SF Japantown site with LGBTQ ties nears city landmark status

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 5, 2021
Share this Post:
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 close to becoming the first property tied to San Francisco's Japanese American community to be designated a city, state and national landmark. Having already won California and federal recognition, the site is set to secure city recognition later this month.

The Board of Supervisors' land use and transportation committee voted 3-0 Monday in support of naming the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women's Building at 1830 Sutter Street a city landmark. The full board is expected to adopt the landmark request at its April 13 meeting.

It will become only the second local historic property related to San Francisco's Japanese community and the fifth having to do with the LGBTQ community to be granted such recognition. The city's historic preservation commission endorsed granting it local landmark status in November, months after the property 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.

One hundred years ago a group of Issei, or first generation, Japanese American women in the United States who were barred from using the YWCA's other facilities bought the Sutter street property. Because U.S. law at the time prevented them from owning the land outright, they had to work through the YWCA to purchase it.

Master architect Julia Morgan worked pro bono on their behalf to design the building, which was constructed in 1932 and sports an eclectic Japanese-inspired style. (An addition also designed in a Japanese-inspired style was built in 2017.)

Effort started 25 years ago

Twenty-five years ago the local Japanese community began the effort to landmark and preserve the historic structure, noted Karen Kai, a member of the Issei Women's Legacy Project. In doing so they helped unearth a remarkable history that intersects with numerous communities and movements.

"It has broadened our Japanese American community's understanding of the depth that goes with the history that has occurred within our community itself," said Kai, adding that "it is really emotional to me that we are here landmarking their efforts and San Francisco is recognizing what they started for all of us."

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 last February posthumously pardoned Rustin.)

Graves, a public historian based in Berkeley, is now working with Kai and others on a website and film to tell the story of 1830 Sutter Street.

"We are finding more about the building's history that expands its significance," said Graves, who also co-wrote the city's LGBTQ historic context statement.

The Japantown building's listing in the California Register of Historical Resources provides 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 being altered or the building being demolished should it ever change ownership.

"I do want to emphasis how much of our city's history has found a home in this very special place. First as a safe space for the Issei generation to address the needs of the community's women and children at a time no other place really existed to serve this population," said District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents Japantown and is vice chair of the land use panel.

Later it became the location, noted Preston, for meetings and gatherings of various groups working "to advance African American and LGBTQ civil rights and many related political and social causes. It really strikes me, long before we adopted the language of intersectionality, this place really gave it a tangible form."

Preston and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman are the main sponsors of the landmark designation proposal before the board. Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan asked Monday to be made co-sponsors, as they voted along with Preston in support of the landmark and sent it to the full board for a vote.

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.

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.

Mandelman is now seeking to landmark the house at 651 Duncan Street in the city's Noe Valley neighborhood where the late lesbian pioneering couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin lived. The supervisors will vote on it in the coming weeks.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney is seeking to landmark the gay-owned Eagle bar South of Market. It is to be heard by the city's Historic Preservation Commission May 19 before being voted on by the supervisors.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.