Political Notebook: SF supe Mandelman moves forward with partial Lyon-Martin House landmark

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday March 16, 2021
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Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has decided to seek landmark status only for the home of late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, center, which would allow for development of the second parcel by the new owners. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has decided to seek landmark status only for the home of late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, center, which would allow for development of the second parcel by the new owners. Photo: Screengrab via Zoom

In light of opposition from the new property owners, San Francisco officials appear set to landmark only a portion of the Noe Valley property where the late lesbian pioneering couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin lived for much of their 56-year relationship. Meanwhile, a city open space nearby the property could be renamed in honor of the women.

Preservation groups and LGBTQ historians had sought to see the entire Duncan Street property become a city landmark. They had argued that the adjoining garden plot to the cottage where the women lived should also be included in the landmark because the couple's cremains were interred and scattered on the undeveloped portion. The city's planning department had also recommended the entire property be landmarked.

But Paul McKeown and his wife, Meredith Jones-McKeown, who bought the property last summer, argued for the landmark only to include the residence with an address of 651 Duncan Street. They expressed concerns that landmarking the vacant parcel with an address of 649 Duncan Street would hamper their ability to build a new home on it for them and their two young daughters.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission on a 6-1 vote last month sided with the family and recommended that just the cottage parcel become the city's fifth landmark specifically related to LGBTQ history. It would be the first focused solely on lesbian history and the first LGBTQ landmark located in a solely residential area.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has decided to follow the advice of the preservation advisory body and seek city landmark status for only 651 Duncan Street. He introduced an ordinance to establish the landmark during the Board of Supervisors March 16 meeting Tuesday.

Mandelman made the decision to do so after meeting with the different parties involved in the matter and concluded it would be the best avenue to take. But he told the Bay Area Reporter those who would prefer to see the entire property be landmarked should contact the supervisors to express that viewpoint.

"I want to do what seems merited, and the fact the commission said we should go with only 651 Duncan carries some weight for me.... carries a lot of weight for me," he said. "That the preservation community appears OK with that also carries a lot of weight for me. If folks want to make an argument for 649, they have a month to do it."

The new property owners support recognizing the Lyon-Martin House for its historical importance to LGBTQ history and have pledged to preserve it. Their architect, Yakuh Askew, told the B.A.R. they are pleased that the compromise proposal for the landmark is moving forward.

"We are definitely pleased to see it did not extend to the empty lot, which was sold and marketed as a developable parcel," said Askew, who was recently reappointed to the city's arts commission by Mayor London Breed.

Askew said they intend to wait until the landmark process is completed before moving forward with any development plans for the site. They are still working on what the proposal will be for the Lyon-Martin House and will be meeting with local preservation groups to discuss potential ideas for the site.

"We are not making any decisions at this point. We are just absorbing information," said Askew.

Shayne Watson, an organizer of the Friends of Lyon-Martin House, told the B.A.R. she could not speak on behalf of the group since it hasn't had a chance to discuss Mandelman's ordinance. Speaking personally, she called it "a good call" on his part.

"The double-parcel situation creates a win-win for both the new property owners and community members who are supporting the landmarking. I look forward to an exciting dialogue about what's next for the Lyon-Martin House," said Watson, a lesbian and architectural historian who co-wrote a 2015 survey of San Francisco's LGBTQ cultural heritage that had recommended the couple's home become a city landmark.

GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick also expressed support for the compromise measure. He hoped it would avoid any lengthy legal fight over the landmarking of the property and lead to the various entities being able to work cooperatively on a plan for the two-story cottage's future usage.

"It became clear that the important thing was to designate the house and the lot the house sits on," said Beswick. "Engaging in a long battle that could turn into a legal battle over the garden lot would be a distraction from that. We didn't want to do that."

There is still a possibility of seeing an open space area honor Lyon and Martin. Early discussions have focused on possibly renaming the Duncan/Castro Open Space at the intersection of Duncan and Castro streets after the women. The city-owned rocky outcrop with views of downtown and the bay is just up the street from the couple's home.

"It is also an opportunity for commemorating Phyllis and Del," said Beswick.

After a 30-day wait period the supervisors' land use committee can schedule a hearing on the landmark request. The full board will then need to vote on it twice to make it official.

Mandelman had instituted the Lyon-Martin House landmarking process in the fall following news that the 5,700 square foot property situated atop a steep hill with dramatic views had sold for $2.25 million. It prompted LGBTQ historians and friends of Lyon and Martin to launch a campaign to preserve the women's home from being torn down.

Lyon and Martin purchased the property in 1955 and tended the undeveloped area as a garden. Journalists who first met in Seattle in 1952, the couple co-founded the influential Daughters of Bilitis, the first political and social organization for lesbians in the United States. Their home was a gathering place within 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.

Other landmarks move forward

The landmarking of two other city sites connected to LGBTQ history are also moving forward. The supervisors' land use committee at its April 5 meeting will start the process to designate the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women's Building a city landmark.

The property at 1830 Sutter Street was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020. It is one of three sites in San Francisco with ties to LGBTQ history on the federal register.

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 co-written by Watson and public historian Donna Graves. Bayard Rustin, the late gay African American civil rights leader, also taught a course at the site, according to research done by Graves, a straight ally, in preparing the request to list it on the National Register.

The Historic Preservation Commission last fall voted in support of adding the site to the list of city landmarks. It is now up to the supervisors to finalize its designation.

At its May 19 meeting the commission is scheduled to vote on District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney's request that the Eagle bar become a city landmark. It would be the third gay bar location in San Francisco given such status if approved, and the first LGBTQ city landmark located in SOMA and related to queer leather culture.

Haney sought to landmark the business after the property that houses the bar at 398 12th Street was sold last September. The nightlife venue, which first opened in 1981, is seen as a focal point for the area's Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District.

It provided the name for the Eagle Plaza public parklet honoring leather culture in the city built into the street in front of the bar. That project is almost complete and could see a formal dedication ceremony be held later this year.

UPDATED 3/16/2021 with comments from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on San Francisco Democratic clubs accusing a local journalist of "blatant homophobia" on Twitter.

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