Sacramento Bee: S.F. landmark’s Depression-era murals in need of repair

S.F. landmark’s Depression-era murals badly in need of repair

Sunday, Jan. 08, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – The view from Coit Tower, a national landmark that sits atop Telegraph Hill, is one of this city’s most impressive, offering a panorama of the San Francisco Bay.

Inside the tower is another story. A ring of historic murals telling the story of California during the Great Depression is in disrepair, in some spots chipped, scratched, dirty or damaged by water. A poster describing the work of 27 artists who created the vivid frescoes is so warped it is hard to read.

“The murals are decaying every day without protection,” said Jon Golinger, head of the neighborhood association Telegraph Hill Dwellers, who lives nearby and walks past the historic tower on his way to work.

Golinger and members of the newly formed Protect Coit Tower Committee are working to put a measure on the June ballot calling for the maintenance and preservation of the murals, tower and surrounding Pioneer Park. The art deco tower, a defining feature of the city’s skyline, is, they say, lost in plain sight.

Read the full story here:


LA Times: Hard Times For A Tower And Its Murals

Hard times for a tower and its murals

Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 ~ Lee Romney

The frescoes encapsulate Depression-era California: Scenes depicting idyllic farm and factory life roll out beside those of grueling economic hardship. Urban shoppers browse for toys. A small boy witnesses a mugging.

No one disputes their historical value. But the works — along with their iconic Art Deco home, San Francisco’s fluted Coit Tower — are in trouble.

Mineral blooms on the concrete pillar’s interior walls, a byproduct of this city’s legendary fog, have marred the earth- and jewel-toned images. Their surfaces bear chips and scratches from the indiscreet hands of countless visitors. The ceiling plaster is peeling. The lighting is dim.

“San Francisco cannot continue to position itself as a great city of arts and culture when it behaves this way,” former state librarian and California historian Kevin Starr said after admiring the frescoes during a recent tour with friends. “Imagine if we treated Rockefeller Center like this.”

Starr’s voice is the latest in a rising chorus of concern over conditions at Coit Tower.

Read the full story here:,0,4283890.story


SF Rec & Park Department Answers Questions About Coit Tower New Concession Plans

Please click below to read a 10 page list of questions from potential new concession vendors at Coit Tower and the responses from the San Francisco Recreation & Park Department issued on December 20, 2011.  The deadline for Coit Tower concessionaire proposal submissions is January 10, 2012.

SF Recreation and Park Department Questions & Answers About Proposed New Coit Tower Concessionaire – December 20, 2011


Special “California’s Gold” Coit Tower Show

If you love Coit Tower you’ll really enjoy this episode of “California’s Gold” and its special interviews with Masha Zakheim & Ruth Gottstein, the daughters of Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim.

Watch it here:  California’s Gold #12004 – COIT TOWER


SF Business Times: “Coit Tower is up for grabs”


SF Chronicle: Ballot measure to protect Coit Tower

San Francisco Chronicle

Ballot measure to protect Coit Tower

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A neighborhood group wants to place a measure on the June ballot that would preserve and protect Coit Tower.

On Wednesday, the Protect Coit Tower Committee, a small, newly formed group of neighbors, environmentalists and artists, filed paperwork with the city’s Department of Elections that marks the first step in putting together a ballot measure on behalf of the 1934 landmark on Telegraph Hill. Leading the effort is Jon Golinger, president of the powerful neighborhood group the Telegraph Hill Dwellers.

The ballot measure, according to a draft version, would call for “strictly limiting commercial activities and private events at Coit Tower.” It would also call for the city, which receives rent from the concession operating inside the landmark, to “prioritize” that money for maintaining the building and beautifying Pioneer Park.

The group is concerned about the condition of the Depression-era murals that line the tower’s walls, which city officials have noted are peeling and suffering water damage.

