November 18, 2021

A Fresh Coat of Paint Brightens a Vital Piece of Women’s History in San Francisco

During the height of the women’s liberation movement, San Francisco’s Mission District was both a center of activism and a cultural hub. The area housed several woman-owned and lesbian-feminist identified cafes, bookstores, and clubs that emerged in the 1970s. Over time, many of those places shuttered, but the era remains ensconced within The Women’s Building, a structure–made prominent by the striking MaestraPeace mural depicting significant women of history on its facade–that sits on the corner of 18th St. and Lapidge St.

“Slowly all of those [businesses]closed, and we’re still here,” says Kelly Lockwood, the finance and human resources director for The Women’s Building (the organization that runs the building shares a name with the site). “And a lot of people don’t remember that time.”

The exterior of The Women's Building in San Francisco.

photo by: The Women's Building

The exterior of The Women's Building, which is covered by its hallmark mural, MaestraPeace. (Mural by: Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez © 1994 world rights reserved)

During the last few decades, The Women’s Building has remained what Executive Director Malea Chavez describes as a beacon of hope to the community. That’s despite gentrification and other challenges, such as political backlash to the women’s movement, which culminated in bomb threats and arson on the site in 1980.

Though it hasn’t always been a smooth road, the core mission of The Women’s Building has remained consistent since its founding in 1978. It continues to serve as a base for several San Francisco nonprofits, including those that offer aid to women who have suffered from domestic violence and sexual assault. The Women's Building also offers social services like job training, food distribution, and legal aid, among other things. Additionally, the building hosts celebratory events like quinceañeras and wedding receptions, as well as organizing events where community groups can make signs or raise funds through phone banking.

An Organization Dedicated to Community

The cornerstone of what became The Women’s Building was laid in 1910, as part of a city-wide rebuilding effort following the devastating 1906 earthquake that shook San Francisco. The site was originally home to Mission Turn Hall, which was part of a network of German American associations across the United States that offered space for athletic and social events. In 1935, the Sons and Daughters of Norway took over the building, renaming it Dovre Hall, and used it for the next several decades in a similar fashion as a community center. Finally, in 1978, the San Francisco Women’s Centers (an organization that eventually merged with the Women’s Building staff to form one entity), which had been in search of a permanent home base for its activism, bought it with the aid of some vigorous fundraising.

The building then became an important site for the larger grassroots and decentralized women’s liberation movement. There were many similar sites around the country, but The Women’s Building stood out among its peers because of its longevity, “scale of its ambitions,” and the “breadth of social issues it has addressed,” according to its National Register of Historic Places nomination form from 2017.

In addition to fighting for women’s equality, The Women’s Building always sought to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood, which has long been a home to immigrants, people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and the LGBTQIA+ community. In 1979, The Women’s Building’s founders unveiled their mission statement–to “actively work to further people’s struggles against oppression through race, minority, culture, disability, sexual orientation, age, life style, and class differences.” As one of the founders, Roma Guy, described it on the National Register form, “We understood that we can’t have real social change for women unless we connect with all people’s issues, because women are everywhere.”

A look at the repainted walls from the stairwell.

photo by: The Women's Building

A look at the interior walls that were repainted as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's campaign for Where Women Made History.

The way The Women’s Building approached second-wave feminism was also unique. The initial tenants of the building made up a diverse constituency, racially, socioeconomically, and ideologically. For example, the building was home to both the local chapter of NOW, a mainstream feminist organization, as well as the local chapter of the Third World Women’s Alliance, a group that approached the women’s movement through a socialist lens. All told, the shared space meant these ideas were shared and debated (not always without tension), which reflected the evolution of U.S. feminism.

Without the physical building itself, it’s unclear whether the San Francisco women’s movement would have had the success and influence it did, which is partly why it’s still such a cherished place to this day. And to preserve and celebrate that history, the organization has worked hard to keep the space structurally sound.

Our building is our most important asset,” Diane Santana, The Women’s Building’s development director, says. “The reason why we invest to preserve–it’s just such a high priority to us because we are a staple in the community. We are that safe place. People know and recognize us in that way. We want to continue to do that. In order to be able to be that staple, we have to invest in our building.”

A Fresh Coat of Paint

In 1994, the mural was painted by a team of seven prominent female artists from different racial and generational backgrounds, bringing new life to the site; it was cleaned and restored by the original muralists in 2012. And in 2000, an extensive series of upgrades were made throughout the structure, including door replacements and the reconfiguration of the first-floor lobby, auditorium, and several offices. In 2018, The Women’s Building was one of the recipients of a Partners in Preservation: Main Streets grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Main Street America, and American Express, which allowed the organization to restore its windows.

Most recently, Benjamin Moore and the National Trust teamed up to repaint the building’s stairwell as part of the National Trust’s campaign for Where Women Made History. Now, the space is filled with vibrant colors that create a welcoming environment–and there’s a practical purpose, as well. Given that not all community members who seek out services at The Women’s Building speak English, the new paint can help people find their way around the building since each floor is painted a different color.

“We’re a little ragtag on the inside, but with that new painting everyone noticed,” Lockwood says. “It wasn’t just for us, but everybody who used the building. It was like their building was being taken care of. And not just the building, but the heart of care for newcomers, for women, for families, for the poor in San Francisco.”

Although there are no hard plans in place for upcoming preservation projects, the Women’s Building team has no intention of stopping with the repainting–the organization aims to continue to upgrade the building, whether that be putting a new, modern elevator; restoring aspects of the front of the building; or putting in a historical plaque outside. The plans just need to fall into place. “We have lots of hopes and dreams,” Chavez says.

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Tim O'Donnell is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. When not writing about historic places, he spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

todonnell@savingplaces.org @T_S_Odonnell

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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