True Colors of Stonewall

The Stonewall Inn. Photo by Jason Villemez.

Imagine if you could go back to Stonewall the first night of the riot. What do you see? Red, brown and black. That’s my answer to anyone who asks me what the inside of the Stonewall looked like before that infamous raid on that now famous night in 1969. It was inexplicable to me why those colors were in my memory. That changed a few weeks ago, when during an emotional visit to 51 Christopher Street, the memory of that building and the memory of that night returned to me and helped me realize why those colors were front and center in my mind when it comes to Stonewall. More on that in a moment.

By June 2024, the original Stonewall, the space the bar occupied on that night, will be reunited. What you see today in the recreated Stonewall is only half of the original building that housed Stonewall. The other half is next door, and in June 2024 it will be reopened as the Official Stonewall Visitor’s Center. It is now under renovation, and as part of that renovation the interior has been stripped to its core. And you can actually see and imagine what it was like in 1969. 

My visit last week was arranged to identify various elements of Stonewall.  As they design the Visitor’s Center, they are very aware that visitor’s want to feel, see and understand the history of that night and how it sparked a spirit that changed all our lives. 

Up until that visit, the actual floor plan of the old Stonewall has been debated amongst us who frequented it. My recollection, all along, has been that after entering the front doors, there was a short hallway, then an opening entrance into the bar on the right. With the renovations currently underway, that doorway is now visible, though bricked up. And it is as I’ve recalled. Seeing that entrance and walking around the stripped down space made the memory of those days come alive for me.

It helped me remember why I always describe, when entering the bar, I saw red, brown, and black. Rewalking those steps for the first time in over 50 years, I not only saw it, I felt it. The doorway, now bricked up, had red curtains. As I looked at that bricked up entrance I actually felt the touch of those red curtains; I felt the material in my mind. Then looking at the wall in front of me, I saw the brown paneling, and looking at the ceiling I saw the painted black ceiling. Walking to the back, at what would be the end of the bar, was where I spent most of my time: the dance floor. 

The visit also made me aware of what my memory didn’t allow me to recall.  Flashes of your former life cause lots of memories and emotions. When asked about the jukebox, my answer is that I didn’t use it, since I couldn’t afford to spend the few coins. The feeling of not having the money to even play a jukebox came back to me. At the moment the location of the jukebox is blocked from my memory, others will need to answer that question. Luckily the historians have found the floor plan. 

While my visit was for the historians, designers, and those documenting this transformation of the historic building, there was one personal opportunity that I was not going to miss. 

The other question that I’m often asked about Stonewall is: what did you dance to?  My memory of that is crystal clear. “Aquarius, Let the Sun Shine In” by the Fifth Dimension. The night before my visit last week, I downloaded that song onto my iPhone.  After answering all the questions from those in attendance, I took one moment for myself. Moving to the back, my iPhone in my hand, I turned on the music, and then once again, as I did when I was 18 years old, I danced at the Stonewall.

Mark Segal is an American journalist. He is the founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and has won numerous journalism awards for his column "Mark My Words," including best column by The National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspaper Association and The Society of Professional Journalists.