The Recreation and Park Department, which oversees Coit Tower, is searching for a vendor to manage the tower’s elevators, food and beverage sales, and gift shop for its annual 150,000 visitors. The business must have a plan to avoid harming the art, and the department will contribute up to $250,000 to a restoration being planned by the Arts Commission. The city will also put 1 percent of the annual rent it receives from the new vendor toward mural maintenance.

But the Protect Coit Tower Committee says those efforts are not enough, noting that the Recreation and Park Department is asking that the new vendor be open to hosting private events. “Clearly, Coit Tower is being looked at as a marketing opportunity, not as an opportunity for stewardship,” Golinger said. “The city’s role for Coit Tower is stewarding an incredibly valuable historic and iconic resource – not an opportunity to generate revenue for unknown programs.”

What’s next? After completing a few more rounds of paperwork, organizers will start to gather an estimated 9,000 signatures.

- Stephanie Lee


Bay Citizen: Confused Rec and Park Said Diego Rivera Painted Coit Tower Murals

By   December 5, 2011

Was this mural at Coit Tower painted by Diego Rivera? Hint: No it was not.

Fans of the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera know they can see his work at City College, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the old Pacific Stock Exchange building.

They will be surprised to find that his colorful depictions of working class struggle have now somehow appeared on the walls at the Coit Tower — that is, according to San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department.

In seeking a new vendor to run the San Francisco landmark, the Rec and Park Department issued a request for proposals that crows: “Boasting visitorship of over 200,000 annually, Coit Tower is a must‐see for all tourists, both because of its views and because of the extensive WPA‐era murals, including those by Diego Rivera, throughout the interior.”

But in spite of Rec and Park’s apparent art history revelation, which is repeated several times in the document, there are no murals by Rivera at Coit tower. And there never have been.

The colorful scenes of the Great Depression featuring steelworkers, farmers and shopkeepers were painted by about 25 artists including Victor Arnautoff, Maxine Albro and Bernard Zakheim with funding from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA.

Jorge Morell, a docent at San Francisco mural powerhouse Precita Eyes, says it’s a common mistake because the style is similar and because some of the artists apprenticed to Rivera.

“If you’re not an expert you might make the mistake because the style is very similar,” said Morell. “But for someone who is knowledgeable that should not have happened, but we all make mistakes.”

The move to bid out the contract to run the elevator, gift shop and sell food would actually increase the amount of money targeted for maintaining the murals that the Rec and Park department believed to be Rivera’s handiwork. Under the new plan, one percent of the rent would go to the city’s art commission for that purpose; currently funds are allocated on an as-needed basis.

Nick Kinsey, assistant director of property management for Rec and Park, said he didn’t know how the mistake was made, but acknowledged that in fact there are no hidden Riveras at Coit Tower. The important part, he said, is that the “San Francisco treasure” would be well-maintained.

Right now Coit Tower brings in about $1 million with most of the money coming from the elevators and the gift shop. Kinsey said he’d like to see better offerings when it comes to food and merchandise at the site.

But the powerful neighborhood group, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, is worried that Rec and Park wants to commercialize Coit Tower much like Fisherman’s Wharf.

“This bit of carelessness and attitude seems to indicate that this is a marketing opportunity and not a stewardship opportunity,” said Jon Golinger of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers.

Diego Rivera
On the other hand this one is a Diego Rivera mural at City College.

Source: The Bay Citizen (


SF Chronicle: Depression-era Coit Tower murals need touch-up

Depression-era Coit Tower murals need touch-up
Stephanie Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2011
On the ground floor of the tower, visitors are greeted by... On a scheduled tour of Coit Tower, visitors can view the ... Coit Tower is striking against a blue October sky. The mu... A detail of a restaurant scene has had paint removed. The...

The tired, poor and huddled masses of Coit Tower are looking especially downtrodden these days.

One of the San Francisco landmark’s most beloved features is its series of murals from the Great Depression. Under the New Deal, a group of artists covered the walls with portraits of California’s farmworkers, city slickers and hungry families.

