“I ain’t a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life.”
-Woody Guthrie, as quoted by Pete Seeger
When I first moved to San Francisco, I would pick a neighborhood and just wander. Sometimes, I’d make a list of interesting places beforehand and see if I could spot them. Other times, I’d just go. The first time I went to North Beach, that’s exactly what happened. I did a little shopping, paused at plaques and ostensible landmarks, and took note of strange signs and darkened windows. Inevitably, I found myself puffing uphill to Coit Tower. It’s unavoidable, really.
I completely missed the official entrance, with its phoenix and bundled branches signifying unity carved over the doorway, and jimmied a side door that opened on Ralph Stackpole’s Industries of California, a mural depicting women canning and filling sugar bags in factories, men stoking furnaces in a steel mill and mixing chemicals.
Like many others I’ve talked to since, I had no idea that Coit Tower was filled with murals painted by 26 local artists in 1934, funded by the U.S. government under a New Deal program that was the precursor to the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The artist George Biddle, a friend and former classmate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, encouraged the first term president to federally fund public art, citing the Mexican government program that funded public murals in the 1920s (1). In 1933, Harry L. Hopkins, who would later head the WPA, also argued for a public art program, observing, “Artists have got to eat, just like other people” (2). And at the time, artists and other people were starving in equal measure.
After the stock market crash of 1929, one-third of America’s workers found themselves unemployed. In the 1920s, owners and managers had severely curtailed the labor movements that had seen a brief surge of activity in the ‘teens, leaving workers in the early part of the Great Depression era with few protections or safety nets. President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which began in 1933, changed that. By 1934, one-fifth of California’s workers were on public relief, and over the course of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Californians were hired for federally funded projects, including the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Unions were protected and empowered under Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Wagner Act of 1935, which gave workers new rights to bargain collectively. Union membership and organized labor activities blossomed. In the history of the United States before or since, there has never been such strong federal support for workers’ rights (3).
Ray Strong, a Californian painter, recalled in 1993 that during the 1930s, “Any artist worth his salt or mental equipment became a recorder or an interpreter.” As American life changed under the Great Depression, so too did artistic styles: Social Realism, which focused on straightforward depictions of people and places (as opposed to more abstract styles, such as Cubism), rose to prominence in American art (4). Social Realism and/or the American Scene became the preferred artistic style for New Deal artwork, as designated by the first public art program director, Edward Bruce (5). Diego Rivera, who made his name working for the Mexican mural project, was a key influence on the Social Realism movement and on California artists, many of whom assisted the Mexican artist and ardent Communist on his murals south and north of the border. As historian Isabelle Lemon wrote, “All of the muralists working in San Francisco, and indeed throughout the country, were painting under the shadow of Diego Rivera” (6).
Founded in 1933, the San Francisco Artists and Writers Union included many of the Bay’s luminaries of the time, including Kenneth Rexroth, Maynard Dixon, Bernard Zakheim, and Victor Arnautoff. The union successfully petitioned the U.S. government to fund a series of murals to adorn the interior of Coit Tower in 1934 (1). These murals would become the center of a citywide controversy and an enduring artifact of the New Deal era. Reminiscing thirty years later, Kenneth Rexroth wrote:
No better picture of California in the thirties exists anywhere. True, there are masses of strikers and demonstrators and unemployed brandishing copies of the Western Worker, but they are inconspicuous really, alongside the harvest workers and factory hands and longshoremen and just plain people, all suffused with the most extraordinary buoyancy–joy, hope, faith in the future, once again the mood of San Francisco even in the very depths of the Depression (7).
Ruth Gottstein, daughter of Bernard Zakheim and immortalized in his Library mural, recalled recently that the 26 artists selected for the project worked together “harmoniously,” despite the cramped space, and that the smell of wet plaster permeated the air (8). The artists included portraits of each other in their works. For example, Ralph Stackpole may have been the model for Clifford Wight’s Farmer (9) and John Langley Howard appears as a worker reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in Zakheim’s Library (10). The spirit of cooperation inside Coit Tower did not extend to the rest of the city, however, and controversy began to threaten the project after little more than a month.
In February of 1934, Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center in New York, which had included a portrait of Lenin, was demolished. On top of the censorship that was plaguing European artists as Fascism gained ground, the destruction of Rivera’s mural, on the Rockefeller family’s orders, disturbed the muralists. The San Francisco Artists and Writers Union met at Coit Tower and publicly condemned the act (10). Furthermore, tensions grew along the San Francisco waterfront between longshoremen and the dockyard bosses, culminating in a massive maritime strike in July that shut down ports up and down the West Coast and inspired union-backed walkouts across the city (3).
