Historic San Francisco Murals

Coit Tower, California by Maxine Albro

There are Depression-Era murals decorating many spots throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, here are photos and information outlining the four major displays.

 

Funded in the 1930s by the U.S. Government under President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, these murals employed thousands of artists during the Great Depression.

 

Murals were featured nationwide, under numerous programs, between 1933 and 1943. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and Federal Art Project (FAP) were a few of the New Deal art programs.

Coit Tower

The four major murals in San Francisco are open to the public, and free: Coit Tower, Rincon Center, Maritime Museum, and Beach Chalet.

 

A fascinating and informative element of the murals is the history. Most depict everyday life in the 1930s and 1940s, highlighting topics of the times: economy, politics, lifestyle, daily activity, and culture, to name a few.

 

Rincon Center, The Golden Gate Bridge by Anton Refregier

There were numerous artists involved in each mural. One major artist was awarded the project, created the design, and oversaw it; and several co-artists contributed.

 

Most artists in these projects were unknown, though a few later came into popularity like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

 

In San Francisco’s Coit Tower site (1934), 26 artists and 19 artist-assistants were employed; featuring 27 murals covering 3,691 square feet (343 sq. m). Many of the artists for this site were students of Diego Rivera.

 

Coit Tower, City Life by Victor Arnautoff

 

The other three mural sites had fewer lead artists. Rincon Center (1941) was led by Anton Refregier; Maritime Museum (then called Aquatic Park Bathhouse) (1938), artists Hilaire Hiler and Sargent Johnson; Beach Chalet (1936), artist Lucien Labaudt.

 

While most projects were murals, there were also tile mosaics, bas relief friezes, wood carvings, sculptures, and more. Large in scope, they occupy wall space from floor to ceiling, with extensive lengths of entire walls.

Beach Chalet staircase carvings, Sea Creatures by Michael von Meyer

The overall theme was “American scenes” and enabled Americans of all social classes to view original art…then and now.

 

Mural artists used three different painting techniques: fresco (painting onto wet plaster); egg tempera (combining egg yolk with color pigment); and oil on canvas.

 

Rincon Center, San Francisco as a Cultural Center by Anton Refregier. SF luminaries (L to R): L.Crabtree, F.Norris, L.Burbank, R.L.Stevenson, M.Twain, B.Harte, H.Bancroft, J. London

 

Beach Chalet, Baker Beach by Lucien Labaudt

Did the artists make good money? I’ve read many different accounts on payment. With several programs and thousands of artists, numbers vary. My understanding is that they made enough to stay fed and clothed, and working.

 

In addition to these four featured venues, there are numerous other murals in San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area.

 

Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” mural (1940) at SF City College, for example, is considered one of the most important works of public art in San Francisco, and will be featured in 2020 at the SF Museum of Modern Art. Diego Rivera Mural Project

 

Also in San Francisco: Mission High School, George Washington High School, Presidio Chapel, SF Art Institute, and many other schools and locales.

WPA Art Mural Sites in San Francisco

 

Here are Before and After photos from the Maritime Museum.

Maritime Museum, veranda tile mosaic, Sea Forms by Mohammed Zyani. Mosaic artist Zyani in center. Before Photo, taken Feb. 1938

Maritime Museum rear veranda, Sea Forms. After Photo. The same mosaic, displayed in photo center. The view off this veranda, if you turn around and face out, is beach, bay, boats, and Alcatraz.

 

Maritime Museum, Undersea mural by Hilaire Hiler. Before Photo taken May, 1938

 

Maritime Museum mural, Undersea mural. After Photo (swordfish portion).

 

This bold and colorful public art has often been controversial, sometimes at the time of the unveiling, and in later years, too. The murals are good for raising awareness and expressing opinions.

 

After over 80 years on display, restoration has become crucial. Graffiti, aging, seismic damage, and leaking roofs have taken their toll. Fortunately, communities and organizations have recognized the historical value, and funding and talented artists have been engaged.

 

There’s magic in standing in front of these paintings that tower over us, the walls that came to life eight decades ago, embracing everyday life…then and now.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Resource: “Depression-Era Murals of the Bay Area” by Veronico, Morello, Casadonte, and Collins (2014), including both 1938 photos of Maritime Museum art featured here.