But water spots, gashed surfaces, and wear and tear have marred the frescoes. Now city agencies are struggling to find the cash to repair the historic art – no simple feat during yet another time of economic hardship.

“Things are getting worse,” said Anne Grawemeyer, 70, who has been leading San Francisco City Guide tours at Coit Tower for five years. “The water damage has been coming on a long time. The chips and gouges are definitely getting worse.”

Scratches and chips

Created by more than two dozen local artists under the first federal Public Works of Art Project, the murals have undergone several restorations since Coit Tower opened in 1934. In 1960, they were so badly vandalized that the city closed them to the public for 17 years. A renovation stretching from 1987 to 1990 cost $75,000.

Now another restoration is needed. Parts of the ceiling are peeling. White streaks obscure the menu advertising “SPECIAL LUNCH 25¢” in a diner. Chunks of plaster are missing from a doorframe on the second floor, which lacks guardrails and is open only to guided tours. Scratches and chips scar scenes of a surveyor overlooking a field and a family at leisure in its living room.

The tour leaders of City Guides, whose policy prohibits its volunteers to lobby for or against causes, alerted city officials to the situation.

“It’s a real treasure, not to just San Francisco but to the country as a whole,” said Grawemeyer, strolling past the Diego Rivera-style works on a recent afternoon. “The whole idea of artists working together on a single project, a single theme, celebrating the country, really was the inspiration for art that came later.”

A vendor who will set up shop in Coit Tower next year will be required to help preserve the murals. The city’s Recreation and Park Commission, which oversees the property, outlined Thursday its bidding requirements for a business to manage the tower’s elevators, food and beverage sales, and gift shop for its annual 150,000 visitors. The current vendor, Fashion House Inc., earned almost $1 million in revenue last fiscal year.

Putting money aside

The Recreation and Park Department will put 1 percent of the annual rent it receives from the new vendor toward mural maintenance. The business must also have a plan to avoid harming the art, and the department will contribute up to $250,000 to the restoration.

The Arts Commission, which is responsible for maintaining the city’s public art, hired a conservator for more than $5,000 in September to evaluate the damage. It is also raising funds and applying for grants.

Fully restoring the murals is a long process that involves replastering sections and choosing the correct pigments, said Allison Cummings, senior registrar for the civic art collection.

“It’s very labor-intensive,” she said. “It requires either shutting down the building or working at night.”

But Grawemeyer says she can picture the end result – and it’s worth it.

“You have to preserve what you’ve got,” she said.

Donations to help ArtCare preserve the city’s civic art collection can be made at

E-mail Stephanie Lee at

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


SF Examiner: Concession deal falls flat at Coit Tower

March 4, 2008  – John Upton

An effort to boost the revenue The City receives from visitors to San Francisco’s 74-year-old Coit Tower has stalled, with city officials announcing that they have walked away from exclusive negotiations with one group chosen 15 months ago to operate concessions at the popular tourist attraction.

The Recreation and Park Commission in November 2006 directed staff to negotiate with a four-person group calling itself Coit Tower Partners, which was selected through a competitive process that began in 2005, department records show.

Under the agreement, Coit Tower Partners would operate the tower’s ground-level gift shop and its food and beverage concessions, manage the audio tour distribution and sell tickets for the elevator that takes visitors to the top-floor observation tower. The group also proposed to reconfigure and refurbish the interior of the gift shop and improve a public viewing deck, documents show.

On the advice of staff, department head Yomi Agunbiade decided last week to abandon negotiations with Coit Tower Partners and seek new bids, according to department spokeswoman Rose Dennis. Dennis said a timeline for the new bid process has not been developed.

Dennis said the decision was based on feedback from neighbors worried about potential traffic congestion and problems that could arise from proposed alcohol sales.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district covers Telegraph Hill, said he “absolutely” supported the decision to end negotiations with Coit Tower Partners.

“People want it to be better, but better doesn’t mean that we have to turn it into Disneyland,” Peskin said.

