TOPICS > Arts

San Francisco’s Famed Coit Tower Murals in Peril Due to Fog, Neglect

January 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In San Francisco's Coit Tower, historic murals by 25 significant artists depicting life in California in the early 1930s have fallen into disrepair for a variety of reasons, including a lack of security, funding problems and the city's famous fog. Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on efforts to preserve the famed frescoes.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a look at efforts to preserve some priceless artworks in a San Francisco landmark.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: Perched atop Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower has dominated the San Francisco skyline since it was dedicated in 1933.

It’s a familiar symbol of the city, a beacon at a spot where residents in the 1850s used to signal ships in the bay. But there is historic treasure inside as well. More than 75 years ago, Ruth Gottstein watched as her father, Bernard Zakheim, along with other artists, painted frescoes on the walls of the tower, murals that depicted the life of America in the early 1930s.

The murals, in which Gottstein appears as a young girl, were funded by a predecessor of the federal government’s WPA program, begun by President Franklin Roosevelt to keep artists working during the Depression.

RUTH GOTTSTEIN, daughter of mural painter: As a little girl, I was fortunate enough to be here at different times when they were actually at work.

I guess I could never quite believe that it would still be here and that all the work my father did, all the artists did, are still here intact, and speaking so clearly to their times.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nationally, in the ’30s, 2,500 murals were created in post offices, schools and elsewhere, 60 buildings in San Francisco alone. Many have been destroyed, and the impending closure of nearly 4,000 post offices could signal that more will be junked.

Coit Tower’s artworks are regarded as among the best of the genre. They depict scenes as different as the grim reality of city life, the pastoral beauty of California’s agriculture and the worlds of food and leisure.

Allison Cummings is an art historian for the San Francisco Art Commission.

ALLISON CUMMINGS, San Francisco Art Commission: You’ve got works by 25 different significant artists from that time period, working together to create a cohesive depiction of life in California in the early ’30s.

SPENCER MICHELS: Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an eccentric wealthy widow who wanted to beautify her beloved San Francisco, left money in her will that the city decided to use building the tower.

It was constructed for $125,000. Its design was unique, not a clock tower, nor a lighthouse, but a simple fluted shaft.

Artist Diego Rivera mentored many of the artists, and his and their politics, often pro-labor, or leftist, is reflected in some, but not all, of the murals.

How about the quality of the art?

ALLISON CUMMINGS: It’s fantastic. The quality of art is amazing here. It’s really indicative of the time period of the early ’30s, and the sort of public art, public mural movement of that time period.

SPENCER MICHELS: But, today at 89, Gottstein and others are worried about those frescoes and whether they will survive the ravages of weather and neglect. And she also says the city doesn’t treat the tower as it should.

RUTH GOTTSTEIN: If it were treated as a museum, if the walls were kept secure, if the entrance was guarded so that people could walk around it, as in any other museum of any importance in the world, it would be secure. And it’s not.

SPENCER MICHELS: But even Cummings agrees there are problems, partly because of fog that often envelops the tower.

So, most of this looks pretty good, but, right up there, you got this real problem, right?

ALLISON CUMMINGS: Right. We have this area of moisture damage, or evidence of moisture damage, where moisture has penetrated the back of the mural and is evaporating through the face and leaving behind what we call efflorescence, or basically salt crystals.

SPENCER MICHELS: In addition, visitors — there are about 200,000 a year — occasionally touch the works and damage or chip them, either accidentally or maliciously.

In a second floor section closed off from the public, maintenance workers recently damaged frescoes with their equipment. Those problems, Cummings says, are solvable, given enough money.

ALLISON CUMMINGS: There is no climate control in here at all. We’re in the very early planning stages of this, working on a treatment assessment, and coming up with estimates of how much it’s going to cost.

SPENCER MICHELS: But a whole new approach is needed, says attorney Jon Golinger, who heads the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association.

JON GOLINGER, Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association: You walk in the front door and there’s no one there to greet you and to say, here’s what these murals are all about, here’s what you can do to help protect them.

Water is dripping from the ceiling. Paint is peeling. It’s an integral part of the city, and if it’s not being treated and the murals are falling apart, I think, that’s something people are going to be upset about. It should be city policy to strictly limit commercial activities and private events at Coit Tower.

SPENCER MICHELS: Golinger leads a group of residents that has begun collecting signatures to place a measure on the city ballot to call attention to the plight of the tower and the murals, and to insure that most of the money generated at the tower, $900,000 last year, be used to preserve it.

Much of that money comes from a $7 fee to ride the elevator to the top of the tower, collected at the concession stand on the main floor. Golinger is skeptical of city plans to raise more funds by renting out the top room, with its beautiful views of the Bay Area, for occasional small parties.

JON GOLINGER: It shouldn’t be sort of just another corporate party venue that could be used for years to come without the public being allowed to enjoy it in the same way as those who are willing to, you know, spend thousands and thousands of dollars to do.

SPENCER MICHELS: Limited rentals won’t harm the tower, says Phil Ginsburg, head of San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department. And he admits that it’s tough to find money to fix the murals in today’s hard economic times, much like the times when they were painted.

PHIL GINSBURG, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department: I wish we could do — the city could do more to protect and preserve them. The Parks Department has about a billion dollars worth of deferred maintenance needs throughout our system. We’re actually going to be giving the Arts Commission about a quarter of a million dollars from our capital fund to help them preserve the murals.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ginsburg says the proposed ballot measure isn’t needed.

But Ruth Gottstein supports it as a way to insure the survival of what she considers a national treasure.

RUTH GOTTSTEIN: I think it’s extraordinary. It’s amazing. It’s a capsule in time.

SPENCER MICHELS: In a city noted for its political activism, Coit Tower and its murals have become the latest battleground. Activists have until Feb. 6 to gather enough signatures to put the advisory proposal on the ballot.