Coit Tower Is Worth Protecting

San Francisco Chronicle

Coit Tower is worth protecting

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking, poker-playing Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a true San Francisco original. The tower that for 79 years has proudly shared her name is undoubtedly one of a kind, too. But if the honorary member of Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 called Firebelle Lil were today to walk through the front door of the monument her bequest "to beautify the city I love" built, she would surely be shocked by what she would see: lead paint peeling from the ceiling, chunks carelessly carved out of the 27 colorful and historic Works Progress Administration murals that adorn the inside, water seeping through the walls and damaging the irreplaceable art, dim lighting, poor signage, seemingly nobody at all in charge. Firebelle Lil would be the first to sound the alarm for a Coit Tower rescue mission.

Proposition B on the June 5 San Francisco ballot will begin that Coit Tower rescue mission. Prop. B was placed on the ballot by 16,300 voters who signed petitions to establish an official Coit Tower Preservation Policy to restore the badly damaged murals and create the oversight and accountability necessary to prevent Coit Tower from ever again falling into such a state of disrepair.

Prop. B does this in two ways. First, Prop. B directs the city to prioritize the existing funding already generated by Coit Tower to repair it and keep it in good shape. Currently, the city receives more than $633,000 a year from revenue such as the fees visitors pay to ride the elevator to the top of Coit Tower, but puts just 7 percent of those funds back into Coit Tower.

When Coit Tower needs repairs and protection, Prop. B will make it city policy to use some of the Coit Tower revenue for that purpose, with the remainder available for other city needs. The city controller's independent analysis in the voter pamphlet states that Prop. B "would not affect the cost of government."

Second, Prop. B will ensure that Coit Tower remains primarily a public place and not the private corporate party venue some would like it to become. Prop. B establishes a limit on the use of Coit Tower for private parties and commercial activities. It was recently revealed that last year Coit Tower was closed to the public during regular hours so that a small private group could hold a candlelight dinner party right in the middle of the fragile and damaged Coit Tower murals. Some city officials want that to happen on a regular basis. Prop. B will ensure that instead Coit Tower remains a public place everyone can enjoy.

Emmy Lou Packard, a famous San Francisco printmaker and muralist who worked closely with Diego Rivera, once wrote that Coit Tower should be treated like "one of the most beautiful art museums in San Francisco." This June, San Francisco voters will have the opportunity to do just that.

Let's give Firebelle Lil's generous gift to our city and the amazing murals that reside inside the protection they need and deserve by voting Yes on Proposition B.

Jon Golinger is chair of the Protect Coit Tower Committee.

This article appeared on page A - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Bay Guardian Says Yes on B




In theory, city department heads ought to be given fair leeway to allocate resources and run their operations. In practice, San Francisco's Department of Recreation and Parks has been on a privatization spree, looking for ways to sell or rent public open space and facilities as a way to balance an admittedly tight budget. Prop. B seeks to slow that down a bit, by establishing as city policy the premise that Coit Tower shouldn't be used as a cash cow to host private parties.

The tower is one of the city's most important landmarks and a link to its radical history — murals painted during the Depression, under the Works Progress Administration, depict local labor struggles. They're in a bit of disrepair – but that hasn't stopped Rec-Park from trying to bring in money by renting out the place for high-end events. In fact, the tower has been closed down to the public in the past year to allow wealthy patrons to host private parties. And the city has more of that in mind.

If the mayor and his department heads were acting in good faith to preserve the city's public spaces — by raising taxes on big business and wealthy individuals to pay for the commons, instead of raising fees on the rest of us to use what our tax dollars have already paid for — this sort of ballot measure wouldn't be necessary.


As it is, Prop. B is a policy statement, not an ordinance or Charter amendment. It's written fairly broadly and won't prevent the occasional private party at Coit Tower or prevent Rec-Park from managing its budget. Vote yes.,6


Letters to the Editor for Coit Tower

San Francisco Chronicle

Letters to the Editor

April 24, 2012


I am shocked by The Chronicle's strong criticism of "a feisty local group" that "has grumbled for years about city neglect of (Coit) tower ("Save Coit Tower from Prop. B," Editorials, April 23).

"It shouldn't be treated as sacred ground." Really?

Basketball backboards and tennis nets, important sports apparatus, thankfully can be replaced when worn or destroyed. On the other hand, exquisitely significant historic art murals, if damaged or destroyed, cannot ever be replaced.

