November 4, 2014
by Sam Whiting
Round and round go 2,000 visitors a day at Coit Tower, marveling at the first-floor murals and walking by a double door that leads to the murals no one ever sees.
These are the unknown upstairs wall paintings that start with a panorama of Powell Street, climbing the hill as the viewer climbs the steps, and end with a bright painting of domestic life that gets its own little room to wrap around.
“The second-floor murals have been largely closed off to the public,” says Jon Golinger of Protect Coit Tower, an advocacy group. “Most San Franciscans and most visitors don’t even know they are there.”
For most of the 80-year history of the murals, the second floor has been kept secret because the stairway is narrow and the viewing space is extremely tight. The first floor has the rotunda to handle the crowds. The second floor is only as wide as the tower itself, and the seven murals are mostly pressed together at the landing.
The unifying theme is recreation, as opposed to the first-floor theme, which is industry and commerce, depicted by people grim with purpose, trying to make their way amid the struggle and strife of the Great Depression.
Because all 27 Coit Tower murals were painted at the same time, in 1934, they presumably were meant to be seen as a whole. Now that all the murals have undergone the most intensive restoration in their history, an effort is being made to get people up there, but only in groups of four to eight, and only as part of a docent tour.
This can be done either through City Guides, which offers free tours of all the murals on Wednesdays or Saturdays, or through the vendor, Coit Tower Tours, which includes a docent tour of all the murals, for $7 a person. The second-floor tour takes about 15 minutes, which is too short for Golinger.
“I’ve been up here for at least an hour at a time,” he says. “Every time you look at the murals you find something new.”
Studied up close
They can only be studied up close, which has a sudden impact when the double door opens to “Powell Street,” by Lucien Labaudt. The mural runs up both sides of the stairway, like both sides of the street, and as you climb the stairs, people climb Powell alongside the cable car.
“The stairway mural is superb; it is one of the all-time best within the tower,” says Anne Rosenthal, an arts conservator who led the restoration of the murals, a yearlong $500,000 project overseen by the San Francisco Arts Commission, guardian of the tower murals.
At the top of the stairs are two murals that bump into each other. One is “Sports” by Edward Takeo Terada, and the other is “Collegiate Sports” by Parker Hall, which includes a Big Game picture above and around the exit.
“I love that portion,” says Rosenthal. “It is very creative the way that center is straddled over the stairway.”
The marquee mural is “Home Life,’ by Jane Berlandina, a French artist married to Henry Howard, one of the architects for the tower. “Home Life” is the only mural at Coit that is a tempera painting, with egg yolk mixed into the pigment, and it is the only mural at Coit that had never been restored.
It took two conservators three weeks to fix the scratches and divots before it was dry-cleaned like the others.
“When I came into this room three years ago, it had the worst damage of them all,” Golinger says. “It had chips and gashes. Now every visitor I see walk into this room goes 'wowm’ and their eyes pop open.”
The room is flooded with natural light that brings up the yellows and reds. Berlandina also did sets for the San Francisco Opera, and this little room is a set of its own, with curtains drawn over the doorways.
Surrounding the viewer are a mom rolling out piecrust with her daughters, people in formal wear dancing to a piano/guitar duo, adults playing cards at a table, and a dad reading the newspaper in an easy chair.
“This mural really jumps out,” says Golinger, an attorney who lives in North Beach. “It’s a much more upbeat version of life in 1934. It seems almost as if all is well in the world.”
If you are up there at the right time, you can see staff coming out a door, beneath Ben Cunningham’s “Outdoor Life.” This is something else as unknown as the second-floor murals: the long-rumored Coit Tower caretaker’s apartment, now converted to an office.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Coit Tower Tours
For details: www.coittowertours.com or www.sfcityguides.org
To watch a short video: www.sfgate.com/entertainment/item/Coit-Tower-Murals-video-34660.php
To view a gallery of images: http://bit.ly/1qmArUT