WPA Art Directory by State

Beach Chalet staircase, by Lucien Labaudt

 

72 thoughts on “Historic San Francisco Murals

    • Yes, I agree, Anneli. And when you stop to study what everyone is actually doing, it is almost like being on the scene yourself. In Coit Tower, for example, each mural highlights a different major industry; so there’s shipping, railroad, etc. etc. and everyone is doing their job in 1930s clothes and technology of the era. There wasn’t room here to demonstrate all the industries, I just showed two, to give the idea. I’m glad you enjoyed it, thanks so much.

  1. Wow! These are fantastic! I wish I could see them in reality but thank you for making me aware of them Jet. I can’t imagine what the controversy is over them – they must be so important to the culture (and therefore economy as well) of San Francisco. Roosevelt’s insight and humanity is to be applauded.

    • I’m glad you think the murals are fantastic, Alastair, I do too. We’re so lucky to have all this art and history, beautiful restored, in so many places. And I do applaud Roosevelt for this bold and innovative idea. The controversies were many, for at that time communism and socialism were a hot topic, labor unions too. And also, many of the artists recorded life at that time, which later, to oppressed groups, became even more oppressive to witness on the walls. The Geo. Wash. School, for one example, had murals of white men stepping over a dead Native American, while African American slaves were unloading crops from a truck. Understandably, it was all too much for the h.s. students to bear in 1968 during the civil rights movement. To everyone’s credit at the school, they worked out a way to keep the historic murals, and create new ones more consistent with strengthening civil rights of minorities. There are many stories like this, and clearly, some artists were more controversial than others. Powerful stuff. Many thanks, my friend–

    • I’m glad I could share Coit Tower with you, Jill, especially when you went to the trouble to go there, and it was closed. I was there earlier this month, and will do another post on the whole CT experience. Like all the mural locations, sometimes they get closed down for long periods during the restoration, there’s scaffolding and enormous work involved. Thanks so much for this vicarious visit today.

  2. Works of art for all to enjoy, sponsored/mandated by a thoughtful president and peers recognizing the essential part played in promoting culture in society. Imagine if these projects hadn’t happened, and how much poorer we’d all be…
    A wonderful post once again – thanks, Jet! Also, the mention of the SF Museum of Modern Art was nearly enough to book flights. One of our favourites!

    • You summarized the New Deal art projects well, pc, and how much richer we are for this, all these decades later. And I agree, the 2020 SFMOMA exhibits sound fantastic. I wasn’t aware, until I started research for this post, that Diego Rivera’s fresco sat in storage crates for 19 years. WWII had intervened, and its huge size made it difficult to house. But eventually there was a movement to revive it, and it’s now been in City College for many years, and they’re planning to exhibit it again in 2020. I’m planning to get across town to view it, I wish you and Mrs. PC could join us. Sending warm thoughts your way for a great weekend ahead–

  3. We were just talking about this today. The Depression-era arts programs brought art into so many public spaces in the US. It seems more public art would improve so many places around the world. Wouldn’t it be great to hire artists everywhere to enrich our public spaces?

    • It was a great program, I agree Beth and Joe, and how synchronistic that you were just talking about that today. At the time it was heartily argued that it didn’t add to the economy enough, but I’m glad things went through, because it certainly has added enrichment for so many of us. Many thanks for your wonderful insight.

  4. Excellent post and photos, Jet. You’ve reminded me to revisit these incredible works of art. My other favorite is the Diego Rivera mural at SFAI on Chestnut. A wonderful building and setting for his work.

    • There is so much to seek out in the Bay Area, it is never-ending. I’m glad to have shared these four venues with you, Jan, and I imagine you have probably been to one if not all of them at some time in your SF tenure. Many thanks–

    • Yes, you are so right, Craig, art is usually the first thing to go, budget-wise. Roosevelt was highly contested at the time with the same philosophy. But fortunately he persevered. I hope your art charges forward this week, my friend.

    • I love that staircase at the Beach Chalet too, Jo. It is in a restaurant out on the edge of town, on the beach. The bathrooms are open and while there, I noticed lots of beach joggers and walkers duck in there to use the facilities. What a treat to have all this elegant art and tile work. Wonderful to see you, Jo, thank you.

    • I, too, think it’s wonderful that this art has been cared for over the years. Public buildings are not like art museums, people accidentally scratch the art walking by, or other not-so-innocent actions. Many thanks, Gunta, always nice to “see” you, I’m heading your way right now.

