For the Depression-era Murals of Coit Tower, Great Recession-era Neglect

BY Spencer Michels  January 18, 2012 at 2:00 PM EDT

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A Depression-era mural in Coit Tower. Photo by Spencer Michels.

Two-hundred thousand visitors show up at Coit Tower in San Francisco every year, and most of them seem to ignore one the most fascinating and enjoyable art treasures in country: the Depression-era murals that cover the tower’s walls.

In the course of preparing Wednesday evening’s video story on the state of the murals, I watched as hundreds of tourists entered the tower, paid $7 for an elevator ride to the top and hardly gave a second glance to the frescoes painted by 25 artists during the Depression.

Those art works may be in jeopardy from weather and official (as well as tourist) neglect. In fact, many of the 2,500 murals around the country from that era, in schools, post offices and other public buildings, have already been destroyed, and more could be, as those buildings close.

Coit Tower was built in 1933 atop Telegraph Hill with money — $125,000 — bequested to the city for its beautification by a wealthy, eccentric widow, Lillie Hitchcock Coit. It stands out on the San Francisco skyline, viewable for miles around.

Click photo to enlarge.

When President Franklin Roosevelt decided to put out-of-work artists back to work, the recently dedicated tower was chosen as one of the sites in the country for murals. In less than a year, artists had turned the walls of the tower into a grand display of realistic art depicting life in California in the ’30s. It’s lovely stuff; there are city scenes of congestion and crime, views of tranquil country life, agriculture and leisure. Some panels portray a distinct political message: certainly leftist and pro worker. Others, completely non-political, show Californians at play, in collegiate sports and outdoor recreation. The quality of the art is high, and the scenes of California evoke awe and nostalgia.

One of the murals shows a young girl in a middie — the 12-year-old Ruth Gottstein — whose father, Bernard Zakheim, was one of the prominent artists who painted the walls. Today, Gottstein is 89, and she’s disturbed by what she sees in Coit Tower: water damage, chipped plaster, neglect.

“They’re constantly threatened, not only by people walking by, but the building itself,” she told me. “If it were treated as a museum, if the walls were kept secure, if the entrance was guarded so that people could walk around as in any other museum of any importance in the world, it would be secure. And it’s not.”

Click photo to enlarge.

The city says it is concerned and is trying to find money to preserve the murals. But these are hard economic times. The recreation and parks department has millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, and so little is being done, other than studying the problem. There’s no climate control in the tower, and little protection for the murals. Workmen repairing the elevator recently chipped some frescoes.

Those problems have prompted residents of Telegraph Hill to start gathering signatures to place a measure on the San Francisco ballot that would make preservation of Coit Tower and its murals a priority, and insure that funds from the elevator ride and concessions be used for the tower’s upkeep. Much of that money today goes to support other recreation sites that don’t generate any revenue.

The city wants to rent out the top floor for small parties, once a month, as a way of getting funds. But the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association objects, concerned about traffic and the idea of corporations holding private affairs in a public space.

The issue of how to preserve the tower and its murals is a long way from resolved. Most, though not all, of the frescoes are in good shape and retain the brilliant colors that were applied by dedicated, hungry artists in the 1930s. Frescoes are generally pretty hearty. But the clamor to take a new approach to Coit Tower seems to be increasing, and that attention may be what those old murals need — even if the tourists pass them by.

Spencer Michels’ story about the Coit Tower murals will air on Wednesday’s NewsHour.