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.
Faced with complaints from neighborhood groups, docents and even one of the artists’ descendants, the city has stepped up efforts to restore the tower and its murals.
The San Francisco Arts Commission has retained a preservationist to assess the damage and hopes to raise enough money to restore the works while improving lighting and other aspects of the visitor experience
Recreation and parks officials have promised to channel 1% annually from the Coit Tower earnings into a fund for mural upkeep, in addition to pledging up to $250,000 for a one-time restoration. The department also is seeking a new concessionaire to sell elevator tickets and upgrade the snacks and souvenirs — and will require applicants to submit a plan to protect the treasured artwork.
The new contractor, however, will be permitted to host monthly private cocktail parties on the tower’s top floor. Proceeds will flow largely to the park department’ strained budget, for an array of uses.
The commercial twist has incensed neighborhood groups, which now are gathering signatures for a ballot measure to limit such activity and guarantee that funds raised from Coit Tower be prioritized for its upkeep.
“It doesn’t comport with what I think the community is asking for — a thoughtful approach to how we’re going to keep Coit Tower in good shape,” said Telegraph Hill Dwellers President Jon Golinger. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s squeeze everything we can get out of Coit Tower.’ ”
The structure was built in 1933, thanks to a vague bequest from Lillie Hitchcock Coit “to add to the beauty of the city I have always loved.”
Under the pilot Public Works of Art Project, Coit Tower would become a model for the Works Progress Administration, which put thousands of artists to work during the Great Depression.
Many of the 26 artists chosen for San Francisco’s project had studied with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera or were influenced by him. They worked in a similar style of rounded, boldly colored figures, depicting wealthy and poor alike in scenes seasoned with humor and political commentary.
In addition to showcasing contemporary California life, the muralists included some leftist imagery that caused controversy, along with newspaper headlines commenting on the rise of European fascism.
While the frescoes were going up, San Francisco was dealing with a work stoppage by longshoremen and a 1934 citywide general strike in solidarity with their cause — an echo, some say, of the current Occupy movement.
“I think it’s significant that the neglect of the tower is occurring in similar times to when the tower was built,” said Ruth Gottstein, 89, a daughter of muralist Bernard Zakheim. She was depicted as a 12-year-old in his Coit Tower work and remembers “furious activity in quite a limited space” as the artists worked in unison.
“The present method of using the tower is leading to its destruction,” Gottstein said. “It’s a free-for-all.”
In an October email to Gottstein’s son, Adam — who has taken up the torch as the family’s main defender of the murals — San Franciscan Gayle Leyton said she and a friend had recently visited Coit Tower and were “so upset by what we experienced.”
“There was no one to ensure safety,” Leyton wrote. “The elevators were dirty. People were touching the murals — adults and children. It was shocking!”
Gottstein called Golinger. So did Richard Rothman, a volunteer with City Guides who gives biweekly tours of the murals, offering access to works in the otherwise off-limits spiral staircase and second floor.
“All the guides are really concerned,” said Rothman, 69, after a recent tour. “It’s a treasure trove.”
San Francisco officials said they understand the concern. After all, it is nothing new.
The murals had been so badly damaged early on that the Recreation and Parks Department, the tower’s landlord, blocked public access in 1960 — for 17 years. Several restorations overseen by the Arts Commission, which is responsible for the murals, have occurred since, most recently in 1990.
The plaster on frescoes cannot be replaced, so delicate inpainting is required. A guardrail also was installed.
But time has again taken its toll.
Allison Cummings, senior registrar for the civic art collection, said that though the Arts Commission has been working to maintain the Coit Tower frescoes, resources are limited.
Just two staffers are responsible for the upkeep of more than 800 works citywide. And though this year’s $75,000 budget is an improvement over last year’s $15,000, Cummings said, a statue recently vandalized in a Chinatown park will cost $8,000 to repair.
Still, Cummings said she was optimistic that cooperation with the Recreation and Parks Department would lead to a holistic upgrade of the tower. “We’ve never treated the whole space before,” she said.
Park officials, meanwhile, said that with the exception of the cocktail parties, which will require detailed permits, the concessions plan is in line with what neighbors want.
“We do understand we have the responsibility to act in the best interest of the city,” department spokeswoman Connie Chan said. “We share the very same goals of restoring the murals, enhancing the visitor experience and supporting the ongoing maintenance of Coit Tower.”