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San Francisco planners recommend landmark status for lesbian historic site

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The home of late lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, center, sits atop a steep hill in Noe Valley with a large part of the second parcel undeveloped. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
The home of late lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, center, sits atop a steep hill in Noe Valley with a large part of the second parcel undeveloped. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom  

The San Francisco Planning Department is recommending landmark status for the Noe Valley house where beloved lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin lived throughout most of their 54 years together. It would be the first LGBTQ historic site in the city located in a solely residential neighborhood and the first focused solely on lesbian history.

At its February 17 meeting the city's Historic Preservation Commission will vote on landmarking the home. Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman authored the resolution unanimously supported by the Board of Supervisors last fall to begin the landmark process for the property at 651 Duncan Street.

The supervisors would need to vote a second time on declaring the site a city landmark, making it the fifth such site listed specifically for being tied to LGBTQ history. A survey of San Francisco's LGBTQ cultural heritage released in 2015 had called on city officials to designate the Lyon-Martin House a historic site.

Mandelman was prompted into action following the sale of the Lyon-Martin House last summer several months after Lyon's death in April at the age of 95. Martin died in 2008 at the age of 87 weeks after the women were the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California that June.

Their 5,700 square foot Noe Valley property sold for $2.25 million and sits atop a steep hill. The parcel includes the couple's two-story cottage and an undeveloped area the women had tended as a garden.

In her report to the oversight body, senior preservation planner Pilar LaValley revealed that some of Lyon and Martin's cremated remains, at their request, were scattered/interred on the site. She also pointed out landmarking the Lyon-Martin House would correct several omissions that can be found in the list of nearly 300 city landmarks that have been approved.

"The proposed landmark designation addresses two previously identified underrepresented landmark types: property that is small-scale and properties associated with underrepresented racial/ethnic/social groups," wrote LaValley.

Included in her 95-page report are historical factoids about the couple and their home, such as it being the site of a cocktail party that was also part of the official schedule of events for attendees of the Daughter of Bilitis' first national convention in 1960. The gathering was the first such held by a lesbian-rights organization in the United States, noted LaValley.

And LaValley concluded the kitchen table in their home was probably where the women typed up many editions of DOB's monthly newsletter, The Ladder, for which Lyon (1956-1960) and Martin (1960-1962) each served as editor. The women co-founded the influential political and social organization.

"Their home represents the place most closely associated with Del Martin's and Phyllis Lyon's productive lives as lesbian-rights activists, advocates, educators, and authors," notes the fact sheet for the landmark designation.

Lyon and Martin, journalists who first met in Seattle in 1952, moved to San Francisco the following year and lived in a flat in the Castro district. They bought the Noe Valley house in 1955 because of the view.

The historical analysis of the property references the 2003 documentary "No Secret Anymore: The Life and Times of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin," in which Lyon credits the couple having purchased their home as allowing them to focus on their political activism and organizing. It also notes how they hosted many DOB meetings, social events, and private parties there for other lesbians.

"Oh, gosh, we used to have dance parties here all the time," Lyon told the Bay Area Reporter in 2017.

With its views of the city's skyline, the property is a prime location for a larger development. According to emails obtained by the B.A.R., the owners Paul McKeown and his wife, Meredith Jones-McKeown, intend to construct a single-family residence on the empty lot, which has an address of 649 Duncan.

As for the Lyon-Martin House, the emails indicate the couple plans "only to improve 651 Duncan only to the extent appropriate after much further study (potentially kitchen/bath, etc or other non-impactful ideas)," wrote their architect, Yakuh Askew, in early November.

According to the planning staff report, the couple has indicated to the city department that they support landmark designation for the 651 Duncan Street house but not for the empty parcel at 649 Duncan Street. The department is recommending landmark designation for both.

In a letter sent to city officials expressing its support for landmarking the property, the National Trust for Historic Preservation noted that the stories and achievements of women like Lyon and Martin for too long have been "lost, forgotten, or deliberately obscured" from America's history.

"Our new national campaign, Where Women Made History, was launched specifically to tackle these structural inequities by reshaping how women's history is interpreted and honored, and raising up places across the country, like the Lyon-Martin House, where women of all backgrounds, ages, beliefs, and identities have made a meaningful difference in their communities and in the world," wrote Christina Morris, the trust's senior field director in Los Angeles, and Brian Turner, its senior field officer and attorney in San Francisco.

The historic preservation commission meeting begins at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 17. It will be livestreamed online at https://www.sfgovtv.org/planning

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