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Panel advances landmark request for SF Japantown site with LGBTQ ties

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The YWCA/Issei Women's Building is located in San Francisco's Japantown. Photo: Courtesy the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
The YWCA/Issei Women's Building is located in San Francisco's Japantown. Photo: Courtesy the California Department of Parks and Recreation.  

A historic Japantown site with ties to LGBTQ history is on its way to becoming a city landmark. It would be only the second historic property related to San Francisco's Japanese community and the fifth having to do with the LGBTQ community to be granted such recognition.

Earlier this year the property at 1830 Sutter Street was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of three sites in San Francisco with ties to LGBTQ history on the federal register and the fourth property on the West Coast given such federal recognition due to its place in LGBTQ history. The two other sites in San Francisco listed on the National Register partly due to their LGBTQ historical ties are the Women's Building and the Federal Building at 50 U.N. Plaza.

At its meeting Wednesday, November 18, the city's historic preservation commission unanimously voted 6-0 to recommend that the Board of Supervisors approve the city landmark designation for the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women's Building. The vote had been expected, as the oversight body last month had approved moving forward with the building owner's request that it become a city landmark.

"For so many reasons this is such an important building," noted Commissioner Kate Black, adding that it is also an "under-represented landmark type" and is a "building that still retains a high level of integrity. Most importantly, it was designed by master architect Julia Morgan. It is a sensational and unusual building worthy of preservation under an article 10 landmark."

Morgan had worked pro bono on behalf of a group of Issei, or first generation, Japanese American women in the United States who were barred from using the YWCA's other facilities. The building was constructed in 1932 and sports an eclectic Japanese-inspired style. (An addition also designed in a Japanese-inspired style was built in 2017.)

The Japantown Y site was where the pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society hosted its first convention in May 1954, according to the city's LGBTQ historic context statement. Bayard Rustin, the late gay African American civil rights leader, also taught a course at the site, according to research done by Donna Graves in preparing the request to list it on the National Register.

(While visiting Pasadena, California January 31, 1953 as part of his lecture tour on the topics of anti-colonial struggles in West Africa, Rustin was arrested after being discovered having sex with two men in a parked car and forced to register as a sex offender. Governor Gavin Newsom in February posthumously pardoned Rustin.)

The Japantown building is also now listed in the California Register of Historical Resources, providing some protections to the two-story-over-basement, wood frame structure. Its designation as a city landmark will provide it with even greater protection from seeing its exterior facade from being altered or the building being demolished should it ever change ownership.

The owner of the site, the Nihonmachi Little Friends, has sought to see that it become a city landmark since 2013. Cathy Inamasu, executive director of the child care center, told the historic preservation commission that when it became owners of the building in 2002 as part of an out-of-court settlement with the Y, it pledged to maintain the structure's architectural integrity.

Having it become a city landmark will help to promote the story of Issei women, which is "not well known" among the general public, Inamasu told the oversight body.

"It needs to be acknowledged and celebrated," she said. "We are incredibly proud to be caretakers of this historic property."

Inamasu added that it is an "important part of the historic fabric of San Francisco."

The Board of Supervisors will now have to finalize making the property a city landmark. To date, San Francisco has granted city landmark status to four sites specifically for their importance to LGBTQ history.

Two are gay bar locations — the Twin Peaks in the Castro and the now-defunct Paper Doll in North Beach — and one is the former home to the AIDS Memorial Quilt on upper Market Street. The fourth is the late gay supervisor Harvey Milk's residence and former Castro Camera shop at 573 Castro Street.

At the request of LGBTQ community members and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the Board of Supervisors last month instructed city planning staff to also seek city landmark status for the house at 651 Duncan Street in the city's Noe Valley neighborhood a city landmark. It was long the home of the late lesbian pioneering couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and was recently sold by the late couple's family to David R. Duncan for $2.25 million.

The historic preservation commission has until mid-January to take up the matter before sending it back to the supervisors for a final vote on designating it a city landmark.

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