WPA Model of San Francisco Restored at Last

Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018

Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018
In 2010, Gray discovered the then 70-year-old WPA model of San Francisco was in storage at a UC warehouse and began advocating for its public display.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

As I was scanning photos of New Deal public works at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I was startled to run across one that showed the dedication in 1940 of an enormous wooden model of San Francisco. WPA workers spent three years building the 37 X 41 square-foot, 3-D replica of the city for planning and educational purposes.

The New Deal wrought huge changes to the Bay Area—the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, the airports, the East Shore Highway, and Caldecott Tunnel, (not to mention the locally financed Golden Gate Bridge). Planners understood that bigger changes were on the way to which the city’s hilly topography and constricted site presented unusual challenges. A model would also give scores of people jobs.

WPA Workers Putting together the scale model, 1938

WPA Workers
Putting together the scale model, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy the San Francisco Planning Department Archive at the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Jointly sponsored by the federal government and the City of San Francisco, the model could be used for planning a subway down Market Street (later BART and MUNI lines) as well as freeways to connect the bridges and the city with the Peninsula (later blocked by the Freeway Revolt.) It was only briefly on display in a lightwell of City Hall before wartime activities evicted it, eventually finding its way to a warehouse at the University of California, Berkeley, where it remained, in 16 large wooden crates, until last summer.

Dedication of WPA model at City Hall

Dedication of WPA model at City Hall
The WPA formally presented the map to the city on April 16, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)

Deena Chalabi, the Curator of Public Dialogue at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, introduced me to the Dutch conceptual artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol (collectively Bik Van Der Pol) who were intrigued by the possibility of returning the model to the public and using it for stimulating dialogue about the city’s past, present, and future. With the invaluable assistance of Stella Lochman, the museum’s Senior Program Associate of Public Dialogue, the model was transferred from the East Bay to a San Francisco Public Library facility with enough space to uncrate it. Over the summer, volunteers meticulously cleaned decades of dust from its dozens of component sections, marveling at the detail, technical ingenuity, and subtle coloration that emerged.

Restoring the WPA model

Restoring the WPA model
Volunteers carefully cataloged and cleaned the model, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Thanks to Bik Van Der Pol, SFMOMA, and the San Francisco Public Library system, the model will be back on display this winter at 29 branch libraries throughout the city where locals can view their own neighborhoods in miniature as they looked in 1940. After that, it will hopefully be reassembled in its entirety at the SFMOMA contemporaneous with a special exhibition of Diego Rivera’s Pan-American Unity mural that he created for the 1939-40 World’s Fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. The model will then need a permanent home. It would make a superb centerpiece for the New Deal museum that the Living New Deal hopes to build in the city that the model depicts.

Close up. The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.

Close up
The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

St Anne of the Sunset Church

St Anne of the Sunset Church
Corner of Funston and Judah
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach

Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach
The amusement park was demolished in 1972
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre

War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre
Van Ness Avenue
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Rivera Masterpiece to SFMOMA for 2020 Retrospective

Pan American Unity Mural, 1940 By Diego Rivera
“My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States.” – Diego Rivera.  Source
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) have announced plans to display Diego Rivera’s massive mural, “Pan American Unity,” at a major exhibition of the artist’s work in 2020. The mural is considered one of the most important works of public art in San Francisco.

Rivera and Pflueger, 1940
By Peter Stackpole.  Source
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

The 74-foot-wide, 22-foot-high masterpiece was commissioned under the auspices of the 1939-40 WPA and the Golden Gate International Exposition held on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, itself a creation of the New Deal’s PWA and the WPA.

Rivera was among dozens of artists participating in Art in Action, a live exhibit at which fairgoers could watch paintings, sculptures, weavings, and frescoes in the making in an airplane hangar that served as the Exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts, a gallery and studio.

Rivera at work
Diego Rivera on scaffolding
Photo Credit: Charles Hughes, WPA

The prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, an organizer of the Exposition, invited Rivera to participate. In a letter to Pfleuger, Rivera happily accepted “ . . . on the condition that I be permitted to make this my personal contribution toward the promotion of good will between our countries and because of my great affection for my friends in San Francisco who made my previous stay such a pleasant one.”

“For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the machinism and new creative power of the north with the tradition rooted in the soil of the south, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc., and would like to choose that as the subject of my mural,” he wrote.

At the time, Pflueger was designing the Science Building for the new San Francisco Junior College (now City College of San Francisco). Pflueger also projected a Grand Library building where Rivera’s mural would be permanently installed once the fair closed. Because the mural would need to be portable, Rivera painted the giant buon fresco on ten steel-frame panels. It weighed 20 tons.

The mural is a sweeping panorama of the Bay Area, and interweaves images of Western industrialization and indigenous cultures. Rivera and his assistants were still working on the massive mural when the fair closed in September 1940. In December more than 25,000 people crowded into the hangar to view the finished work. The panels were then packed into five crates and moved to storage.

Because of wartime austerity, the Grand Library Pflueger had designed for City College was never built. Pflueger died in 1946. In 1961, his brother, Milton, arranged to shoehorn the Pan American Unity mural into the lobby of the college’s Little Theater, where it has resided ever since in a confined space.

Detail of Unity Mural
“It is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent.”—Rivera
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

Plans are underway to move the mural to the college’s new Performing Arts and Education Center, where it will be visible from the outside through the building’s glass façade.

Upon hearing of plans to move the masterpiece, SFMOMA approached the college about showcasing it as part of a 2020 Rivera retrospective. In return, SFMOMA will underwrite the costs for the moves and the conservation of this great work.

Watch the (silent) video of Rivera and other artists at work at the Golden Gate International Exhibition.


Rendering of Mural at SFMOMA
The mural will on display at a major exhibition of Rivera’s work in 2020.
Photo Credit: SFMOMA

For 22 years Will Maynez has been the steward of Diego Rivera's Pan American Unity mural at City College of San Francisco and maintains the mural’s website: riveramural.org and newsletter. Will currently serves on various committees surrounding the 2020 SFMOMA-CCSF collaboration. He has written a one-act play,“Interview with Frida Kahlo,” and “Rapsodia en Azul: An American in Mexico,” a play about a 1935 party for George Gershwin.