In this strained climate, journalists previewing the Coit Tower works published red-baiting accounts of pro-Communist imagery in the murals. Four elements were selected for censure:
- Victor Arnautoff’s Metropolitan Life, which included the depiction of a newspaper kiosk selling The Masses and The Daily Worker, two Left-wing publications
- John Langley Howard’s Industrial Scenes, in which a man leading a group of striking miners carries a copy of The Western Worker, another Lefty paper
- Bernard Zakheim’s Library, which, in addition to having a portrait of John Langley Howard reaching for Marx, showed shelves of books by other Left-leaning writers and readers perusing newspapers with headlines about the destruction of Rivera’s mural and the rise of Fascism in Europe (11)
- The three panels between Clifford Wight’s Surveyor and Steelworker and above the doorway, which depicted political philosophies existing in the U.S.: on the right, a chain with the motto “In God We Trust;” in the middle, a bridge and the blue eagle of the National Recovery Act (NRA), the emblem of the New Deal; and on the left, a cable with a hammer and sickle and the motto “Workers of the World, Unite” (10)
Coit Tower was closed, and a flurry of telegrams between San Francisco and Washington began, with the local office claiming that the Leftist elements of the murals had not been a part of the original sketches for the project. The S.F. Art Commission condemned the works, a group of anti-Communist artists threatened to chisel off the offending parts of the murals, and the Artists and Writers Union set up a picket line around Coit Tower to protect the art. Police barred access to Coit Tower, explaining that labor sympathizers might signal down to the longshoremen, who were in the midst of organizing the general strike that shut down the city in mid-July. After much deliberation and argument, Wight’s three panels were removed (or painted over) by an unknown person, while the pieces by Arnautoff, Zakheim, and Howard remained untouched. The murals were officially unveiled to a calmer public in October of 1934 (10).
Upon my first visit, I was struck by the politics in the murals, which I think would still be the subject of controversy if the works had been publicly funded today. Howard’s striking miners and starving prospectors, Zakheim’s inclusion of Marx, Fred Olmsted Jr.’s raised fist in flames above the exit: these may be realistic expressions of the era in which they were painted, but they are no less radical for having been timely. Poverty, unemployment, anger, and inequality are hard to ignore in any era. During the Great Depression, however, it must have been impossible to shut them out.
In many places, however, the murals gloss over elements that would have been controversial or uncomfortable, and they idealize the policies of the U.S. government. As Stephen Geiber points out, there are many depictions of the good old American values of hard work (5) and that celebrate the New Deal, such as an NRA blue eagle on a box of oranges. Many laborers go about their tasks in idyllic, ordered settings, strengthening the economy and working for the future of America. Lush rural scenes celebrate California’s agricultural bounty, with boxes overflowing with fresh produce. Dairy farmers care for their cows and butchers prepare pig carcasses to feed the hungry masses. Capable hands move along factory assembly lines. Women’s and men’s roles are traditional and clearly delineated: women can in factories, shop and cook, and pluck flowers in the fields, while men work with steel, butcher pigs, and pick fruit. The faces, overwhelmingly, are white, although that was not the reality of life in the Bay Area or across California in the 1930s.
The murals of Coit Tower also depict the daily lives of Californians outside of work. Strong athletes vie against one another. Hunters and hikers take advantage of the outdoors. Families frolic in streams, while others gather together at home. San Francisco plays a prominent role. The chaos of Powell Street curves up a stairway to the second floor, with a cameo by Eleanor Roosevelt. Firemen (from Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s No. 5, no less) and paramedics respond to a car accident, while hardworking men lower themselves into man holes and San Franciscans go about their business, rushing around the Embarcadero.
In almost every mural, however, there are details that obliquely point to the hardships of the era. In a curved section on the second floor, people sit down to a picnic of empty plates. Children play, but their faces are grim and unsmiling. Downstairs, bankers record falling stocks. Policemen with guns guard vaults of money, and headlines allude to John Dillinger. A man robs another at gunpoint. While rich women in furs tour a Hooverville tent city, a poor family scrounges for gold in a river below a hydroelectric dam, their skin-and-bones mutt contrasting with a plump purebred. Strip mining and oil wells deface the landscape. Throughout Coit Tower, artists chose to illustrate the multifaceted realities of the lives of Californians in the early 1930s, which could be difficult yet fulfilling, self-serving or altruistic, full of pain and still full of happiness.
The murals, unfortunately, are not in the best of shape. Moisture, fingers, and a few careless workmen (or women) have damaged the walls. The lighting is poor, and paint peels from the ceiling. There is a little information inside on Lillie Hitchcock Coit and the murals but not nearly enough. A new controversy has been brewing around preservation of Coit Tower and murals, with a ballot measure in June that would restrict a portion of its annual revenue (from the charge to ride the elevator) to revamp and protect the murals and tower. Of course, the city Recreation and Parks Department is facing funding shortfalls, which complicates matters. Both sides have compelling points (12), but it is clear that more must be done to protect the murals and preserve their legacy. They are one of San Francisco’s greatest treasures. Beyond their artistic value, the murals of Coit Tower are important historical records that capture the reality and the spirit of California the 1930s and beyond: the politics, the hardships, the joys, and everything in between.
