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)

Saved from destruction, UCSF’s Zakheim murals are moved to storage

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A major work by the late San Francisco Jewish artist Bernard Zakheim, one that graced the walls of UCSF’s Toland Hall for 83 years, has been extracted in order to make way for new construction on the university’s Parnassus campus.

Frescos are made to last, and this proves it.

Commissioned and painted between 1936 and 1938, nine of the 12 panels in Zakheim’s “History of Medicine in California” were detached, painstakingly secured and lifted by crane into specially designed trailers on Nov. 10 and 11.

ARG Conservation Services, an S.F.-based historical preservation company, executed the high-risk operation, which UCSF officials deemed “highly successful.”

The murals were “removed intact with no breakage and no issues,” UCSF spokesperson Kristen Boles said. After the remaining three are removed, expected to happen by early December, the lot will be transported to an East Bay art storage facility.

The murals are among the most important works of Zakheim, who was born in 1898 in Poland and died in 1985 in San Francisco, where he lived much of his life. In 1934, he coordinated a group of 25 artists who painted the murals inside San Francisco’s Coit Tower under the employ of the federal Works Progress Administration.

The removal of the panels from Toland Hall culminated — for the time being — some two years of sturm und drang over their fate.

Initially, in June 2020, the university requested that the Zakheim family remove them within 90 days at their own expense — $8 million, UCSF had estimated. As that was likely unfeasible for the family, the university proposed making high-quality digital images of the artwork before destroying it.

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, the walls of which are dominated by Bernard Zakheim’s expansive WPA mural. (Photo/UCSF Archives and Special Collections)

But the family pushed back, joining a range of arts, labor, historical and community organizations in arguing that the art was a public legacy, not disposable property. The S.F. Board of Supervisors designated the mural series a historic landmark, and the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., stepped in to remind university officials that the frescoes had received funding from the federal government, and as such were not theirs to destroy.

Ultimately, UCSF agreed to shoulder the cost of removal, setting a ceiling of $1.8 million for the work. ARG won the bid to undertake the difficult task of separating the murals from the curved walls on which they were painted more than eight decades ago.

Some parties, particularly the artist’s elder son, art conservator Nathan Zakheim, expressed concern that unless a specific removal technique was used, the works were likely to suffer irreparable damage. It is not known at this time what technique ARG used, nor has the family been able to inspect the removed murals.

UCSF did say that the East Bay storage facility is climate-controlled, monitored and protected with a fire alarm and security service.

“We expect the murals to remain in the same good condition, and we will continue to monitor and evaluate them the entire time they are in storage,” Boles said in an email.

Besides creating pieces that are made to last, the time-honored fresco technique of painting on wet plaster or limestone also has traditionally been used to create a series of murals that together tell a story.

The “History of Medicine in California” murals — 10 pictorial panels and two descriptive panels — were the result of extensive research carried out by Zakheim and his assistant, Phyllis Wrightson. They portray a social history of medical practice in California from colonial times through the early 20th century and include vivid images of Indigenous healers, Spanish missionaries, doctors, nurses, lab scientists, and suffering and recovered patients. The tableaus include images of physicians whose names now grace medical center buildings, such as Toland Hall (Dr. Hugh Toland, 1806-1880) and Cole Hall (Dr. R. Beverly Cole, 1829-1901). One panel is a tribute to the many people who contributed to the development of modern science.

Large panel from Bernard Zakheim's "History of Medicine in California." (Photo/Courtesy UCSF Archives & Special Collections)
Large panel from Bernard Zakheim’s “History of Medicine in California.” (Photo/Courtesy UCSF Archives & Special Collections)

While many are happy the murals have ostensibly been “saved,” the story of the panels is not over.

Their size and breadth, especially as a group, present a challenge in terms of required exhibition space. And UCSF officials have kept mum on whether they have plans for the  murals’ reinstallation in any of the new buildings in the university’s reported $3 billion, 30-year project to modernize its Parnassus Heights campus (including the construction of a new hospital at UCSF Helen Diller Medical Center).

A university task force has been formed to consider locations both on- and off-campus that could accommodate the murals.

“Our family would ideally like to see these murals displayed in their entirety, in a museum willing to house them and display these works of art in perpetuity,” Adam Gottstein, grandson of the artist, said in a written statement to UCSF. In it, he noted that Zakheim studied the fresco technique with renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

“This pedigree and caliber of art should be preserved in a museum environment for many to learn and enjoy forever,” Gottstein added. Their inclusion in the upgraded Parnassus campus, or another U.C. campus building, “would also be acceptable,” he said.

Nathan Zakheim repeatedly has stated in public forums that the murals should remain at UCSF.

“The task force will be evaluating all options,” Boles said.

Gottstein cautioned that the public needs to keep its eye on things.

“If the murals were to disappear into storage with no known fate for their display in the future, they might as well have fallen under the wrecking ball,” he said.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

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