SF LGBTQ historic sites now official city landmarks

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday June 21, 2021
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The kitchen of the Lyon-Martin House is shown through a window; the site officially became a city landmark June 21. Photo: Art Bodner
The kitchen of the Lyon-Martin House is shown through a window; the site officially became a city landmark June 21. Photo: Art Bodner

Two historic sites in San Francisco tied to LGBTQ history are now officially city landmarks. The newest to the list, landmark No. 292, is the Lyon-Martin House.

The Noe Valley home of pioneering lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin was added Monday, June 21. Their two-story cottage at 651 Duncan Street is the first local LGBTQ historical property protected solely for its ties to lesbian history.

It is also the first private residence owned by lesbians to receive landmark status in the Western United States, according to local historians. In San Francisco, it is the fifth site to receive city landmark status specifically for its importance to LGBTQ history.

Altogether there are now seven city landmarks that are historically significant to the LGBTQ community. In late May the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women's Building in Japantown became landmark No. 291.

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

The Julia Morgan-designed wood frame structure at 1830 Sutter Street was where the pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society hosted its first convention in May 1954. Bayard Rustin, the late gay African American civil rights leader, also taught a course at the site.

Its current owner, the Nihonmachi Little Friends, had pushed for the property to become a local landmark. It is the first property tied to the city's Japanese American community to receive city, state, and national landmark designations.

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.)

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents Noe Valley, had instigated the landmarking of the Lyon-Martin House last year at the urging of historic preservationists and LGBTQ community leaders after the property was bought by a straight couple with intentions to build a home for their family at the site. In exchange of their pledging to protect the women's cottage, Mandelman did not include in the landmark request the vacant garden area of the property where Paul McKeown and his wife, Meredith Jones-McKeown, plan to build their new house.

What is to become of the Lyon-Martin House remains to be seen. Due to it being located in a residential area on a steep hill, it is likely unsuitable to be opened as a museum accessible to the public. One idea that has been floated is to use it for an artist-in-residence type program.

Journalists who first met in Seattle in 1952, Lyon and Martin helped launch the influential Daughters of Bilitis, the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States. They purchased the San Francisco property in 1955 and used it as a gathering place for the city's lesbian community and the site of various meetings and events.

Lyon died last 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.

Their home now joins the late gay supervisor Harvey Milk's residence and former Castro Camera shop at 573 Castro Street as a city landmark. The others related to LGBTQ history include the former home to the AIDS Memorial Quilt at 2362 Market Street; the Twin Peaks bar at the corner of Market, Castro and 17th streets, and the now-defunct Paper Doll restaurant and bar site at 524 Union Street in North Beach, where the late Bay Area Reporter founding publisher Bob Ross once operated an eatery.

The seventh city landmark with ties to LGBTQ history is the Women's Building at 3543 18th Street in the Mission. A group of women that included a number of lesbian leaders founded it in 1971 and moved into the current location in 1979, where numerous meetings of LGBTQ groups and conferences have taken place over the years.

When the building was deemed a city landmark in 1985, its LGBTQ history went unmentioned. It was added later when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

Also listed on the federal register partly due to its LGBTQ historical ties, but not a city landmark, is the Federal Building at 50 UN Plaza. It was where the longest known AIDS protest took place in the mid-1980s into the 1990s.

The eighth LGBTQ historic site to become a city landmark is expected to be 396-398 12th Street. The South of Market property is home to the gay-owned Eagle bar and will be the first local landmark recognized for its ties to leather history.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve granting it local landmark status in July. It would be the second leather Eagle bar in the country to be deemed a city landmark, as Atlanta officials granted such status to their Eagle bar in December.

To see the entire list of San Francisco city landmarks, click here.

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