Citizens fuel effort to restore Coit Tower murals

Last fall, San Franciscan Gayle Leyton decided to visit Coit Tower, the iconic landmark she remembered lovingly from childhood. She was appalled by what she found.

Filthy bathrooms. Broken doorjambs. And worst of all, cracks in the ceiling and walls on which the Jewish artist Bernard Zakheim and 25 others painted the lobby’s exquisite murals six decades earlier.

Leyton fired off a series of complaint letters to the city’s Recreation and Parks Department.

She wasn’t the only one distressed by the deterioration of the murals, which depict 1930s-era California in all its urban, rural and agricultural glory.

Scene from Bernard Zakheim’s Coit Tower mural courtesy of lehrhaus judaica

Meanwhile, Zakheim’s daughter Ruth Gottstein and grandson Adam Gottstein of Volcano, Calif., in the Sierra foothills, also fretted over the neglect visited upon their family’s legacy. They reached out to the San Francisco’s Arts Commission, as well as the Recreation and Parks Department, the two agencies responsible for upkeep of Coit Tower and its murals.

They also contacted Jon Golinger, a San Francisco attorney and president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood association. He in turn co-founded the Protect Coit Tower Committee, which last month launched a petition drive to get a ballot measure before the voters next fall.

“From time to time, citizen engagement is a valuable way to push the city to do better,” Golinger said of the ballot measure, which if passed would establish a nonbinding policy to direct more dollars toward the protection, maintenance and beautification of Coit Tower.

Though the activists believe all of Coit Tower and surrounding Pioneer Park suffer from neglect, they agree the murals are most in need of emergency restoration.

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, federal money from the Public Works of Art Project was set aside for a mural inside Coit Tower. Zakheim, a Polish immigrant, son of a rabbi and student of Diego Rivera, was hired to coordinate the project.

Starting in 1934, 26 artists — each earning a dollar an hour — worked for six months on the 3,700-square-foot lobby. Total cost: around $25,000.

Zakheim’s panel, titled “The Library,” generated controversy, thanks to his deeply held left-wing politics (in part of the mural, Zakheim depicts a man reaching for a copy of “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx).

Kate Patterson, the Arts Commission’s public information officer, agrees the murals, which are frescoes (water paint on wet plaster), need restoration. The last repairs were done more than 20 years ago.

She said the worst damage has come from people or objects accidentally chipping the paintings, not to mention the tower itself acting as a “sponge” for moist sea air, which perpetually damages the walls.

“We have been aware of the condition for some time,” Patterson said, “but for us it’s a question of resources. We have a conservator who is assessing the murals, and will write a report about what is needed and what the costs will be. The conservator is taking her time to go over every nook and cranny. We expect it will take a few months.”

At the end of that process, said Connie Chan, Recreation and Parks Department deputy director of public affairs, up to $250,000 will be released to cover restoration costs.

Even so, activists don’t think that expenditure will permanently eliminate long-term threats to the murals.

“My understanding is it’s incredibly expensive and time consuming,” Adam Gottstein said of the restoration process. “You have a tall concrete cylinder that acts as a wick for moisture. How do you look at long-range methods for keeping the murals dry? Anywhere else in the world, [the murals] would be in a museum and lit well. You couldn’t touch them.”

That’s not the case at Coit Tower, where the paintings are well within touching distance beyond the guardrails.

Historically, Coit Tower concessionaires have been responsible for the day-to-day oversight of the building. The city places no security guards or docents at the site, though volunteer docents offer tours. Now soliciting bids for a new concessionaire, the city also wants to open up Coit Tower to more private parties as a way to generate income.

Not so fast, Golinger says.

“That would close it off to the public on a regular basis,” he said. “It would go from being a public space to being another venue for private corporate events. There’s no objection to all events, but if you have them, limit it to once a month.”

To raise more money for the murals, the Arts Commission launched ArtCare, a fund that raises money from private donations to augment city resources available to maintain San Francisco’s 4,000 public art works. “Coit Tower is obviously a jewel,” Patterson said, “but we have many treasures that need ongoing care.”

Golinger is of course partial to Coit Tower. More than halfway through collecting the necessary 9,700 signatures before the Feb. 6 deadline, he said he is hopeful all the parties will be on the same page to preserve the site.

“If real resources are raised,” he said, “and a different approach to how it’s managed, Coit Tower could last the next 80 years and beyond, and the murals could be preserved in a much more fitting way.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.