SF Chronicle: Coit Tower Renovations Progressing Slowly

June 9, 2013

by Neal Riley

San Franciscans approved a measure last year intended to protect the Depression-era murals inside Coit Tower that have been showing their age.

So has it helped?

That depends on who you ask.

Even before voters even approved the ballot measure, a $1.7 million renovation project was launched to fix up the tower and restore the murals. That effort is showing some results, despite some delays. The leaky roof was replaced in April — a delay of five months because of weather — and seven months of construction to repair building cracks and renovate the lobby and bathrooms will begin in October.

“We feel really good about the progress we’re making,” said Kate Patterson, spokeswoman for the Arts Commission, which oversees the murals.

The ballot measure, which is non-binding, called for strict limits on private events in the tower and prioritizing money generated inside the building for repairs and the beautification of Pioneer Park around the building.

Just before voters went to the polls, a report that found that the strain of 150,000 annual visitors in the nearly 80-year-old building was leading to water damage, peeling ceilings and cracked concrete and threatening the historic art. Several murals have been chipped, scratched and marked with water spots.

“The frescoed interior is the achievement of some of the most gifted local artists during the era of its construction, 1933-34,” the report from Architectural Resources Group stated, adding that preserving the artworks is a “serious responsibility and a challenge” for the city. “The success or failure of this obligation is highly visible to both native San Franciscans and travelers from all over the world.”

Despite the progress, some of the harshest critics of the Recreation and Park Department and the Arts Commission say the murals need more urgent attention.

Protect Coit Tower Chairman Jon Golinger, leader of the group behind the ballot measure, said that there aren’t enough signs or staff supervision to warn people not to wear backpacks inside the cramped space or touch the artwork. He also noted that in some cases, murals are separated from the public only by a rope and not a metal railing.

“Most people don’t understand the art, they don’t realize it’s like a museum,” he said. “At some level a lot has changed, at some level very little has changed.”

Still, Golinger and others in his group are quick to praise the city for the new preservation work.

“I thank San Francisco voters for the fact that, for the first time in its 80-year history, Coit Tower has finally begun to get the attention and resources it so badly needs and deserves,” said Ruth Gottstein, the daughter of Coit Tower artist Bernard Zakheim, in a statement. “I urge the city to move forward full speed ahead with the Coit Tower mural preservation work and building renovations without any more delays.”

But Patterson says the murals are not at risk thanks to the roof repairs and that restoration can’t begin until construction in the rest of the building is complete. She said the Arts Commission will be looking for a firm to rehabilitate the murals in the coming months, and restoring artwork is a “painstakingly slow process.”

“The safest thing for the murals is to not let anyone see or touch them ever again, but that’s not going to happen,” said Patterson, who added that two large signs should be installed before July to remind visitors not to touch the walls and wear backpacks on the front of their body. “They’re a national treasure and we want people to enjoy them.”

Though there haven’t been any private events in the tower since the ballot measure passed, that could change.

Rec and Park upset the backers of the proposition by exploring a contract last summer with a potential vendor for the tower that would have allowed one private event per month. Rec and Park officials have said that private events generate more than $2 million in desperately needed revenue a year for park programs.

Rec and Park spokeswoman Sarah Ballard said the department hopes to have a new vendor in place later this year, by 2013, and the future of private events at the tower has not been determined.

Read more at:  http://blog.sfgate.com/cityinsider/2013/06/09/coit-tower-making-headway-on-renovations/


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