Coit Tower Partners leader Alexander Leff declined to discuss the matter Monday, saying The City hadn’t told him that it planned to end negotiations.

A city-appointed souvenir vendor will continue to sell gifts and elevators ticket inside the city-owned tower on a month-to-month basis until a new vendor is appointed, according to Dennis.

The cash-strapped department’s cut of the concessionaire’s sales last fiscal year worked out to roughly $515,000, according to figures provided by Dennis.

The 180-foot cylindrical tower was built on Telegraph Hill in 1932 and 1933 as a memorial for volunteer firemen who lost their lives fighting major San Francisco fires, according to U.S. Department of Interior documents.

The tower’s interior was decorated during the Great Depression with murals by 26 artists under the direction of muralist Diego Rivera, according to the documents.

The San Francisco landmark was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January, according to California Office of Historic Preservation spokeswoman Patricia Ambacher.


Chronicle story about failed 2007 proposal to commercialize Coit Tower

Makeover may be Coit Tower’s gift for 75th birthday
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Plans are in the works to spruce up Coit Tower and turn t...

A plan to spiff up Coit Tower — complete with a new outdoor cafe and reopened viewing deck — is at the heart of negotiations between San Francisco officials and a team of investors seeking to take over management of the 1930s landmark from the city.

The idea is to turn one of San Francisco’s most photographed and beloved attractions into a moneymaker that yields profits for the city’s cash-starved Recreation and Park Department.

The backers, who have formed as Coit Tower Partners, hope to nearly triple the 175,000 annual paid visits to the Telegraph Hill tourist attraction within five years.

What you won’t find in any of the documents that Coit Tower Partners has filed with the city, however, is a scheme the backers are floating to close the Columbus Plaza parking lot to cars and buses to make way for an enclosed cafe with a panoramic view.

Asked about that idea, Rec and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis said, “The possibilities are endless. … But what’s there on paper is what’s being negotiated.”

In other words, any ideas that come up in the talks have to go through careful study because, as Dennis put it, “We don’t want to upset the applecart of people out there.”

Over the years, ideas for improving Coit Tower have come and gone like the fog — someone even proposed shuttling tourists from the bottom of Telegraph Hill in a ski-style gondola.

This time, city officials would like to get Coit Tower spruced up and ready for a load of new visitors next year when the landmark celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Among the ideas that Coit Tower Partners has put in writing:

– Bring in a vintage fire truck selling sandwiches, salads and the like in Columbus Plaza, along with tables, chairs and umbrellas. Install a separate, historic “steam pumper” coffee stand on the opposite lawn.

– Open the tower’s balustrade viewing level to visitors.

– Reopen the tower’s long-closed stairwell, which might eliminate long waits for the elevator.

– Remodel the gift shop on the ground floor and sell pricier souvenirs there that connect to the tower’s history.

But the biggest challenge of all may be dealing with the traffic jams getting to Coit Tower, which will certainly worsen if more people pay visits.

Backers propose working with Citipark to provide validated parking at nearby garages and possibly even run shuttles to the tower. They also talk about encouraging more visitors to take the bus or walk.

“I don’t know what kind of drugs they’re smoking,” was the first reaction of Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, whose district includes Coit Tower, when asked about the prospects of closing the Columbus Plaza lot.

“It’s the only place for the No. 39 bus to turn around,” Peskin said.

Then again, Peskin said, the tower certainly could use some spiffing up to get rid of its “ticky-tacky tourist trap” image.

Coit Tower Partners includes an assortment of well-connected business and civic types. Among them: architect Rod Freebairn-Smith, a former arts commissioner and onetime president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association; business consultant Alexander Leff, who operates Malibu Pier in Southern California; Mark Zuckerman, the founder of Pasqua’s Coffee; and Howard Wright III, whose family owns and operates the Seattle Space Needle.

We contacted Freebairn-Smith, but he declined to comment — saying the city advised his team not to talk publicly while the negotiations were under way.

This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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