The city thankfully has recognized that art has a place in recreation (create anew, restore, refresh) by allocating $250,000 for panel repairs. But in the end, this money will simply be ill-spent funds if thereafter nothing is done to put a stop to the resumption of damage. Only prevention and ongoing preservation will do so.

Sharon Williams, Redwood City

Irreplaceable artworks

Lillie Coit left a bequest to the city to build "something beautiful," which turned out to be Coit Tower.

The murals inside were created through the Public Works of Art Project and with taxpayer money. The public owns this building and should be given a chance to decide whether party rentals are an appropriate use for a site with unprotected and irreplaceable artworks. It is not a NIMBY issue.

In a perfect world, the public could also decide what to do with a manager who can't squeeze a few basketball backboards out of a $600,000 revenue stream.

Maureen Rogers, San Francisco

This appeared on page A - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Coit Tower Artists Essay

"Artists are like the great political leaders.  They tend to reject their own class, they attend to the imperative of the now, the problem at hand, and the establishment abhors them, designating their behavior treason."
From “The Novel", by James Michener

Who Were The 25 Artists Who Painted The Coit Tower Murals?

by Ruth Gottstein

They were artists…first and foremost. Not politicians, not intellectuals, not economists. They came from vastly different backgrounds. 

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression in 1934, with a general strike actually taking place in San Francisco at that time, the artists were able to view San Francisco and California through a prism of burgeoning optimism.

They painted in fresco--an ancient technique which required a day's worth of plaster and was applied each morning. The same specially ground earth pigments were used by all, creating a harmonic sense of continuity--although each artist's work was unique.

The artists’ work vividly reflected the contrast of the rich and poor, the incredible advances taking place in the fields of electricity, shipping, agriculture, meat packing, education, banking, surveying, iron workers alongside cowboys. Via their murals, this eclectic group of artists was able to capture the rich tapestry of an emerging California in the 1930s. This was their San Francisco and their California--their hopes for a positive future for many generations to come.

Crowded together into that tiny, circular space within the Tower were scaffolds and the physical presence of each of their assistants.  In spite of these handicaps, their task was completed in a short time--a matter of weeks. 

I actually saw these artists at work because I often visited my father, Bernard Zakheim, while he worked on his mural, "The Library". He portrayed me in the lower left corner in a blue and white sailor blouse, at age 12.

I vividly recall the smell of the wet plaster, and the harmonic energy of the activities. Jon Langdon, the son of the artist Gordon Langdon, also recalls that the barn depicted in his father's mural, “California Agricultural Industry” was located on the family property, 7000 acres owned by his grandfather near Pt. Reyes Station.

The Coit Tower murals are an incredible gift to the people of San Francisco and its international visitors. At virtually no cost to the City, the Tower was built with a bequest from Lilly Hitchcock Coit and placed on land already owned by the City and historically managed by the Department of Recreation and Parks. The murals were totally free—funded by the Federal Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). 

Beyond this, the gift of murals in Coit Tower conveys to the multitude of visitors from all over the world a unique understanding of what San Francisco was about, and in many ways, still is. 


Ruth Gottstein is the daughter of Coit Tower artist Bernard Zakheim. Her sister Masha Zakheim is the author of “Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art” : published by Volcano Press (



Supervisor calls for public hearing to investigate problems at Coit Tower

In response to a request from the Protect Coit Tower Committee, San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu has agreed to hold a public hearing to investigate problems at Coit Tower and threats to its already-damaged murals.  New documents have revealed that, in April 2011, the city closed Coit Tower to the public during the day in order to host a private candlelight dinner party next to the fragile and historic murals inside Coit Tower.

Read the letter sent to Supervisor Chiu requesting the public hearing here.

Read the document showing Coit Tower was closed down to the public during regular operating hours for the private dinner party here.


San Francisco Chronicle


Supervisor to call hearing on Coit Tower

Supervisor David Chiu says he will call a public hearing to assess the state of Coit Tower, the Telegraph Hill landmark whose worsening condition is the subject of a June ballot measure.

“We all care deeply about the future of Coit Tower,” said Chiu, whose district includes the tower. “I’ve asked Rec and Park and the Arts Commission to take real action now to address these issues. I’m happy to call for a hearing to review what city agencies are doing.”

