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November 11, 2014

Restoration of Coit Tower Murals: SF’s Monument to the Fresco

In 1934, in the midst of the Depression, a group of San Francisco artists lobbied for a job: to paint murals on the walls of Coit Tower, the monument that had opened a year earlier atop Telegraph Hill. The iconic tower is now famous for those murals. Recently reverently restored, they flank the walls of the inner and outer circular lobby, the steep inner staircase and the second floor.

Thanks to the artists’ concerted efforts, the Public Works of Art Project—the precursor to the Works Progress Administration—hired 26 local muralists (with 19 artist-assistants), including four women (Suzanne Scheuer, Maxine Albro, Edith Hamlin and Jane Berlandina), to paint murals depicting contemporary San Francisco life.

As described in Masha Zakheim’s “Coit Tower San Francisco, Its History and Art,” the artists agreed that the murals were to be unified by compositional scale and an earth-tone palette. (Zakheim’s father, Bernard Zakheim, contributed the 10-foot-by-10-foot fresco “Library” in the downstairs outer lobby).

Most of the muralists were disciples of famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera and painted in his social realist style; four of them, like Rivera, had clear leftist political agendas. And like Rivera, they were buon fresco painters, meaning that they applied color pigments directly onto fresh, wet plaster section by section as long as the plaster remained moist, so that the plaster absorbed the pigment.

Jane Berlandina chose a different style, emulating her mentor, French artist Raoul Dufy, and technique—fresco secco, which involves the application of egg tempera to a dry plaster surface.

Four of the artists—whose murals comprise the inner lobby walls surrounding the elevator that goes to the top of the tower—chose to paint with oils on canvas in their studios and then affix the canvas to the walls. These smaller paintings include expansive scenes of San Francisco Bay and hills beyond.

On the first floor, themes span agriculture, banking, farming and infrastructure. The second-floor frescos—in better condition than downstairs because the second floor had been closed to the general public for decades—depict sports, street scenes, camping and home life. Frenchman Lucien Labaudt’s “Powell Street” connects the two levels; its stunningly detailed panorama covers two facing sides of the spiral staircase. “‘Powell Street’ slopes at virtually the same angle as the stairs!” writes Dr. Francis O’Connor in “Coit Tower.” It’s an eccentric space to fill, but Labaudt gets the scale and perspective right in this 6-foot-by-32-foot expanse that depicts the 450 Sutter Medical Building and other familiar sights as well as an assortment of little vignettes involving people, cable cars, buildings and one of only two depictions in Coit Tower of an African-American: a bellhop carrying suitcases. It also includes a self-portrait of the tiny, mustachioed artist, in a beret, with a pipe in his mouth and a canteen slung over his shoulder.

In a separate little room on the second floor, French-born Berlandina’s four murals cover all four walls to form “Home Life”; her silhouette-like figures animate such scenes as a family gathered around a piano and a mother rolling out dough for a pie as two children watch. The images appear ethereal compared to the solidly social realism style of the other artists.

The last major restoration of the murals was in 1989-90, when it was necessary to deal with mid-century graffiti. Before that, in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a “gentle restoration” of the vandalized art, including removing cigarette smoke film on the oil paintings. Clearly people’s attitudes toward public art have become more respectful since then, points out Allison Cummings, the project manager at the San Francisco Arts Commission, which instigated the restoration along with the Recreation & Park Department. This time around, the conservators (the Architectural Resources Group [ARG] and Anne Rosenthal Fine Art Conservation) faced an assortment of degradation, explains Cummings, caused

by such factors as people touching the walls, backpacks banging into them, an old, leaky roof. There were scratches and indentations in the plaster, gouges, flaking, water damage and dirt.

For this 21st-century restoration, Rosenthal worked with the same team of conservators she’d worked with on the previous restoration, so the benefit was an institutional knowledge of the murals. Still, among the challenges along the way were decisions about whether to remove previous treatments; in some places the mid-century graffiti popped through. “Graffiti is very difficult. You can’t always take it off and sometimes a ghost remains,” explains Jennifer Correia of ARG in a phone conversation. “Usually you’re trying to aesthetically integrate things—any remaining graffiti ghosting and any of the previous treatments.”

The restoration project, which took about three months for both floors, began last January with an assessment of the condition that included not just the murals but also the surrounding stucco and other parts of the tower that needed work. In March, scaffolds were set up, including custom-built platforms for some areas, and supplies were assembled. In early April, the surface was dry-cleaned—“with a delicate hand,” wrote Correia on an ARG blog—after which it was treated with stabilization poultices and consolidants to strengthen the plaster. Four specialists who used an easily reversible system did the “inpainting” on the frescoes—not overpainting but rather focusing on an area of actual loss. Correia explains that conservators train not in conservation in general but in a particular material—say, wood. Many are trained in painting conservation but a smaller number on fresco conservation, because frescos are rare. In fact, Coit Tower, writes O’Connor, is “a monument to the use of the fresco technique in America.”

Berlandina’s secco murals had not been treated extensively previously, and are more fragile than the other frescoes. Rosenthal and team spent a lot of time in that little alcove, researching and experimenting. “It will be a challenge to continue to protect this, because it’s so sensitive,” predicts Cummings.

Throughout, it was laborious work to match the paint strokes of the artist and to integrate the color in such a way that everything is blended and the areas of restoration are not noticeable.

What stands out, post-restoration? “The colors,” offers Cummings. “Because of the cleaning, combined with removing little chips of fresco, the colors pop, and you’re not distracted by damage. You [can focus] on images and compositions.” She points to a detail in the “Powell Street” mural, a toy boat sailing down a stream: “This little boat here—I didn’t notice before how bright that almost-fluorescent orange was.”

A maintenance allocation now budgets for twice-yearly cleaning of the murals, so Cummings hopes it will be a long time before additional restoration is needed. “We won’t wait 20 years if we see a moisture issue; we can address it immediately," she says. Considering that the Coit Tower murals present visions of San Francisco’s storied past in a rarely seen medium, that’s a very good thing.

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Coit Tower

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Photo by Brita Hiese / CC BY-NC

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