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)

Court blocks removal of WPA-era murals at UCSF — for now

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A judge has issued a restraining order to block, for now, the removal of historic murals at UCSF painted in the 1930s by renowned Jewish artist Bernard Zakheim.

The Aug. 23 court order comes after more than a year of controversy surrounding the fate of the murals, an issue connected to the larger question of the prestigious school’s long-term expansion plans.

Zakheim, a Polish immigrant to San Francisco and student of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, painted the 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 2020, 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 the cost at $8 million and stated that the murals would be photographed then destroyed if the family couldn’t take possession.

Bernard Zakheim with son Nathan in 1967 at UCSF. (Photo/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)
Bernard Zakheim with son Nathan in 1967 at UCSF. (Photo/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)

The action animated a wave of public interest in the frescoes 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 by the WPA.

Following the outcry, UCSF changed course and in fall of 2020 awarded a $1.8 million contract to an S.F.-based firm specializing in historic preservation to remove the murals. The school has also set up a task force to find a new location for the art.

Moving the murals is considered a necessary step before further demolition work on Toland Hall, so the order to pause that work counts as a victory for neighbors opposed to UCSF expansion as planned. The restraining order issued this week was filed by San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities, a neighborhood group that opposes UCSF’s current expansion plans.

The Aug. 23 order prohibits the university from “engaging in any demolition or construction activities” connected to UCSF’s development plans that “relate to the execution of plans to remove the Zackheim murals from their present location.” The restraining order means UCSF cannot move the murals now, but must wait to take any action until after Sept. 16, when the court is set to rule on a preliminary injunction on the larger expansion project.