Lyon-Martin friends group shelves bid to buy historic SF lesbian property

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday October 20, 2023
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The Friends of the Lyon-Martin House has determined it cannot raise the $1.2 million necessary to buy the historic home of late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
The Friends of the Lyon-Martin House has determined it cannot raise the $1.2 million necessary to buy the historic home of late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

A group instrumental in preserving the two-story cottage once owned by lesbian pioneering couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin has determined it is unable to purchase the historic San Francisco property. It casts doubt on seeing the Noe Valley residence become a home museum or used as an artist or activist in residence program.

Lyon and Martin had purchased their home at 651 Duncan Street in 1955, and it quickly became a gathering place within the city's lesbian community. It was also the site of various meetings and events for the Daughters of Bilitis, the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States that the women had co-founded that year.

In 2008, the women were the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California that June. Their nuptials were due to a decision from the state's supreme court that paved the way for such ceremonies to occur until the passage of Proposition 8 by voters on the November ballot that year. (Federal courts later ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional, and voters are being asked to strike the ballot measure's language from the California Constitution on the 2024 November ballot.)

Lyon died in 2020 at the age of 95, while Martin had died in 2008 at the age of 87 just weeks after the two had wed. With her mothers both gone, Kendra Mon put their home, surrounded by a vacant garden plot, up for sale three years ago. Paul McKeown and his wife, Meredith Jones-McKeown, bought it for $2.25 million with the intention of building a new home on the site for their family.

News of the sale prompted preservationists and LGBTQ historians to work with gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents Noe Valley, to have the city deem the property a local landmark. The Board of Supervisors approved doing so in May 2021.

But, at the request of the property owners, the landmark designation only included the cottage, as the Bay Area Reporter reported at the time. The decision allowed for the new owners to construct a new residence on the vacant section of the hillside parcel next to the Lyon-Martin home.

A view of the vacant plot of land, left, that is part of the property containing the Lyon-Martin House, seen at right. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

They offered to sell the existing building to the Friends of the Lyon-Martin House for $1.2 million, according to Shayne Watson, a lesbian and architectural historian who co-founded the group. Earlier this year the friends held a charrette inside the home to discuss its future usage and announced its desire to buy it in April on its Instagram page.

"In seeking to acquire the house, the Friends of Lyon-Martin House need your support. The house requires significant structural repairs, and its small size, limited occupancy, and siting on a steep hill in a residential neighborhood present public access and accessibility challenges," the group noted in its post.

As of this month, it was the last post by the friends group on its page. During a phone interview in early October with the B.A.R. Watson said the group had been unable to raise the money needed to buy the Lyon-Martin House. She expects it will be put back on the market for sale at some point.

"We couldn't raise that money," said Watson. "We have a plan in place for acquisition, but we are just a small committee that I arranged. We don't have expertise in terms of fundraising. None of us feel comfortable asking for money."

Whoever does buy the home hopefully will be committed to its preservation, added Watson.

"We want it to go to someone in the community," she said.

Mandelman said it is "unfortunate" that the friends group is not able to buy the historic structure, which is San Francisco's 292nd city landmark.

"It is good the building is still there and it is protected in as far as you can protect something with a landmark designation," he said. "It is disappointing they were not able to come up with the money to ensure it would be operated by a nonprofit committed to the mission of preserving Del and Phyllis' memory."

He told the B.A.R. October 16 that he had not been apprised of the friends groups' inability to raise the money needed to buy the home.

"They have not communicated with me, so it's hard for me to comment without knowing about their efforts," said Mandelman. "It is disappointing, and a little surprising to me. But, again, I don't know what they have done or tried to do."

Hoping legacy is honored
Even though it has landmark status, the house can still be acquired for use as a private residence. Should someone purchase it to be their home, Mandelman told the B.A.R. he hoped they would honor its legacy as an important LGBTQ historic site.

"I think you have to do it with the clarity and a lot of care to preserving the historic integrity of the property. Maybe there will be someone for whom owning the Lyon-Martin House and being able to be the steward of that will be exciting," said Mandelman. "A great outcome would be for it to be a museum or some nonprofit-owned resource. If a private owner wants to own it and use it in a way consistent with its landmark status, I think it is a very good next best option."

The Mckeowns have not responded to the B.A.R.'s request for comment about what their plans are in regard to the Lyon-Martin House. Earlier this year, they received permission from the city's planning department to build a four-story single family dwelling over a garage with a basement that will have 649 Duncan Street as its address.

"No further environmental review is required," wrote senior environmental planner Don Lewis in his determination dated January 17 that the project was exempt under the state's California Environmental Quality Act. "There are no unusual circumstances that would result in a reasonable possibility of a significant effect ... Building permit approved."

To date, no work has been done at the property. A visit to the site October 19 found the yard overgrowing with vegetation and no indication that any construction would soon commence.

"Without the funds to acquire the property, and the longer the landmark is allowed to decay, the future of the Lyon-Martin House is uncertain," Watson told the B.A.R. in a follow-up conversation October 19.

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