San Francisco moves to landmark historic Lyon-Martin house

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday October 20, 2020
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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

San Francisco officials are moving forward to landmark the home where the late lesbian pioneering couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin lived throughout most of their 54 years together.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in support of starting the process at its meeting Tuesday, October 20. The city's historic preservation commission now has 90 days to take up the matter and send it back to the supervisors for a final vote on adding the property at 651 Duncan Street in the city's Noe Valley neighborhood to the list of local landmarks.

The 5,700 square foot lot includes two parcels. One was the site of the couple's two-story cottage, and the other is an undeveloped area the women had tended as a garden.

At its meeting Monday (October 19) the supervisors' land use and transportation committee had voted 3-0 in support of designating the property as a local historic site.

"If there is a deserving landmark, this is certainly it," said District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the panel.

Noting he had visited the women at their home, Peskin asked to be made a co-sponsor of the resolution, as did the other committee members, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safa�.

As the Bay Area Reporter first reported last month, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is spearheading the effort to grant historic status to the property after it recently sold for $2.25 million. The B.A.R. has been unable to reach the buyer, David R. Duncan, and neither he nor a representative addressed the supervisors committee.

San Francisco Heritage and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are both supportive of seeing the property become a city landmark. A new group, Friends of the Lyon-Martin House, has formed to push for the designation and includes leaders of the GLBT Historical Society as well as friends of the late couple.

After first meeting in Seattle in 1952, Lyon and Martin moved to San Francisco. As recounted in the city's LGBTQ historic context statement released in 2015, Lyon moved first and found a flat in the Castro district in which Martin moved into on Valentine's Day 1953.

Two years later they bought the 756 square foot home atop a steep hill in Noe Valley. As Lyon recounted to Shayne E. Watson, a lesbian and architectural historian who co-wrote the citywide LGBTQ report, their only requirement when house hunting was to buy one "with a view."

Their home would become a gathering place within the city's lesbian community and the site of various meetings and events. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) addressed one gathering there while standing on the staircase of the two-level cottage reportedly built in 1908.

Journalists and co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States, Lyon and Martin would make history again in 2004 when they were the first couple to be married by San Francisco officials in defiance of California's prohibition of same-sex marriage.

When the state Supreme Court tossed out the homophobic law, the women were the first same-sex couple to legally marry in California on June 16, 2008. Weeks later, on August 27, Martin died at the age of 87 in San Francisco with Lyon at her side. This past spring Lyon died at the age of 95 on April 9.

During last week's confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee jurist Amy Coney Barrett, judiciary committee member Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) prominently displayed a photo of Lyon and Martin exchanging their vows. It was meant as a visual reminder that LGBTQ rights, including marriage equality, could be rolled back by the nation's highest court should Barrett be seated as its sixth conservative justice.

Watson has helped to initiate the landmark request and formation of the friends group. She and Donna Graves, a public historian based in Berkeley who co-authored the citywide LGBTQ context statement, had included the Lyon-Martin house on a list of LGBTQ historic properties they identified as likely eligible for designation as a city landmark and listing on the California and national registers of historic places.

While the state and federal listings are largely honorific, a city landmark designation would provide a level of protection to the property should its new owners submit plans to raze it in order to build a larger structure. While a property owner can seek historic landmark status, a member of the Board of Supervisors or the city's planning department working with the historic preservation commission can also seek adding a property to the list of 288 local landmarks currently in San Francisco.

To date, San Francisco has granted city landmark status to only four sites for their importance to LGBTQ history. Two are gay bar locations, one the former home to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the fourth was the late gay supervisor Harvey Milk's residence and former Castro Camera shop at 573 Castro Street.

All are located in commercial corridors. The Lyon-Martin house would be the first LGBTQ historic site in a solely residential neighborhood and the first focused solely on lesbian history.

"In my view, and I hope in yours, the site is of historic value to San Francisco and the LGBTQ rights movement across the world and it should be appropriately recognized and preserved," said Mandelman during Monday's hearing. "This is the beginning of the process but a critical step for the city to weigh in on what happens to the site in the future."

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