A panel from Bernard Zakheim's expansive WPA murals on medical history in UCSF's Toland Hall auditorium; Zakheim working on the mural in 1937. (Photos/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)
A panel from Bernard Zakheim's expansive WPA murals on medical history in UCSF's Toland Hall auditorium; Zakheim working on the mural in 1937. (Photos/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)

S.F. firm wins bid to remove historic Zakheim murals at UCSF

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UCSF announced Oct. 20 that it has awarded a $1.8 million contract for the removal of historic murals by renowned Jewish artist Bernard Zakheim from a building slated for demolition.

Zakheim, a Polish immigrant to San Francisco and student of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, was commissioned to paint a series of frescoes, titled “History of Medicine in California,” between 1935 and 1938 under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration. They were installed in Toland Hall, a building on UCSF’s Parnassus Heights campus that has been deemed seismically vulnerable.

In June, the university advised the artist’s descendants they had 90 days to submit a proposal to claim and remove the panels at their own expense. The letter estimated that cost at $8 million, and stated the murals would be photographed then destroyed if the family couldn’t take possession.

The action animated a wave of public interest in the frescoes, expressed in articles and opinion pieces in national media, meetings and seminars on Zoom, and spurred the city’s Board of Supervisors to designate the artworks a historic landmark. The General Services Administration also stepped in, asserting the federal government’s proprietary interest in art that had been funded, even partially, by the WPA.

Zakheim’s 10-panel mural series depicts vivid images of doctors, lab scientists, and suffering and recovered patients, and has been studied by generations of medical students. The university has long promoted the art as a visual symbol of its humanistic values. In 2015, as part of the institution’s 150th anniversary, UCSF archivist Polina Ilieva described them in a blog as “the jewel of the University’s art collection.”

A 1962 lecture in UCSF's Toland Hall, the walls of which are dominated by Bernard Zakheim's expansive WPA mural. (Photo/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)
A 1962 lecture in UCSF’s Toland Hall, with its walls dominated by Bernard Zakheim’s expansive WPA murals. (Photo/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)

In August, the university shifted the burden from the artist’s family, issuing a public request for proposals to safely remove the art. Nine companies initially expressed interest in the job, including an art conservation company run by Nathan Zakheim, the artist’s son. Zakheim repeatedly has stated his father taught him how to safely remove the frescoes. He further claims the technique is unique, and that the artworks may suffer irreparable damage if other methods are attempted. Zakheim ultimately joined the team of one of two companies that submitted bids, Plant Construction, as a technical consultant.

But this week UCSF announced it had awarded the contract to ARG Conservation Services, an S.F.-based firm specializing in historic preservation. It is associated with the Architectural Resources Group, which will serve as the project’s architect of record. The ARG/CS bid was higher, coming in at just under a $1.8 million ceiling, with an additional $20,000 for crating and transporting the panels to a UCSF storage facility.

“We are very pleased with ARG/CS’s meticulous proposal and the cohesive team of contractors, architects, art movers and other experts they have assembled,” said a press release from Brian Newman, a senior associate vice chancellor of UCSF real estate. “Their extensive experience working with one another on projects involving conservation and transportation of murals and other delicate works of art gives us confidence in their ability to successfully execute this important project.”

Previous projects completed by ARG/CS include the 2014 conservation and waterproofing of Coit Tower’s New Deal–era fresco murals — frescoes that were painted in 1934 by Bernard Zakheim and 25 other artists.

But that was an entirely different restoration challenge than the one posed at Toland Hall, according to Nathan Zakheim. In an email he sent to Plant Construction after the contract was awarded, Zakheim questioned the qualifications of ARG/CS to successfully remove the frescoes. He said the team did not appear to have the specific experience required nor knowledge of the process by which resins are applied to the back of the frescoes to prevent them from crumbling or breaking apart.

Bernard Zakheim with son Nathan in 1967 at UCSF. (Photo/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)
Bernard Zakheim with son Nathan in 1967 at UCSF. They successfully restored his other murals in Cole Hall. (Photo/UCSF Archives)

“Working on the front of a fresco is like cosmetic surgery,” he explained in the email. “Removing a fresco is more like heart surgery. Would you trust your child requiring open-heart surgery in the hands of a cosmetician?”

While sharing his concerns, other family members were cautiously receptive to the university’s announcement.

“On the surface, this is ostensibly good news,” said Adam Gottstein, grandson of the artist. “It appears as though the murals might be saved from destruction, which was our family’s goal from the beginning. However, we have not been consulted and there are significant issues related to conservation prior to the removal of the murals, which if not done correctly could result in unnecessary and avoidable damage to the historic fresco panels.”

What will happen to the removed murals is still unresolved. While the UCSF press release stated that “the university will seek a permanent home for the collection where they will be available for public viewing,” Gottstein said he found the promises “extremely vague about the location for reinstallation as well as proper storage until a location has been established.”

Notable in the UCSF announcement was a stated intent to commission high-resolution, 3D images of the “History of California” panels. The images will allow the UCSF Library and Archives to develop “a virtual reality experience about the murals and their history” both online and in “interpretive exhibit on campus.”

The digital preservation concept was laid out in the university’s first outreach to the Zakheim family back in June.

“I can only say that we remain guardedly optimistic, but with many questions yet to be answered,” Gottstein said.

UCSF anticipates that ARG will be available to answer “specific questions” from the community at a future date. According to UCSF, the planning process for implementation of the project will begin in January, and the process is expected to take a year.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.