By Christine Madrid French
When Louisa Bird Cunningham founded the Ladies of Mount Vernon in 1853, she focused on the concept of “home” to save President George Washington’s house in Virginia. That moment, recognized as one of the earliest historic preservation movements in the United States, continues to shape the effort to save significant sites in the twenty-first century. Today, however, the emphasis is on broadening the concept of home and context to include all of the cultures that contributed to the history of the United States.
In a new collaboration, the California Preservation Foundation (CPF) recently hosted a series of live webinars with the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on relatively unknown, modest sites that capture evocative stories of home. The three events included presentations and conversations dedicated to the Lyon-Martin House in San Francisco (the home of a pioneering lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin), the Harada House in Riverside (the center of a landmark case regarding property ownership by a Japanese family), and the West Berkeley Ohlone Shellmound and Historic Village Site in Berkeley (one of the earliest known settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay, with a village community dating back at least 5,700 years). All three of these incredibly significant sites are in immediate danger of demolition from development or disrepair.
Christina Morris, senior field director for the National Trust in Los Angeles and the Campaign Manager of Where Women Made History, introduced each program and brought the issues of saving diverse historic sites to the forefront. More than 3,000 people participated directly in the Zoom-broadcast conversation or watched the videos on the CPF YouTube channel (embedded videos are included here and the whole playlist can be found here). CPF is California’s leading historic preservation, education, and advocacy organization, with a following of more than 20,000 people in the United States and internationally.
The public can participate and help change the future for these fragile sites, through direct donations to the advocacy efforts or by commenting on the plans for development. The Lyon-Martin House is facing a review for landmark designation on February 17, 2021. Meeting details can be found here, and the public is encouraged to comment by February 16, 2021.
Part 1: Save LGBTQ+ History: Lyon-Martin House, San Francisco
Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, the first US organization for lesbians. Their home became a center for the city's lesbian community. Lyon and Martin were the first couple to be married by San Francisco officials in defiance of California's prohibition of same-sex marriage in 2004. Their small home and garden occupy the last parcel of undeveloped land atop Noe Valley, and the recent sale of the property to a new private owner has sparked fears that it is in danger of demolition. The discussion was led by Terry Beswick (the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society and the first national coordinator of ACT NOW, the national AIDS activist network), and Shayne Watson (an award-winning architectural historian and historic preservation planner who founded Watson Heritage Consulting in San Francisco in 2014).
Part 2: Save Immigrant History: Harada House, Riverside
As the subject of a landmark Superior Court decision granting the Harada family the right to continue to own the property, the Harada House represents an early challenge to restrictive anti-immigrant and racist property laws and a test of laws that defined citizenship by birth. The Harada family, comprised of Japanese immigrants and American-born citizens, lived in the home until forcibly incarcerated in 1942. They returned there after the war and maintained ownership until Sumi Harada died in 2000. The Harada House is now at risk of collapse from years of deferred maintenance. Local advocates have launched a campaign to rehabilitate the house and open it to the public as part of the Museum of Riverside. This discussion featured the work of Mark H. Rawitsch (advocate for the Harada House since 1976 and the author of The House on Lemon Street, published by the University Press of Colorado in 2012) and Robyn Peterson (director of the Museum of Riverside).
Part 3: Native American Heritage: West Berkeley Shellmound, Berkeley
This site is one of the most important and earliest known Ohlone settlements on the shores of San Francisco Bay and served multiple functions for the community: as a place for burials, a ceremonial sacred space, as well as a lookout and communications site. The ancient repository of shells, ritual objects, and artifacts formed a massive mound. Shell material was later removed by Gold Rush settlers to fertilize farms and line streets. The site was mapped in 1907, and UC Berkeley archaeologists removed 95 human burials and 3,400 artifacts before the shellmound was completely leveled in the 1950s and paved as a parking lot. Today, the site is still an active place of Ohlone prayer and ceremony with conceptual plans to renew the site as a place for reflection and remembrance. But the privately-owned site’s future is uncertain, with plans underway to construction a new development over the area. The discussion was led by Corrina Gould (founder of the women-led Sogorea Te Land Trust) and Toby McLeod (founder of the Sacred Land Film Project in 1984). They were joined by Berkeley Councilmember Sophie Hahn for an in-depth question and answer period focusing on the issues of preservation and heritage conservation.
Christine Madrid French is the development and marketing director for the California Preservation Foundation.