of what we do," said Hartman, whose daughter, singer-songwriter Odette Hatman, performed at the after-party inside the neighboring First Street Community Garden.
While the gathering of about 100 people outside the building was a celebration, not every property owner welcomed the idea of a plaque.
"Some have declined," said Berman, of other attempts to commemorate the history in the neighborhoods. He said co-ops and owners who live in their buildings have been more receptive than absentee landlords.
"We think it really adds pride to the people living in the building," he said. "We think it's an added value."
While there are more plaques planned, no locations have been officially selected for the future. Berman said the qualifying factors for what locations warrant a plaque are broad-ranging — from a previous home of an important historical figure, to the location of important neighborhood business or institutions, to architecturally significant structures.
Hartman has already eyed a few locations in the East Village he hopes to commemorate, including 19-25 St. Mark’s Place, where 1960s nightclub Electric Circus once called home. The club had headlining acts such as the Seeds and Tina Turner before a bomb explosion shut it down in 1971.