A detail of Bernard Zakheim's 'History of Medicine in California' at UCSF's Toland Hall, featuring Biddy Mason caring for a malaria patient. (Courtesy Living New Deal)
Updated Aug. 4, 3:45pm
On a recent Saturday, Temi Washington, the great-great-granddaughter of Bridget “Biddy” Mason, spoke about the importance of seeing Black lives represented in American history. The occasion was a virtual panel discussion for LaborFest, the first virtual event for the annual San Francisco celebration of labor movements and the history of workers. Washington was there to talk about the future of a New Deal-era mural featuring her ancestor, a nurse and midwife in 19th-century Los Angeles.
“The story behind it certainly needs to be told,” Washington said of Bernard Zakheim’s 10-panel fresco History of Medicine in California. In early June, the University of California San Francisco announced the frescoes would need to either be moved or destroyed to make way for a new research and academic building planned at the school’s Parnassus Heights campus. The school offered to preserve the frescoes digitally.
But Washington, the Zakheim family, and community supporters emphasized digital files would be no replacement for viewing the frescoes in person. Many argue that removing the murals will erase the already little-known history of Biddy Mason in the process. Mason was brought to California (a free state) by her enslaver, who was eventually apprehended with the help of local authorities. In a 1856 ruling by a Los Angeles court, she and 13 other enslaved people, including her three children, were declared free.
She later worked with one of California’s earliest trained physicians, John S. Griffin. In Zakheim’s fresco, Mason and Griffin are shown as equals, caring for a patient with malaria.
Growing up, Washington said she did not see positive portrayals of Black lives in history. She believes the frescoes are a gift to the school. History of Medicine in California has greeted UCSF hospital workers and visitors to Toland Hall auditorium for over 80 years. Last week, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin expressed his interest in the frescoes, introducing a resolution to the Board of Supervisors to declare the artwork a historic landmark.
Zakheim’s frescoes, funded by the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, depict the history of medicine in California. The vibrant murals are curved along the walls of the auditorium. In addition to Mason, other medical practitioners treat patients with all varieties of diseases.
The GSA considers the frescoes to be the property of the federal government on loan to the university. But the building that houses them is now 103 years old and seismically unfit; the university says it needs to be replaced.
“Nonetheless UCSF will continue to work in good faith with all parties to determine if a plan to save the murals is possible,” the school said in a statement.
Historic preservation firms hired by UCSF said it would cost about $8 million to remove the frescoes. But Nathan Zakheim, the artist’s son, who has professional experience removing and conserving his father’s work, guarantees he can do the job for just $1 million. “I don't object to their $8 million quote because that's the sort of thing greedy conservators like to charge,” he said in the same LaborFest panel, “but I can do it for less than a million.”
“UCSF has decided not to use public funds to physically preserve the murals, especially at a time when the UC system faces financial challenges in the wake of COVID-19,” the university said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.
In a legal letter issued to the Zakheim family on June 4, UCSF stated the frescoes were set for demolition, giving the family 90 days to come up with a proposal to save them. Sources close to the project say that due to the ensuing outcry surrounding the frescoes’ potential destruction, as well as discussions about ownership of the murals, that timeline may no longer be in effect.
Adam Gottstein, Bernard Zakheim’s grandson, is trying to increase public awareness around his grandfather’s frescoes. In the LaborFest panel, Zakheim family members and community supporters discussed the relevance of the murals to the working class and the public and the political nature that protects them.
Robert Sherins, a community member who supports the preservation of the murals, has written six books about Bernard Zakheim’s personal life and paintings. Sherins, as well as other supporters, emphasized the importance of preserving history, especially now.
“These frescoes tell the story like none other and they cannot be removed,” Sherins said, “or you will forget history—as everybody else has.”
This article has been updated to accurately describe how Biddy Mason attained her freedom—as a Black woman, she was not able to petition the court on her own behalf at the time.
This article also previously stated that Parnassus Hall is slated to be replaced with a complex of care units. It is slated to be replaced by a new research and academic building.
This article also previously stated that the murals were funded by the U.S> General Service Administration. The murals were funded by the Federal Arts Project.
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