The Women Who Painted Coit Tower

Coit Tower
San Francisco
Photo Credit: Courtesy Wiki Commons

Just as FDR’s Administration gave Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins the opportunity to profoundly shape public policy, the New Deal also opened up real and meaningful work for women in the arts. 

One place this played out was atop San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, inside a quirky building where four women artists had a crucial role in making the first large-scale New Deal art project a lasting, creative success.

At a time when men got nearly all such work, Maxine Albro, Suzanne Scheuer, Edith Hamlin, and Jane Berlandina were among twenty-five artists selected to paint the interior of the newly built Coit Tower, where twenty-seven murals covering 3,691 square feet of wall space took form from 1933-1934, a turbulent time in this city.

Maxine Albro, Assembling mosaic for UC Extension, San Francisco, CA

Maxine Albro
Assembling mosaic for UC Extension, San Francisco, CA
Photo Credit: Courtesy of SF Public Library History Center

Painter, muralist, and lithographer Maxine Albro was born in Iowa and came to San Francisco in 1920 to study at the California School of Fine Arts. She later traveled to Mexico, met Diego Rivera, and studied fresco. In her Coit Tower mural, “California,” she included the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) logo on boxes of oranges being packed by workers in the fields—a nod to the newly created federal agency that set minimum wages and maximum working hours. The model for one of the mural’s field hands was another Coit Tower artist, Parker Hall.  Soon after the Coit project was completed, Albro and Hall married, moved to Carmel, and joined the Carmel art colony.

Jane Berlandina, New Deal artist at work

Jane Berlandina
New Deal artist at work
Photo Credit: Courtesy of SF Public Library History Center

Jane Berlandina, born in France, was brought up in luxury. She was entranced by art and earned a degree from the exclusive Beaux Arts National School in Nice where her teacher was post-Impressionist Raoul Dufy whose style is quite different from that of Diego Rivera, the mentor of other Coit Tower artists. Berlandina’s mural, “Home Life,” is set apart in a small room on the tower’s second floor. Her use of egg tempera—pigments mixed with egg yolks as a binder—gives her transparent, seemingly unfinished figures a light touch that contrasts with scenes of Depression-era street life and labor strife depicted in the tower’s other murals. 

Edith Hamlin, Posing with her mural at San Francisco’s Mission High School

Edith Hamlin
Posing with her mural at San Francisco’s Mission High School
Photo Credit: Courtesy of SF Public Library History Center

Edith Hamlin, born in Oakland, California, was assigned to paint outdoor recreation on the tower’s second floor where elevator doors would be smack dab in the middle of her mural. She made the most of it with her fresco “Hunting in California,” which depicts a hunting dog at the ready, a duck hunter with his prize, wild geese flying free, and a deer grazing. Hamlin went on to work for the Federal Art Project, painting two enormous murals at San Francisco’s Mission High School. She later married painter Maynard Dixon at whose San Francisco studio a group of artists had earlier gathered to insist that the government provide work for starving artists—a demand that led to the Coit Tower murals.

Suzanne Scheuer showing new frescos to Enid Henley on Enid’s nursery school walls, 1933.

Exhibit Photograph: Suzanne Scheuer
Showing new frescos to Enid Henley on Enid’s nursery school walls, 1933.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of SF Public Library History Center

Suzanne Scheuer moved to San Francisco from San Jose in 1918 and studied at the California School of Fine Arts and the California College of Arts and Crafts. When Scheuer was assigned to paint a Coit Tower mural depicting newspaper production, she was initially reluctant to take on the job. She went to the Chronicle Building, did sketches of the offices and printing plant, and turned them into one of the liveliest of the Coit Tower murals—“Newspaper Gathering.”  After the Coit Tower project, Scheuer went on to paint post office murals in Berkeley, California, and Caldwell and Eastland, Texas. She later moved to Santa Cruz, where she designed and built six houses, doing much of the labor herself. 

The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first New Deal program to employ artists, was short lived, lasting only six months. When it ended in June 1934, it had employed 3,749 artists. The popularity and success of the Coit Tower project inspired the many New Deal art programs that followed.

