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« Courage, Man! | Main | The Generosity of the Poor »

Coit Tower and the History of Its Murals

By Angelo Lopez
October 29, 2008

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Coit Tower, one of the great landmarks of the city of San Francisco. Coit Tower is a frequent tourist attraction that offers a breathtaking view of San Francisco and the Bay. Within its walls are a series of murals created by 26 different artists during the 1930s. These murals depict many of the struggles that working class people were going through during that time. It came at a time when the San Francisco art scene began to develop its distinctive personality, one that reflected the multicultural diversity of the city by the bay.

Coit Tower was built in 1933 on top of Telegraph Hill at the behest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, one of the more colorful figures in San Francisco history. Lillie Coit was a cigar smoking, trouser-wearing woman who often disguised herself as a man so that she could frequent the males-only gambling establishments in Long Beach to gamble. She developed a special relationship with the firefighters of the city after being rescued from a fire at the age of eight. She became an honorary firefighter as an adult and had a special affinity for Knickerbocker Engine Company Number 5. A myth grew that Coit Tower was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, though architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard always denied it.

The San Francisco art scene was going through a transformation as the 1920s turned into the 1960s. Before the 1930s, the San Francisco art scene was still under the effects of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, a fair the made up 76 blocks of 35 murals of monumental size. These paintings were done in a decorative classical art style, similar to the artwork of Maxfield Parish. Frank Brangwyn typified the style of art at this time, as his stylized historical murals of California history dominated the murals of the fair. Patrons of San Francisco art could be found in the Bohemian Club, an exclusive men’s club that saw itself as a meeting place for artists and the wealthy. The city thus had a history of mural art. As San Francisco entered the 1930s, both the city and the artists became more radicalized as the economic difficulties of the Great Depression began to affect its citizens.

Diego Rivera was the major influence on the muralists of San Francisco when he made three extended visits to create murals for the city. Timothy W. Drescher wrote in his book San Francisco Murals: Community Creates Its Muse 1914-1994:

“Diego Rivera significantly influenced San Francisco muralists. The New Deal artists watched him paint in person, and sometimes worked as his assistants. Subsequent muralists learned about his murals and those of other Mexican masters by visiting the walls themselves or through reproductions in books. Technical and stylistic aspects were thus passed on to later generations. Above all, the Tres Grandes demonstrated that public art and political commitment were bound together.”

Rivera painted three murals in San Francisco: Allegory of California in the Pacific Stock Exchange; Making a Fresco in the Art Institute of San Francisco; and Pan American Unity painted on Treasure Island for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. As the Coit Tower muralists worked on their own murals, they could look at Rivera’s art only a few blocks away.

Bernard Zackheim conceived of the mural program, with funding and supervision from the city power broker Herbert Fleishhacker and the new director of the de Young Museum Walter Heil. Zackheim was an immigrant leftist artist and he wanted the murals to reflect the current conditions in San Francisco. Anthony W. Lee, in his book Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals, quotes Zackheim as saying,

“We should deal with an overall idea on the economy… not so much historical as actual, what is happening right now in the United States. I suggested that and it was adopted. We were each given a certain subject…. And each one had his own side of a wall in which to do it.”
During the time that the Coit Tower murals were being conceived, a large strike of waterfront workers, longshoremen, teamsters, seamen, and municipal workers was taking place, and it was one of the biggest strikes of the Depression. From May 31 to July 31, the strike affected commercial activity all over the city. This strike affected all of the painters of the Coit Tower murals, and those artists who were Communist Party members felt it necessary to include some sign of the strike in their murals.

The painters on the second of the floor of Coit Tower were not Communist Party members and their murals tended to be of leisure scenes, like Edith Hamlin’s Hunting in California, Edward Terada’s Sports, and Jane Berlandina’s Home Life. The art of Otis Oldfield, Moya del Pino, and Rinaldo Cuneo were in the interior lobby.

The more politically charged murals included Bernard Zackheim’s Library, which had newspapers that had headlines of the destruction of Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center murals in 1934. Ray Boynton’s Animal Force and Machine Force has a celestial set of eyes surrounding a doorway. Ralph Stackpole’s Industries of California shows the machinery of industry and the workers as cogs of that machine. Clifford Wight had several images of workers, like Steelworker and Surveyor, and he was the only artist to have a painting obliterated from Coit Tower. Critic Julius Cravens describes the lost artwork:

“Over the central window (Wight) stretched a bride, at the center of which is a circle containing the Blue Eagle of the NRA (National Recovery Act). Over the right hand window he stretched a segment of chain; in the circle in this case appears the legend, ‘In God We Trust’- symbolizing the American dollar, or I presume, Capitalism. over the left hand window he placed a section of woven cable and a circle framing a hammer, a sickle, and the legend ‘United Workers of the World,’ in short Communism. It would seem that he considered those three issues to be important in the American scene today.”

Victor Arnautoff’s City Life is the most prominent mural in Coit Tower and it is my favorite mural. It shows a crowd scene in downtown San Francisco. In the forefront a man is getting held up by some hooligans, while in the background is a car accident. A postman is picking up the mail. Pedestrians are rushing about, a mixture of rich society people, sailors, longshoremen, and blue collar workers. In a newspaper stand, a vendor is hawking leftist newspapers like the Masses and the Daily Worker. It is a Leftist view of San Francisco of the 1930s.

In 1994 I did my first mural for a library in San Jose, California. I visited Coit Tower and spent the day looking at the murals and it really inspired my own mural design. I hope anyone who visits San Francisco takes some time to visit Coit Tower and look at the murals. And I wish Coit Tower a happy 75th anniversary.

Comments (2)

Henry Schwaller Author Profile Page:

Angelo - the Coit Tower is one of my favorite SF landmarks, after Golden Gate Park. Thank you for the thorough and informative narrative about these important works of art.

Angelo Lopez Author Profile Page:

Thanks Pam and Henry. Thank you Pam for teaching me how to put pictures on posts. Henry, Coit Tower is one of my favorite places too. On my Senior Prom my friends drove on Telegraph Hill and I asked out my first girlfriend there. It has a lot of good memories for me.

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