San Francisco historic panel supports narrow landmark status for lesbian site

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 17, 2021
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The city's historic preservation commission has recommended that only the home of lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon be landmarked, leaving the garden portion of the two-parcel property available for development. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
The city's historic preservation commission has recommended that only the home of lesbian pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon be landmarked, leaving the garden portion of the two-parcel property available for development. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom

An effort to landmark the San Francisco property where beloved lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin lived throughout most of their 54 years together has gained partial backing from the city's preservation advisory body.

LGBTQ leaders and preservationists are seeking landmark status for both the couple's residence and adjoining garden plot, which was revealed this month to be where cremains of Lyon and Martin were interred and scattered. The city planning department had also recommended the entire property be designated as a city landmark.

But the property owners, who claim they were unaware of the historic nature of the property when they purchased it last summer, argued that only the two-story cottage with the address of 651 Duncan Street should be landmarked. They intend to build their own residence on the garden plot, which has the address of 649 Duncan Street, and contend it doesn't warrant being included in the landmark designation.

At its meeting Wednesday (February 17) the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission agreed with the property owners. Voting 6-1, the commission recommended that the Board of Supervisors only make the Noe Valley residence a city landmark and not include the garden plot in the designation.

"I agree these women are kind of the Martin Luther King of the LGBT community with their activism and courage. Certainly in their time, to come forward as they did and do the work as they did," said Commissioner Jonathan Pearlman, a gay man and local architect who made the motion to landmark just half of the property.

Had Lyon and Martin tended to the garden and it was more intrinsic to telling their story, Pearlman said he could see why it should also be landmarked. As that was not the case, he said there was no reason to include it in the landmark designation.

"It didn't contribute to the story of these two women and the work they did," said Pearlman, adding that landmarking that portion of the site would "burden" the new property owners.

Commissioner Richard S.E. Johns expressed similar reservations, since most development proposals for city landmark sites need to be reviewed and approved by the oversight panel. He questioned the necessity of hampering plans to redevelop the garden lot.

"Nobody participating in this meeting really can speak authoritatively about what restrictions would be on this lot were it included in this landmark," said Johns. "I am still worried what we are doing is subjecting the owner of the property to unwarranted expense in attempting to develop it even if it is just coming back before this commission."

Commissioner Aaron Hyland, a gay man who is president of the panel, was the lone vote against the motion as he supported landmarking the entire property. He thanked the property owners "for being good sports" and recognizing the "significance" of the Lyon-Martin House.

"It must have been a difficult situation to not understand what you had bought and not being full participants in the landmark process," said Hyland.

Matter goes to supervisors

When the supervisors take up the matter, likely sometime in April, they can either agree with the commission's recommendation, or ignore it and landmark both parcels. Either way, 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.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman authored the resolution unanimously supported by the supervisors last fall to begin the landmark process for the property. He was prompted into action following the sale of the Lyon-Martin House 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.

He told the Bay Area Reporter following the commission's decision that he is undecided at the moment on if he will request the entire property be landmarked or just the plot with the Lyon-Martin House on it.

"I am grateful for the work of the planning staff and the commission. I am grateful and glad they saw merit in the designation for this site as a landmark," said Mandelman, adding that he wanted to better understand the reasons behind the vote before making a determination on how to proceed.

Shayne E. Watson, a lesbian and architectural historian who co-wrote a 2015 survey of San Francisco's LGBTQ cultural heritage that highlighted the historic significance of the Lyon-Martin House, told the B.A.R. she was "frustrated" by the commission's decision. An organizer of the Friends of the Lyon-Martin House group that formed to advocate for the preservation of the couple's home, Watson said the group will be advocating that the supervisors landmark the entire property.

"The most frustrating thing to me was the commissioners kept referring to the undeveloped lot as an empty lot that has no relationship to the women and no association to the significance of the women and totally ignoring the fact the women are buried on the lot," said Watson. "Their cremains are on the site of the undeveloped lot. To me, that means all of it should be considered a memorial."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is also arguing that cremains of the women on the garden plot means it should not only be landmarked but considered a memorial site.

"They made the conscious choice to scatter their cremains there," Christina Morris, the trust's senior field director in Los Angeles, told the commissioners.

Spearheading the trusts' national campaign "Where Women Made History" to landmark sites important for telling the stories and achievements of women like Lyon and Martin, Morris argued it is imperative their entire property by preserved.

"There is vast inequity in sites associated with LGBT rights and civil rights," said Morris, adding that such properties "are woefully underrepresented in the list of San Francisco landmarks and on the national register."

Staff report

As the B.A.R. first reported last week, senior preservation planner Pilar LaValley in her report to the advisory body revealed that some of Lyon and Martin's cremated remains, at their request, were scattered/interred on the site. But she also noted that fact did not add to the relevancy for why the site was worthy of being named a city landmark.

"We acknowledge those cremains could be individually significant per national landmark status," said LaValley at the hearing.

Paul McKeown and his wife, Meredith Jones-McKeown, bought the 5,700 square foot parcel situated atop a steep hill with dramatic views for $2.25 million last summer. Marketed as a prime location for a larger development, they have said they want to build a residence for themselves and their two young daughters on the garden plot.

As for the Lyon-Martin House, the couple has said they are willing to preserve it and give it a remodel to bring it up to current building codes and standards. As such, they are in favor of only landmarking that part of the property.

"We do not plan to demolish the house or impair their memory," said Jones-McKeown, a land use attorney who added that she and her husband were not aware of the property's historical significance when they bought it.

Had they known of the existence of the women's cremains, Jones-McKeown said she and her husband would not have purchased the property. And by designating the garden plot as historic, she said they are concerned it will limit their ability to build a home for their family.

"We want to find a way to honor them," Jones-McKeown said of Lyon and Martin, with perhaps an art piece or bench at the site. "We are normal people and don't have unlimited funds."

Later during the commission meeting Jones-McKeown said the family is open to selling the Lyon-Martin House to a nonprofit or foundation that is interested in running it as a historic site with some public access to it. But no such offer has currently been proposed, she added.

"Yes, of course, we are open to selling the house itself. We had no idea when we purchased it what it was," she said.

As LaValley wrote in her report and reiterated at the hearing, 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. Few of the properties are small-scale and most are not associated with underrepresented racial/ethnic/social groups.

There are currently four city landmarks listed specifically for being tied to LGBTQ history. Two are bar sites, one the first home of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and another the Castro residence and camera store of slain gay supervisor Harvey Milk.

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.

Included in LaValley's 95-page report about the property are historical factoids 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.

Because of the import of what occurred inside the Lyon-Martin House, the planning department's report specifically called out areas within it, like the living room and kitchen area, as contributing factors for why it merits landmark status.

"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.

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 B.A.R. in 2011.

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