The Recreation and Park Department oversees Coit Tower, while the Arts Commission is responsible for the Great Depression-era murals that line its walls. Chiu’s plan for a hearing comes in part because the art  is deteriorating and damaged in some parts.

Jon Golinger, president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, says the city appears to be more concerned with profiting off the tower than preserving it. As he recently noted, a private dinner party was held next to the tower’s murals last spring. His ballot measure calls for limiting such events there.

Read the full story here.


SF Chronicle: Dinner party in Coit Tower endangered murals, artist’s grandson says

San Francisco Chronicle


Dinner party in Coit Tower endangered murals, artist’s grandson says

Dinner for 12. (Courtesy/Meg Smith & Associates)

Critics who say the city is more concerned with profiting from Coit Tower than preserving it are adding new fuel to the debate: photos of a city-approved candlelit dinner held next to the tower’s Depression-era murals.

The photos, posted on event planner Laurie Arons’ blog, were taken at a private dinner inside the tower last spring. The dinner was auctioned off at a fundraising gala benefiting the Recreation and Park Department and the San Francisco Parks Trust, now part of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the city’s parks.

Guests enjoyed cocktails at sunset atop the tower’s observation deck, the photos show. Those were followed by a candelit dinner of halibut and veal for 12 on the ground floor, feet away from the murals.

The photos were discovered and circulated this week by Telegraph Hill activist Jon Golinger, who is seeking to limit private events at the tower by way of a non-binding ballot measure in June.

That move has rankled the Recreation and Park Department, which oversees the tower’s operations and wants a new vendor to host private functions to pull in more money for the agency. The Arts Commission also wants money to repair the damaged Depression-era murals that line the tower’s walls.

Adam Gottstein, grandson of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim, complained in a letter to the Arts Commission: “Holding private unsupervised functions complete with cocktails and burning candles within inches of these irreplaceable and already-damaged murals presents the possibility of obvious and potentially disastrous effects on the historic murals.”

It is unclear if, or how many, other similar private events have been held in the past.

“We just want to understand better what the circumstances were for this event, and because we believe they quite possibly violated the policy as we understood it, what the reasoning was behind it and what efforts were made to protect the murals,” said Tom DeCaigny, the Arts Commission’s cultural affairs director.

Connie Chan, a Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman, said the dinner was within the rules. The vendor, according to the lease it signed in 1992, has the responsibility “make sure at all times that the murals are adequately protected and to comply with the conservation requirements. The accessibility to the public, risk of handling, vandalism, mechanical damage, cigarette smoke, food and beverages all pose a serious hazard to the murals.” But it also says the mural area can be used for “possible special events.”

Read the complete story here:


SF Labor Council Unanimously Endorses Yes on B

For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, March 27, 2012                                                                            

News Release


The San Francisco Labor Council has endorsed Proposition B, a measure on the June 5th San Francisco ballot to preserve and protect Coit Tower.  On Monday, the members of the Labor Council voted unanimously to join the coalition supporting Prop. B, which includes the San Francisco Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, and relatives of the original Coit Tower muralists.  The San Francisco Labor Council is the local body of the AFL-CIO with more than 150 affiliate unions, representing more than 100,000 union members and their families.

"The San Francisco Labor Council is proud to endorse Proposition B to protect Coit Tower,” said San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson.  “For nearly 80 years the Coit Tower murals have celebrated and dignified the lives of working people and we must take action now to preserve them for decades to come.” 

Due to neglect, decay, and lax oversight by the city, at Coit Tower today lead paint peels from the ceiling, broken lights go unrepaired, leaking water seeps through and corrodes the historic murals, chunks have been carelessly carved out of the art, and gashes and chips mar many of the exposed and fragile frescoes.  This has all happened despite the fact that Coit Tower already generates more than enough revenue for the city every year to keep it in good shape.  According to city records, the city has been receiving $633,000 annually from Coit Tower concessions and elevator fees but spending just 7% of that – less than $44,000 a year – on Coit Tower.

Proposition B will put in place a new policy directing city officials to protect Coit Tower and its murals by prioritizing the funds raised at Coit Tower for preserving the murals, protecting the Coit Tower building, and beautifying Pioneer Park around Coit Tower and by keeping commercial activities and private events strictly limited. 

