Depression Art in Jeopardy?

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 the country: the depression-era murals that cover the tower's walls. In the course of preparing a video story on the state of the murals for the PBS NewsHour, 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 frescos 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 2500 murals from that era in schools and post offices and other public buildings, have already been destroyed, and more could be, as the post offices are closed around the country, some of them home to valuable art.

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 from miles around.

When 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 are completely non political and 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.

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Ruth Gottstein at Coit Tower, standing in front of the portrait her father painted when she was 12 years old.

One of the murals shows a young girl in a middy blouse -- 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 is disturbed by what she sees in Coit Tower: water-damaged murals, chipped plaster, general neglect of the frescos.

"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."


Water damage on one of the murals.

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 stored equipment in one area and chipped some frescos.

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 the other concessions be used for the tower's upkeep. Much of that money today goes to support other recreation sites in the city 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 frescos are in good shape and retain the brilliant colors that were applied by dedicated, hungry artists in the 1930s. Frescos 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.