Detail, “California” 1934, Coit Tower Mural by Maxine Albro

Detail, “California” 1934
Coit Tower Mural by Maxine Albro
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Volcano Press

Detail, “Hunting in California,” 1934, Coit Tower mural by Edith Hamiin

Detail, “Hunting in California,” 1934
Coit Tower mural by Edith Hamiin
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Volcano Press

"Newspaper Gathering," 1934

"Newspaper Gathering," 1934
Coit Tower Mural by Suzanne Scheuer
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein

“Home Life,” 1934, Coit Tower Mural by Jane Berlandina

“Home Life,” 1934
Coit Tower Mural by Jane Berlandina
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Volcano Press

 

Paint and Politics—the Life and Work of Victor Arnautoff
By Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, 1934
The artist included this self portrait in his “City Life” mural.
Photo Credit: Robert Cherny

Victor Arnautoff was a prolific artist of public murals during the New Deal, many of which are still in place.

Born in Russia in 1896, Arnautoff was a cavalry officer in WWI and later in the White Siberian army during the Russian Civil War. Escaping into northeastern China, he married and his father-in-law paid for him to attend the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. His first public mural, in 1929, can be seen in the city’s Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin.

Arnautoff and his family moved to Mexico where he worked as an assistant to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. Returning to San Francisco in 1931, Arnautoff gained attention by painting a large fresco mural on his studio wall. He then did several fresco panels at the Palo Alto Clinic that remain on view.

Painting the mural “City Life.”

Painting the mural “City Life.”
San Francisco’s Coit Tower, 1934
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the New Deal in 1933, federal funds became available for public art. In San Francisco, the Public Works of Art Project hired 25 artists to create murals at Coit Tower. Arnautoff, highly experienced in fresco technique, was designated technical coordinator of the project. His mural, City Life, completed in 1934, presents a vivid kaleidoscope of downtown San Francisco at a time of economic and social upheaval.

Arnautoff’s next New Deal commission, a large mural in the Protestant chapel at the Presidio of San Francisco, funded by the State Emergency Relief Administration, depicts historical vignettes and contemporary activities at the military base, including the Army’s supervision of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Arnautoff’s political views moved to the left in the mid-1930s, and he sometimes incorporated social criticism into his art. His largest single New Deal commission was thirteen fresco panels on the life of George Washington, painted in 1936 at the newly built George Washington High School in San Francisco. Funded by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, the murals present a counter narrative to the high school history texts of the time: the panel on Mount Vernon emphasizes Washington’s dependence on slave labor, and that on the westward “march of the white race” (Arnautoff’s description) shows it taking place over the body of dead Indian.

He exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the 1935 California Pacific Exposition, and the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

 
Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet

Mural, “Life of Washington,” George Washington High School, San Francisco
The fresco, consists of 12 panels and measures 1600-square-feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Between 1938 and 1942 Arnautoff completed five Treasury Section post office murals. Those in College Station and Linden, Texas, prominently featured African Americans, rarely depicted in public artworks. His post office murals can still be seen at Linden and at Pacific Grove and South San Francisco, California. Arnautoff’s mural for the Richmond, California, Post Office was recently discovered in a packing crate in the post office’s basement. It is being restored for exhibition in the Richmond Museum of History.

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950

Victor Arnautoff, Self Portrait, c:1950
Arnautoff painted this self-portrait opposing HR 9490, the McCarran Internal Security Act. The Act required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Photo Credit: With kind permission of INVA publishing house, Russia

In the 1950s, Arnautoff, while teaching at Stanford, was shunned for his leftist views and was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1963, after the death of his wife, he emigrated to the Soviet Union where he continued to paint and make prints and created three large public murals using mosaic tiles. He died in 1979.

Edith Hamlin and Me

Edith Hamlin painting WPA mural at Mission High School.

Edie on Ladder
Edith Hamlin painting WPA mural at Mission High School.  Source
Photo Credit: Thunderbird Foundation

After I organized Coit Tower’s 50th anniversary celebration in San Francisco in 1984, Edith Ann Hamlin and I became good friends. During the next six years, I often visited her at her studio in the Excelsior District of San Francisco.

Hamlin was 82 then and had been part art of the California and Southwest art and scene for more than half a century. Her studio had a huge Hopi clay pot and several large woven Native American baskets. One of her large landscape paintings of the Southwest rested on a tall easel.