    • I agree, montucky, the skills involved in making those murals is remarkable. The size alone commands such imagination, and then executing it in proper proportions, mixing colors and painting on wet plaster, and the details and design…yes, truly amazing. I’m glad you liked it and appreciate your visit.

    • What a joy to take you back in time with me, Susan, sharing the artists of the Depression era. I really enjoyed putting this information together, learning more deeply as I proceeded. And I’m delighted you enjoyed it. Thanks so much, and a salute to NYC, too.

  5. Wonderful works of Art! I had seen the murals before via photos but for some reason I thought they were done at a more recent dates. Your post has a lot of information about that era. The murals have historic value as much as artistic. Thank you my friend. You’re the best! 🙂

    • Hi HJ, I’m so happy you enjoyed the Depression-era murals. I packed this post with information and yet there was still so much to share, couldn’t fit it all in. It’s an interesting story about life and art, and I am so pleased to have shared it. My warm thanks, and smiles, for your kind remarks today. Oh, that reminds me, it’s time for Saturday Red Zone…yay.

    • Yes, aren’t they just wonderful, Andrea? The Coit Tower ones were restored a few years ago, and we’re temporarily living close to SF right now, so Athena and I took the day off a few weeks ago and went there. And it sparked my interest in these murals that are all over the city. I am happy to be able to share them with you, Andrea, thanks for your interest.

    • I am thrilled to have given you this treat, Sharon, as it was a real treat for me to see, too. I’m glad you could vicariously visit these SF walls with me.

  6. If only this country had the foresight today to create projects for the public good instead of letting the rich pay less than their fair share and use their wealth only for the one percent.

    • I agree, Cindy, these murals demonstrate powerful foresight, creative solutions and art for all. It reminds me of the music that Obama brought to the White House during his presidency…sharing the art. I always enjoy your visits, thank you.

  7. Fascinating murals! It is amazing how the art is created on such a large scale and comes together whether installed or painted. I enjoy looking at murals of a city or town, depicting their heritage. Great post, Jet!

    • Yes, a tribute to the importance of art — I’m glad you enjoyed the murals, Kirt, and have seen some, and have more to experience. My warm thanks for your visit and comment.

  8. Jet I feel as though I have been with you on a historical treasure hunt in San Francisco. Although we have been to the city many times you are opening my eyes to many yet unexplored gems. Whenever I look at a mural I can not for the life of me imagine how an artist can paint it without seeing the whole ‘picture’ while at work. I’ve never met a mural artist and would be intrigued to know more of the process and the challenges faced. As always Jet when I visit I come away reflecting and having learned a great deal.

    • One of the things I love most about San Francisco are all the gems, to use your word, that prevail throughout the city. Over 30 years I have lived in the Bay Area and the list is endless, which is great for you and me both, Sue. I’ve never met a mural artist either, but I sure studied the photos of them working on their art in the 30s, and am glad I could share all of this with you. My warmest thanks, Sue.

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I have seen a few of the pieces (in Oak Park and Peoria) without realizing their important history. Thanks for illuminating them – and us!

    • I am delighted to hear murals in Oak Park and Peoria have been preserved and live on, Nan. They decorate this whole country, and not only the original artists, but communities and restoration artists over the decades have also helped keep these murals alive for us. Thanks so much for your contribution.

  10. Superb post based on the functionality of murals in big cities,dear Jet!It’s the most approachable and significant public art with great visual impact on viewers.
    Compelling all the historic,large scale SF murals,they elaborately depict city life and many other cultural elements of past,difficult times.Great collaborative works of art that beautify the city and educate the passersby.You pleasantly took me away from nature to show me around SF and get to know its artistic side 🙂

    • I really enjoyed doing the research for this post, Doda, and am so glad you enjoyed it. Ever since writing this post I have been itching to check out additional murals that I have learned exist. I especially like them for the history they convey, and the beauty they embrace. You live where history of humans and art is most ancient and profound, so I appreciate your visit to SF, a much younger civilization than Greece. A true delight to “see” you today, thank you.

      • My pleasure,dear Jet.I did enjoy it,murals are like illustated history pages,and oftentimes they convey strong political or ideological messages.I am certain sure you’ll revisit SF and your blogger friends will have the chance to enjoy more.Best to you,dear friend 🙂

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