Virtual tour provides look at SF lesbian historic site

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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A screenshot of the virtual tour of the home shared by late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin shows the living room area. Photo: Courtesy CyArk
A screenshot of the virtual tour of the home shared by late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin shows the living room area. Photo: Courtesy CyArk

As viewers use their mouse to scroll around a computer-generated reimagining of the living room of the home owned by the late lesbian pioneers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, an audio clip plays of the couple recalling the genesis for the country's first lesbian social organization that they helped to form in September 1955. The screen includes a black and white photo of the women at one of the group's gatherings in Sausalito four years later.

"We Daughters of Bilitis was really founded as a very secret secret social club and a means of getting together without going to the bars which were frequently raided," recounts Martin. "And to be able to, you know, meet in each other's homes and have socials and ..."

"... to dance that was a really important part of it," interjects Lyon.

The snippet from an oral history the couple recorded in 1987 for Manuela Soares' Herstory Video Project can be heard during the roughly 20-minute virtual tour of their San Francisco residence. It comes during section seven titled "Founding Daughters of Bilitis."

Their residence at 651 Duncan Street in the city's Noe Valley neighborhood became a hub in the 1950s and 1960s for the Daughters of Bilitis. The couple hosted numerous social events and meetings at their two-story cottage for members of the group.

Phyllis Lyon, right, prepared to cut the wedding cake after she and Del Martin were married in San Francisco City Hall June 17, 2008. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Martin died in 2008 and Lyon died in 2020, at which point Kendra Mon, the couple's daughter, put the home up for sale. Local preservationists and historians worked with city officials to designate the property a city landmark to protect it from being demolished by the new owners.

Due to it being privately owned and in a residential neighborhood, the house is unlikely to be opened to the public as a museum or historical site people can tour in person. Thus, the Friends of the Lyon-Martin House and the GLBT Historical Society turned to the nonprofit CyArk to provide access and unveiled its virtual tour of the home in March.

"CyArk's extraordinary documentation work provides a global and accessible experience that allows people to engage and emotionally connect to LGBTQ history and Lyon and Martin's lifesaving work," said Shayne Watson, a lesbian and co-founder of the friends group who is a San Francisco-based architectural historian. "It enables [the Friends] to begin planning for future efforts to restore and preserve the Lyon-Martin House to ensure its rightful place in the legacy of San Francisco's built environment."

The CyArk team produced the multi-faceted tour of the Lyon-Martin House through the use of drone imagery of the outside, digital camera shots of the interiors, and scans using Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging technology. They were given three days of access to the house last October.

"I thought it was very powerful. Right now it is an empty house, but being inside it with Shayne, she could share these powerful stories with us," said John Ristevski, a gay man who is the nonprofit's board chair and CEO. "The house still had energy."

They used archival photos housed in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society to recreate what the rooms looked like when Lyon and Martin lived in them, and also incorporated several songs the women would have listened to or played during gatherings.

"It would have been nice to have seen [the house] in its prime, but I think we were able to bring some of that back with the video," said Ristevski, who lives in Noe Valley but had never been to the house prior.

Several historians and Mon also serve as tour guides throughout the video, which incorporates additional segments of the oral history Lyon and Martin recorded. Much of the archival materials used for the tour housed in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society are linked to by CyArk on the webpage for it.

"The ability to digitally preserve the house where so much of their work took place adds such incredible depth and value to the collection," noted Andrew Shaffer, the historical society's interim co-executive director. "The house was where they held meetings, planned events, edited DOB's journal The Ladder, and built an incredible life together. Now everyone with an internet connection will have a chance to enter their world and witness how their grassroots work began."

A screenshot of the virtual tour of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin's Noe Valley home shows what it might look like with people gathered for a social event. Photo: Courtesy CyArk  

Creating 3D documents of historic sites
The Lyon-Martin House is the latest of hundreds of culturally significant sites around the world that CyArk has virtually documented. The places run the gamut from the San Sebastian Basilica in Manila, Philippines, and the Mosque City of Bagerhat in Bangladesh, to the Tower of London in Britain and the Osun Osogbo Sacred Groves of Nigeria.

"To me, we are creating a 3D document that helps create a record of what is there today that we can share with the world and researchers," said Ristevski, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia. "We are able to amplify the stories of these places and share them with more people."

Because of the high price it costs to travel to many of the sites CyArk documents, seeing them in person "is a privilege," acknowledged Ristevski, and one most people can't afford.

"Democratizing these stories is a really powerful thing," he said.

Right before the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020, Ristevski had returned from Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, having worked on a virtual tour of the special territory of Chile with its tourism bureau. Since then he has been overseeing the nonprofit's work from his Noe Valley home, having shuttered CyArk's offices in Oakland to allow the nonprofit's 14 staff members to work remotely.

While working on his Master of Science degree from UC Berkeley in 2003, Ristevski first became involved with CyArk, assisting on projects it was doing in Peru and Guatemala.

CyArk founding director Ben Kacyra was also a co-founder and CEO of Cyra Technologies, a local technology company that had developed the first fully integrated laser 3D imaging, mapping, modeling, and CAD system.

Kacyra wanted to use the technology to digitally preserve various countries' cultural heritage sites and founded CyArk. Ristevski left CyArk in 2006 to start his own business called earthmine, a 3D street-mapping company, out of the Noe Valley home he was living in at the time. Nokia acquired it in 2012 for its own mapping company called HERE and hired Ristevski as its vice president of reality capture and processing.

He left in 2016 to take over leadership of CyArk. He also moved around the Bay Area over the last two decades, relocating back to Noe Valley last year with his now fiancé, Brandon Perkovich, an emergency medicine resident at Stanford Hospital. They got engaged in April.

CyArk works with national governments, nonprofits, and other entities on its various projects. One of the first sites Ristevski decided to document when he took over as the nonprofit's CEO was another important LGBTQ historical site, the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York City.

"Traditionally, we have done temples and palaces. But a lot of history takes place in non-monumental properties, and that is especially true with queer history. Much of our history happened in non-monumental places," said Ristevski, noting that the national monument honoring the Stonewall riots of 1969 was formed after they had completed their virtual tour of the bar. "The unique thing about queer history is so much of it takes place in tucked away places likes bars and people's houses."

Unlike with the Stonewall Inn, which people can freely walk into today and order a drink at the bar as they experience the historic site for themselves, they may never be able to step foot into the Lyon-Martin House. But they can get a sense of what the house was like via the virtual tour.

"The Lyon-Martin House may never be open to the public, so we are giving access to a site the public may never get to see otherwise," Ristevski said. "This tells a piece of history that has never been told before."

One of the most popular sites CyArk has done is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the 60-foot-high sculpture in South Dakota memorializing four presidents. Ristevski believes the tour's popularity has to do with the National Park Service linking to CyArk from its website. Also, many children in the U.S. are familiar with the monument, having learned about it in the classroom.

"A lot of schools and school teachers are accessing the virtual tour," he said. "I think that was the first one we did that had a curriculum to use with it."

CyArk is working on a similar lesson plan for the Lyon-Martin House it hopes to have ready for the fall semester.

To experience CyArk's virtual tours, now numbering more than 200, visit its website.

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