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Women's Building closer to being nat'l historic site

by Matthew S. Bajko

The San Francisco Women's Building is closer to becoming a national historic site, which would make it one of a handful of properties across the country given such federal recognition due to its place in LGBT history and only the third on the West Coast.

California's State Historical Resources Commission is expected to support the listing of the Women's Building on the National Register of Historic Places at its meeting February 2. If approved by the state body, then the nomination would be sent to the State Historic Preservation Officer for certification.

After that, the state official would forward the nomination to the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C. for final determination.

The San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission was expected to vote on supporting the Women's Building application at its meeting Wednesday night, after the Bay Area Reporter went to press.

"The Women's Building has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places at the national level of significance. Properties can be listed at the local, state, or national level of significance," Amy H. Crain, a state historian at the California State Office of Historic Preservation, explained in an email to the B.A.R. "The recommendation from the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission will become part of the nomination file."

Despite the Trump administration's moves against LGBT policies and initiatives at a number of federal agencies, it is expected that the Women's Building will be approved as a national historic site. As the B.A.R. reported last January, the Women's Building dropped its initial request to become a National Historic Landmark, a designation with higher stature than that of a national historic site, after the election of President Donald Trump on the advice of federal park advocates.

"The funding source for the National Historic Landmark project is through the National Park Foundation. The advice given was it would be better to pursue a National Register nomination because the funding available is not enough to complete the historic landmark process," Andrew Munoz, a spokesman for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region, had told the B.A.R. at the time.

Donna Graves, a public historian based in Berkeley, has been working on the Women's Building application since 2016 after securing a grant from the National Park Service's LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, which earmarked funding specifically for LGBT historic nominations. She also co-wrote a historic context statement for San Francisco's LGBTQ community and contributed a chapter to the Park Service's LGBTQ theme study.

The Women's Building was founded in 1971 by a group of women that included a number of lesbian leaders, including Roma Guy, whose life and advocacy for the building was depicted last year in the ABC mini-series "When We Rise" about a number of LGBT San Francisco leaders.

In 1979 the Women's Building moved into its current location, at 3543 18th Street near Valencia Street, where it has hosted numerous meetings of LGBT groups and conferences over the years and continues to do so. The building is already deemed a city landmark, though it was listed for its historical significance predating the modern LGBT rights movement.

The Women's Building, noted Graves in the application for the national listing, "sought to explore and articulate how the organization could be a place for contact and coalition to fight sexism, racism, homophobia, imperialism, and other oppressive forces."

Included in the application are a number of documents from the archives of the San Francisco-based GLBT Historical Society, such as a photo of the San Francisco Lesbian Chorus performing in the Women's Building's auditorium in 1980 and a flyer for an event celebrating a new collection of short stories by author Alice Walker, who dated both men and women.

The Women's Building is also noteworthy for its role in the history of second-wave feminism, which Graves notes in the application, is lacking in "site-based documentation" as has happened with "other under-represented histories" in the last decade, because it is just now reaching the 50-year threshold the Park Service uses for determining the historical significance of a social movement.

Graves writes that the Women's Building "is a powerful embodiment of second wave feminism that shaped, and was shaped by, the national movement of second wave feminism."

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who married her husband in the building and served on the board of one of its tenants, Mujeres Unidas Y Activa, told the B.A.R. it would be "amazing" to see it receive federal recognition.

"After watching 'When We Rise,' it is very evident there is a clear and deep LGBT history about that building," said Ronen, whose Mission-based District 9 does not include but borders the Women's Building, which is in District 8.

Should it win federal recognition, the property would be the third such site on the West Coast to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places whose application initially referred to its significance in LGBT history. In recent years, the listings of several properties have been updated to refer to their connections to LGBT history as that information was omitted when their applications were first submitted.

The first West Coast site to be listed on the national register due in part to its ties to LGBT history was the Federal Building (50 UN Plaza) in San Francisco, which was added last year on June 5. Its listing refers to the AIDS/ARC Vigil, a decade-long protest against the lack of a federal response to the deadly disease that was started in 1985 by several gay men who chained themselves to the building's doors.

The second national historic site, listed on September 18, was the Great Wall of Los Angeles, a half-mile long mural that depicts numerous California historical events and figures, including the struggle for LGBT rights.

The Park Service's webpage for its LGBT initiative currently lists 21 LGBT historic places, some landmarks and others historic sites, at

Other sites
In San Francisco the planning department's historic preservation division is moving forward to list two additional sites with ties to the city's LGBT history on the National Register as well as designate them city landmarks. It has hired Shayne Watson, a lesbian and architectural historian, to work on the application for Glide Memorial Church, at 330 Ellis Street in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood, and Graves to complete one for the building that once housed the Japantown YWCA, located at 1830 Sutter Street and now occupied by the private, nonprofit childcare center Nihonmachi Little Friends.

In May 1954, the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society hosted its first convention at the Y building, while Glide's leaders have long pushed for LGBT rights and cared for people living with HIV and AIDS.

Watson is also working with the owners of the historic Paper Doll site in North Beach at 524 Union Street, believed to be San Francisco's first queer restaurant, on securing city landmark status for the building. She recently told the B.A.R. she expects the application to go before the historic preservation commission sometime this year.

Also in the pipeline is granting city landmark status to seven LGBT historic sites the planning department first identified in August of 2016 but has yet to find the resources to work on their applications. The list includes 710 Montgomery Street, formerly home to gay bar the Black Cat, and 440 Broadway, once the site of lesbian bar Mona's 440 Club.

Two buildings that served as headquarters for early LGBT rights groups are on the list: 689-93 Mission Street, known as the Williams Building, where both the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis first met, and 83 Sixth Street, the early home of the Society of Individual Rights.

The other three locations are 101 Taylor Street, where transgender and queer patrons of Gene Compton's Cafeteria rioted in the mid 1960s; 1001 Potrero Avenue, which houses Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital's Ward 86 AIDS clinic, the first of its kind in the country; and 623 Valencia Street, which houses Community Thrift, a secondhand store that raises money for LGBT nonprofits and others founded by the Tavern Guild, the country's first gay business association.

A copy of the application for the Women's Building can be downloaded online at


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