“We are so honored to have the Labor Council join the citywide coalition of artists, environmentalists, neighborhood organizations, civic groups, and elected officials supporting Proposition B," said Jon Golinger, Chair of the Protect Coit Tower Committee.  “One of the things that makes the Coit Tower murals so special is that they were created during the labor battles of the 1930s and many of them show working people just struggling to survive.  These are priceless treasures that we must protect, not continue to neglect.”

# # #


Examiner: SF Democratic Party Endorses Yes on B to Protect Coit Tower

March 18, 2012

Coit Tower measure gains backing of local Democratic Party

By: Dan Schreiber
SF Examiner Staff Writer

A ballot measure aimed at bringing more funding to Coit Tower and limiting private parties at the landmark is getting support from the local Democratic Party.

Listed as Proposition B on the June 5 ballot, the measure gained the endorsement over the insistence by The City’s Recreation and Park Department and the Arts Commission that the proposal is too vague and potentially restrictive.

The measure seeks to “prioritize” money made at Coit Tower for its maintenance and also to “limit” private events, which Rec and Park occasionally allows to raise funds for its network of public parks. Neither policy change carries specific limits.

It’s being pushed by a coalition of neighborhood groups, including the influential Telegraph Hill Dwellers. Backers are concerned about decaying Depression-era murals and general upkeep at the site, which they say doesn’t get enough attention — especially considering the money the 210-foot structure raises through elevator fees and concessions.


Ch. 2 KTVU: Daughter of Coit Tower Artist Says Murals Need Protection Logo

March 5, 2012

A San Francisco landmark is in need of repairs.  And supporters of Coit Tower say they’re long overdue.

Watch the video clip here:  Coit Tower Murals Need Preservation


SF Chronicle: Muralist’s daughter tells story of art in Coit Tower

San Francisco Chronicle

Recalling the creation of Coit Tower’s murals

Erin Allday — Monday, March 5, 2012

In the corner of a 100-square-foot mural painted on a wall of Coit Tower, Ruth Gottstein is forever memorialized.

Just 12 years old in the painting, she has a short, pageboy haircut, and soft, thoughtful eyes. She’s clutching a notebook, and wearing a blue skirt and a sailor-style blouse.

“I never wore a blouse like that,” said Gottstein, now 89. “I don’t know what my father was thinking.”

Gottstein’s father, Bernard Zakheim, was one of 26 artists who painted the 27 Great Depression-era murals inside Coit Tower. Zakheim’s mural, called “Library,” features men and women reading books and newspapers, many of them blasting headlines about union strife and public discord from the times.

On Sunday, Gottstein spoke before a crowd of 75 people about her memories of watching her father and the other artists at work in 1934, when the murals were painted with money from the federal Public Works of Art Project. Zakheim earned $619 for his mural, which took almost four months to paint.

Gottstein recalled the smell of wet plaster – the murals were mostly done in a fresco style, on plaster made fresh every day – and watching the man in charge of the colors crush pigments by hand.

Many of the murals were politically controversial. In Zakheim’s painting, a man reaches for a copy of Marx’s “Das Kapital.” Zakheim was asked repeatedly to remove the title, but he refused and the mural remains as he painted it.

Still, Gottstein recalled that the artists worked “harmoniously,” and even as a girl she recognized the positive energy in the tower rooms.

“It’s really a very small space,” Gottstein said. “When you think of the scaffolding and the artists and their assistants working in there all at once, it was amazing.”

Gottstein was speaking as part of the second annual San Francisco History Expo, held all weekend at the Old Mint. She discussed each of the tower’s murals, and the meaning and history behind both the artists and the paintings.

She also talked about her frustration at seeing the murals in various states of disrepair now – the paint and plaster chipped away in places, some murals water-damaged and faded. Several are located along the tower’s curving inner staircase, which has long been closed to the public. Those murals can only be seen twice a week on a special tour.

A committee created to help restore the murals has collected enough signatures to put a measure on the June 5 ballot. The measure would “prioritize” money collected from visitors to Coit Tower to go toward maintaining the tower and protecting the murals. Neither the Arts Commission nor the Recreation and Park Department support the measure, which both agencies say is overly restrictive.

“Many people don’t know what they’re looking at when they see the murals,” said Jon Golinger, who heads the Protect Coit Tower committee. “The way the city’s treated Coit Tower to date, it’s almost an afterthought, even though it’s so prominent.”

Read the full story:


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