Part I on Coit Tower discusses the strange history of the Coit Tower memorial and fires in San Francisco.
With many thanks to tour guide Peter O’Driscoll and the incredible (and free!) San Francisco City Guides tours. The Coit Tower Murals tour provides fascinating details about Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, and the murals that adorn its interior. The tour also gives you access to the murals in the stairwell and on the second floor, which are otherwise closed to the public. Go check it out–Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11AM at the main entrance to Coit Tower. The Hitchcock Walking Tour is also awesome.
(1) Johnson, Mark Dean. “California’s Collective Art Culture.” At Work: The Art of California Labor. Ed. Mark Dean Johnson. San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2003. 47-73. Print. Page 47. Kenneth Rexroth, as you may recall, was a grandfather of the Beats. Maynard Dixon was famous for his American Indian/Western paintings but focused on Social Realism in the 1930s. He was also married to photographer Dorothea Lange. Bernard Zakheim and Victor Arnautoff both painted murals in Coit Tower, were overt Communists, and studied with Diego Rivera.
(2) Since neither author had enough information, I’ve put this fact together from two sources: Geiber, Stephen. “California’s Not So Radical New Deal Murals.” Excerpt via Found SF from “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals.” California History Magazine. Summer 1979: Vol. LVIII, No. 2. Web. 29 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=California’s_Not_So_Radical_New_Deal_Murals. Lemon, Isabelle. “The WPA – The Stimulus Package of Its Day.” Panorama, January-March 2010: Vol. 22, No. 1. Via Found SF. Web. 27 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_WPA_%E2%80%93_The_Stimulus_Package_of_Its_Day.
(3) Paddison, Joshua. “The Great California Labor Art Movement.” At Work: The Art of California Labor. Ed. Mark Dean Johnson. San Francisco: California Historical Society Press, 2003. 21-45. Print. Page 23. The maritime strike will most certainly be the subject of another post–California labor is fascinating and has a long and influential history.
(4) Paddison, page 21. Ray Strong’s quotation comes from a 1993 interview for the Smithsonian Oral History Archives.
(5) Geiber, Stephen. “California’s Not So Radical New Deal Murals.” Excerpt via Found SF from “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals.” California History Magazine. Summer 1979: Vol. LVIII, No. 2. Web. 29 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=California’s_Not_So_Radical_New_Deal_Murals. Geiber differentiates between Social Realism and the American Scene, writing that the former was primarily an urban, East Coast phenomenon, notably in New York City, and more political (read: pro-Communist). The American Scene/Regionalism/ West Coast art of the time was focused on work and labor as a means to regain prosperity, not on politics, and that it was much more “provincial.” Of course, the non-radicalism of Californian New Deal artworks is central to his entire thesis. I don’t entirely buy it, though I think he does have some good points.
(6) Lemon, Isabelle. “The WPA – The Stimulus Package of Its Day.” Panorama, January-March 2010: Vol. 22, No. 1. Via Found SF. Web. 27 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_WPA_%E2%80%93_The_Stimulus_Package_of_Its_Day.
(7) Johnson, page 48. The excerpt comes from a Rexroth article in the SF Examiner on 23 February 1964.
(8) Allday, Erin. “Recalling the Creation of Coit Tower’s Murals.” SF Gate: 5 March 2012. Web. 20 March 2012. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/04/BA9N1NG106.DTL
(9) O’Driscoll, Peter. ”Coit Tower Murals.” San Francisco City Guides. Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA. 21 March 2012. Walking tour.
(10) Jewett, Masha Zakheim. “Coit Tower Politics.” Coit Tower: Its History and Art. Via Found SF. Web. 27 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Coit_Tower_Politics. Ms. Jewett is the daughter of Bernard Zakheim.
(11) The description of Wight’s offending panels combined three sources. Geiber, Stephen. “Coit Tower.” Excerpt via Found SF from “Working to Prosperity: California’s New Deal Murals.” California History Magazine. Summer 1979: Vol. LVIII, No. 2. Web. 29 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Coit_Tower. Jewett, Masha Zakheim. “Coit Tower Politics.” Coit Tower: Its History and Art. Via Found SF. Web. 27 March 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Coit_Tower_Politics. O’Driscoll, Peter. ”Coit Tower Murals.” San Francisco City Guides. Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA. 21 March 2012. Walking tour.
(12) It’s hard to know the right answer here. Having worked for non-profits, I know the importance of having unrestricted funding so that you can put the money where it’s most needed. On the other hand, the murals really should be protected, preserved, and, at the least, better lit (viewing is difficult and photography is almost impossible). Some of the squawking reads like a bunch of wealthy, unreasonable neighbors (the Telegraph Hill Dwellers’ Association) wanting to save their parking spots. Some of it sounds like the S.F. Recreation and Parks Department using Coit Tower as a cash cow without taking care of it. If you’re interested, check out this PBS video and story and this L.A. Times article. They’re the most level-headed.