Just over a year after Phyllis Lyon passed away at the age of 95, the home that she shared for over five decades with her wife and life partner Del Martin is being declared a city landmark. And it's the first time a piece of lesbian history is getting landmark status in the western U.S.
The unassuming one-bedroom home at 651 Duncan Street had belonged to "Del and Phyl" since 1955, and as the Chronicle notes today, it was pioneering even that they had purchased it together as a couple at that time. It was the place where they founded the pioneering organization The Daughters of Bilitis, and it remained Lyon's home home until her death last year. (KALW did a piece last summer about the "village" of queer caregivers who allowed Lyon, who suffered from dementia, to remain in her home with near constant care, partly by lying about the fact that they were caregivers.)
On Tuesday, the SF Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to grant city landmark status to the home, which will come with a brass plaque out front that will join the couple's initials imprinted in the concrete of the sidewalk.
"The home they shared for more than half a century was the site of many community gatherings and has clear historic value that needs to be preserved and memorialized,” said District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman on Tuesday, who sponsored the resolution. "I’m proud of this historic action to create the first local landmark focused on the history of the lesbian community."
The landmark designation also had to pass muster with the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
Lyon and Martin, whose names were also given to the women- and queer-focused Lyon-Martin clinic — now Lyon-Martin Health Services, a division of HealthRight 360 — first moved to the Castro in 1953, and bought the Noe Valley home two years later. They became fixtures of both the local LGBTQ activist movement and the lesbian social scene well into their later years — and in 2004 they were officially married in San Francisco City Hall, the first to be given a marriage license by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Shayne Watson, an architectural historian who specializes in LGBTQ heritage sites, tells the Chronicle that the early meetings of the Daughters of Bilitis happened at 651 Duncan. "They provided a place for lesbians who were really, rally, really in the closet to hang out and dance have holiday potlucks, so they wouldn’t have to go home and hang out with their homophobic relatives," Watson says.
Martin, who died in 2008, has a daughter from a prior marriage (before she came out as a lesbian), Kendra Mon, who helped oversee Lyon's care in her later years. After Lyon's passing, the home was left to her, and she sold it to a new owner in September 2020, as the Chronicle reports. The property actually includes an adjacent vacant lot, 649 Duncan, and the new owner, Meredith Jones McKeown, sounds like she was aware of the landmarking plans for the Lyon-Martin House — but she tells the Chronicle that she plans on building a new home on the vacant property, and doesn't support that being landmarked.
The next steps are likely to include a plaque on the street below the house, but there are other ideas in the works as well. A group called "Friends of Lyon-Martin House," which includes fiscal sponsor the GLBT Historical Society, say they would like to see the one-bedroom cottage become something useful, like a student residence and a center for LGBTQ+ activism and history.
The Board of Supervisors still has to take a second, ceremonial vote on the landmarking next Tuesday.