Japanese YWCA

) The building consists of a two-story-over-raised-basement frame building constructed in 1932.
Japanese YWCA

Photograph by Donna Graves and Stacy Farr, courtesy of California State Historic Preservation Office

Quick Facts
1830 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California
Japanese, Civil Rights, LGBTQ, Women’s History, social history
Listed in the National Register – Reference number 100004868
The Japanese YWCA, in San Francisco, California was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2020.  The two-story building at 1830 Sutter St. is being recognized for its association to the history of Japanese American Issei (first generation) women, the African American Civil Rights movement, and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights movement. 

The Japanese YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association), also known as the Issei Women's Building, is a rare public emblem of the struggles and accomplishments of Nikkei women in the United States. Barred by segregationist policies from use of key facilities in the main YWCA chapter, in 1912 Issei (immigrant generation) women formed the first independent Japanese YWCA in the U.S. to address social and service needs of women and children. This building, designed by noted architect Julia Morgan and completed in 1932, was funded by money raised within the Japantown community, as well as donations from the national and San Francisco YWCAs. Because California’s Alien Land Law prevented Issei from owning property, the Japanese women asked the San Francisco YWCA to hold title to the property in trust for the Nikkei community.  

When all people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed and incarcerated under Executive Order 9066 during WWII, the building was turned over to the SF YWCA, which in turn leased it to the American Friends Service Committee from 1942 to 1959. The building was the location for numerous gatherings that advanced multiple political and social causes, including the fight for African American civil rights and for homosexual rights. The SF YWCA moved into the building in 1960 and programmed it until the late 1990s when they announced the building’s sale. Inspired by the 1980s campaign for Japanese American redress, a multi-generational group of Japanese Americans led a successful legal struggle to regain title to the building so that it could be kept in use for the benefit of the Japanese American community.  

In July 1912, twenty Japanese women in San Francisco decided to form an independent chapter of the YWCA because “the number of Japanese women coming to the United States has been increasing every month and issues concerning the women and children are matters of urgent necessity confronting us….” They enlisted another twenty members and began operating from a former hotel building at 1120 Gough Street (demolished) where they established an office and dormitory. Limitations of the building on Gough street led to the construction of this building.  

The Japanese YWCA was erected in 1932 of wood frame construction. The building consists of a two-story-over-raised-basement frame building constructed in 1932 and a one-story-over-raised-basement addition with rooftop enclosure constructed in 2017. The 1932 building was designed by Julia Morgan in a Japanese-inspired eclectic style to serve as the Japanese Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The 2017 addition, which abuts the west side of the building, is compatible yet visually subservient to the adjacent 1932 construction. 

The YWCA offered ongoing programs for employment placing and school counseling. Classes included flower arrangement, Japanese tea ceremony, knitting and embroidery, cooking (Western and Chinese), interior decorating, and millinery/sewing. Lectures were offered on music history, current affairs and economics, religions, history, law, and modern literature and drama. Although most of the programming was developed for Nikkei girls and women, the Japanese YWCA also hosted events for a broader YWCA audience. In March 1934, a citywide meeting of the SF Business Girls’ Club was held at here. Three years later, a tea honoring Helen Keller was hosted by the Japanese YWCA just prior to her journey to Japan “on a speaking trip in the aid of the many blind of the Japanese empire.”  

After orders from the Western Defense Command authorized by Executive Order 9066 removed Japanese Americans from Japantown, the SF YWCA leased the building at 1830 Sutter Street to the San Francisco office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The building became known as the Friends Center. A Quaker organization, AFSC was founded in 1917 to support conscientious objectors and to aid civilian victims of WWI.They worked with the SF Friends Center and the Japanese YMCA to aid Japanese aliens who were subject to new restrictions on travel and employment. AFSC’s activities during WWII included support for conscientious objectors and refugees, as well as soliciting funds and resources for civilians directly affected by the war. The Northern California Section’s commitment to supporting Japanese Americans who had been their neighbors continued and included the program to relocate Japanese college students from the West Coast to educational facilities in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. A San Francisco chapter of the national civil rights organization, the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE), was formed in 1943 and based here. Archival records and press coverage establish that the AFSC operated from 1830 Sutter Street through 1959 and organized or hosted a remarkable range of activities and public events related to civil rights and social justice in the Western Addition and the wider Bay Area. The AFSC raised funds and hosted lectures, panel discussions and symposia on worldwide refugee conditions, and on social issues in the U.S. including prison conditions, migrant worker housing and housing segregation. 

Under AFSC stewardship, the building gained two powerful connections to LGBTQ history. The first was in the activities of Bayard Rustin. Rustin. Rustin was a pioneer in bringing a new confrontational approach that adapted Ghandian nonviolence to attacking racism in the United States. Rustin’s work in San Francisco and the West included addressing racial housing covenants, organizing against segregated public facilities, and a visit to Manzanar War Relocation Center. Credited with shaping the pacifist strategy of the African American civil rights movement, Rustin was the central organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. The second connection with LGBTQ history was in May 1954, 1830 Sutter Street was the location for the first annual convention of the Mattachine Society. The society was the pioneer homophile organization in the U.S. First known as the Mattachine Foundation, the society was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles by Harry Hay and others who conceived of homosexuals as an oppressed minority. They sought to form a group that would free gay men and women of negative attitudes.

In 1959, the AFSC moved to another location. January 1, 1960, the SF YWCA took over management of the building and its programs and began referring to it as the Western Addition YWCA.

Last updated: April 28, 2021