San Francisco Zoo Artworks a Legacy of WPA Women

Mosaic “Children and Their Animal Friends,” by Esther, Helen, and Margaret Bruton

Mosaic “Children and Their Animal Friends,” by Esther, Helen, and Margaret Bruton
Mothers Building at San Francisco Zoo
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein

Designed by noted architect George W. Kelham and completed in 1925, the Mothers Building was for years a refuge for women and their children visiting the San Francisco Zoo. The mosaics and murals— all by women artists hired by the Works Progress Administration— were added between 1934 and 1938.

“Saint Francis—” the patron saint of animals and namesake of the city of San Francisco–and “Children and their Animal Friends” are two elaborate mosaics at the entrance to the building. Sisters, Margaret, Helen, and Esther Bruton, well-known artists in the Bay Area, designed the mosaics in Alameda, California by laying out the tiles on the floor of their studio. They installed the murals panel-by-panel at the Mothers Building in 1934. The works are inscribed “To the memory of Delia Fleishhacker,” the matriarch of the San Francisco philanthropists that donated the zoo to the city.

Mothers Building

Mothers Building
San Francisco ZooFriends of the Mothers Building

Inside the Mothers Building are four colorful murals that depict the story of Noah’s Ark painted by Helen Forbes and Dorothy Pucinelli. The egg-tempera murals cover more than 1,200 square feet along four walls. The mural on the north wall depicts the building of the ark; on the west wall, the loading the animals; on the south wall, the landing of the ark; and on the east wall, the disembarking of the animals.

The San Francisco Zoo is only a few blocks from the ocean. Over the years moisture from the salt water and fog have taken a toll on the murals. The mural on the west wall of the animals entering the ark is in desperate need of repair.

WPA artists Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli

WPA artists Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli
Painting the murals at the Mothers BuildingPhoto Courtesy: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Sadly, the Mothers Building itself has been closed for ten years, awaiting seismic work. The San Francisco Historical Preservation Fund, the Recreation and Park Department, the Art Commission, and the San Francisco Zoological Society commissioned a needs assessment and restoration plan. The report estimates it would take $5 million to bring the building up to code. A fundraising effort is underway.

Anyone having photos of the murals taken before the damage occurred is asked to contact Richard Rothman, [email protected]. The photos will be used to guide the mural restoration.

Water damage

Water damage
West Wall mural Mothers BuildingPhoto Courtesy Friends of the Mothers Building

Woman and Water Buffalo

Woman and Water Buffalo
Detail “The Story of Noah’s Ark” mural at Mothers BuildingPhoto Courtesy Friends of the Mothers Building

Richard Rothman has worked for many years to protect WPA art in San Francisco and is leading the charge to get the Mothers Building reopened. He became interested in WPA-era murals in the late 1970s while a tour guide for San Francisco Heritage. His advocacy helped spur the restoration of the murals at Coit Tower where he gives City Guide tours.

One comment on “San Francisco Zoo Artworks a Legacy of WPA Women

  1. Avatar LydiaJones

    This needs a full press course of action! All will be lost if someone of means does not take on this project as their own! Please spread the word!!!

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