Born in Oakland, California, Hamlin’s interest in art began early in life on sketching trips with her father. She won a two-year scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, formerly the California School of Fine Arts, and was one of four students chosen to paint a mural on the school’s walls. By age 22, she knew she wanted to be a muralist.

Painter of the Desert

Painter of the Desert
Edith Hamlin portrait of her husband, artist Maynard Dixon.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Hamlin moved to New York to attend Columbia’s Teachers College, but when she heard there might be work for artists in San Francisco, she learned to drive and headed west in a Model A Ford—a trip that would cement her career as an artist.

Edie arrived in San Francisco in time to get the job— one of 26 artists to paint murals at the city’s landmark Coit Tower, the first Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Launched in 1933, PWAP hired artists for their abilities not their need for “relief.” Hamlin learned fresco painting on site. Her mural, “Sports and Hunting in California,” is on the tower’s second floor.

“Civilization Through the Arts and Crafts as Taught to the Neophyte Indians”

Mission High Mural
“Civilization Through the Arts and Crafts as Taught to the Neophyte Indians”
Photo Credit: Sally Swope

Three years after her Coit Tower commission, Hamlin got hired by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to paint two 8 by 24 foot murals in the library at San Francisco’s Mission High School. It was a prestigious assignment. The huge murals took Hamlin and four assistants a year to complete. Artist Maynard Dixon, whose studio was a few doors from Hamlin’s on Montgomery Street in the city’s bohemian North Beach district, helped Hamlin paint the faces of the Spanish conquistadors, missionaries, and indigenous people depicted in the Mission High murals.

Dixon and Hamlin shared a fascination with the Southwest and Native Americans. Following Dixon’s divorce from Dorothea Lange, he and Edie married and moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1939. They kept a summer home and studio in Mount Carmel, Utah, near Zion National Park until Dixon died in 1946. Edie recalled those years as the happiest of her life.

She returned to San Francisco where she continued to paint until her death in 1992. I’ll always remember our lively discussions, her warmth, and encouragement.

Sally Swope is a travel writer and author of My Shangri-La, My Adventures in Asia. She is a contributor to the Castro Courier in San Francisco. Email

Daughter of Coit Tower Artist Bernard Zakheim: Keep Tower Public!

Read Ruth Gottstein’s scathing editorial in the SF Examiner on the need to keep Coit Tower and public parks free and open to the public. Gottstein is the 92-year-old daughter of Coit muralist Bernard Zakheim. She brilliantly connects the recent viral video of children being forced off of a playground in SF because of its semi-privatization with long standing conflicts over Coit Tower as a free and public space. To quote:

… Coit Tower murals were also entirely free to the city of San Francisco, funded entirely by federal taxpayer funds through New Deal programs.

 

Coit Tower has not even had a private concession there selling souvenirs for most of its life, since it was simply created at Lillie’s direction in her will “to beautify the city I have always loved.” Given the will of the voters to preserve Coit Tower and keep it from becoming privatized or over-commercialized, I would hope that the Recreation and Park Department, the supervisors and the mayor will get together and find a wiser way to protect this national treasure instead of over-commercializing it.

Similarly, rather than exclude San Francisco children and families from public parks that were paid for with public funds to allow people of all ages to recreate and play, I hope the Recreation and Park Department will find better ways to manage our parks than trying to monetize them.

Famed Coit Tower Murals Restored

Mural  “California” by Maxine Albro

Orange Harvest
Mural “California” by Maxine Albro

The long-awaited restoration of twenty-seven New Deal murals at San Francisco’s Coit Tower is complete. The tower re-opened to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 14.

The murals were painted in 1934 under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project, the first New Deal employment program for artists.  They depict scenes of California in the 1930s. The Living New Deal’s Advisor Harvey Smith wrote the tower’s new signage interpreting the murals and the tumultuous times that inspired them.

Mural “Library” by Bernard Zakheim

Library
Mural “Library” by Bernard Zakheim

Age and neglect had taken a toll on both the tower and its artworks. Local activists pushed a successful ballot initiative to require the city to dedicate funds to restore and protect the landmark and murals. The tower closed in October 2013 for the $1.3 million upgrade.

Coit Tower, named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a colorful local character, was built in 1933. With 360-degree views of the city and the bay, the tower is one of San Francisco’s most visited landmarks.