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.
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