UCSF Development Puts Murals at Risk

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter—Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter
Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

My grandfather, Bernard Zakheim, was a seminal figure in the New Deal art world. He immigrated from Warsaw to New York in 1920, then made his way to San Francisco. 

In the mid-1930s, Bernard coordinated the twenty-five muralists who created frescoes in San Francisco’s landmark Coit Tower. This was the largest of many endeavors sponsored by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which later became the Federal Art Project (FAP) that employed struggling artists nationwide during the Great Depression.  

The Coit Tower murals, conceptualized by Zakheim, depict various scenes of life in California. Bernard’s fresco, “The Library,” shows a man removing a book by Karl Marx from a shelf. The mural includes an image of the artist’s daughter—my mother, Ruth, as a 12-year-old, wearing a blue-and-white sailor suit. At 97, she still tells the story of when she stood on Market Street with her father and witnessed striking dock workers in the days leading up to the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. The strike inspired some Coit Tower artists to include themes of labor unrest and economic inequity in the murals they painted there.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned Zakheim to paint a series of frescoes at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). The eleven panels in Toland Hall graphically depict the evolution of medicine in California. Among the historical figures are Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assisting Dr. John S. Griffin, one of California’s earliest trained physicians, in the treatment of a malaria patient. 

Zackheim Murals—Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin in the treatment of a malaria patient.

Zakheim Murals at Toland Hall, UCSF
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

The colossal undertaking of these Toland Hall murals may soon be undone as plans proceed to tear down the old hospital to make way for a new facility. The potential destruction of these murals comes amid assaults on other New Deal artworks when there is a change to the public spaces they embellish, or when controversy arises regarding their content. For instance, the threatened destruction of “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School by muralist Victor Arnautoff, also a WPA artist at Coit Tower, galvanized San Francisco’s arts community. 

Bernard’s work has been threatened before: with neglect, water damage, political controversy and censorship. As an example, the lower half of a 1930s-era fresco he painted at the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Center in San Francisco was painted over in the 1950s. The fresco was saved six decades later when his son, Nathan Zakheim, expertly removed the paint.

Even the Coit Tower murals, a major city attraction, were neglected for years. Legislation approved by the voters saved the murals and upgraded the building. 

From both an artistic and historical perspective, the Toland Hall murals are irreplaceable. Like many New Deal works, they are a window on the past. Importantly, they are remnants of an era when government exalted and funded the arts. Given this most recent threat, another rescue campaign is underway. As a family, we continue to do all we can to ensure the murals’ survival so that future generations can appreciate and learn from them.

Watch: Tour the Toland Hall murals tour with Dr. Chauncey Leake, 1976 (45 minutes)

 
Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine

Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine
WPA artist Bernard Zakheim studied with Diego Rivera, whose influence can been seen in the Toland Hall murals.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

 
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)

Zakheim Murals
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)  Source

Zakheim at work, 1937—The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital

Zakheim at work, 1937
The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Adam Gottstein

 

A New Deal Muralist’s Work Lives On

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Opening Day, January 22,1936

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse
Opening Day at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, January 22,1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Denied admission to art colleges, Hilaire Hiler left Rhode Island for Paris in 1919 where he opened a legendary nightclub. At the Jockey Club, the first after-hours club in the Montparnasse District, Hiler painted the walls with colorful murals, and famously sang and played jazz piano with a monkey perched on his shoulder. The club proved wildly successful. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray were among the artists and writers on the Paris scene in the 1920s who frequented Hiler’s club and became his friends.

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural, Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural
Mural by Hilaire Hiler,  Aquatic Park, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

 

Anais Nin introduced Hiler to Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. Hiler attended classes at Rank’s Institute of Psychoanalysis–an adjunct of the Sorbonne. Rank’s psychological theories and the color theories of Nobel scientist William Ostwald would greatly influence the dazzling murals Hiler would later paint at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse building on the San Francisco waterfront.

A joint project of the City and the WPA, the Streamline Moderne building designed by city architect William Mooser, Jr. broke ground in 1936. Working for the WPA, Hiler was assigned to decorate the interior and exterior of the building and supervised a team of artists, artisans, and crafts workers hired by the Federal Art Project. Hiler’s motifs of fantastical underwater scenes used in his murals are also found in mosaics, terrazzo floors, and friezes throughout the 4-story building.

Color Wheel, Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.

Color Wheel
Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Hiler brought everything he’d learned about color and psychology to his murals in the main lobby. But first he painted on the ceiling of the nearby lounge a 47-foot-color wheel divided into 30 colors and hues. Hiler renamed the room the “Prismatarium,” writing that it functions in relation to the world of color much as a planetarium does for the heavens.

Novelist Henry Miller, a contemporary of Hiler, wrote, “Hilaire lives and breathes color. He is color itself. Sometimes he’s a veritable aurora borealis.”

Just before the art was completed, the City leased the building to a pair of restauranteurs who renamed it “The Aquatic Park Casino” and installed garish-colored furniture among many other violations of Hiler’s design aesthetic. Hiler and all the artists walked off the job. Beniamino Bufano refused to allow his sculptures to be installed. Sargent Johnson, one of only two African-American artists working for the WPA in California, abandoned the 140-foot mosaic he was installing on the veranda. It remains unfinished to this day.

Starfish, Hiler Mural Detail

Starfish
Hiler Mural Detail
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In a scathing letter to his supervisor, Hiler resigned just days before the park opened on January 22, 1939. He was not seen at the opening ceremonies.

Many of the artists found work at Treasure Island, site of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, where Hiler produced two decorative maps of Pacific nations in the Pacific House. He then worked  for the Army in the Presidio as a color consultant on camouflage, taught briefly at Mills College, founded a school in Los Angeles, relocated it to Santa Fe, and eventually moved to New York City. Toward the end of his life he returned to Paris where he died in 1966.

Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium

“Psychological color chart”
Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

The Aquatic Park building underwent extensive restoration between 2006 and 2009. Restorations of Hiler’s murals and Prismatarium ceiling were completed in 2010.  The building today serves as a maritime museum, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural, To save time Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installation on the lobby walls.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural
To save time, Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installing the murals on the lobby walls.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Jo Mora, Renaissance Man of the West

Brass Plaque: One of four different brass plaques at the Monterey County Courthouse, this one representing agriculture.

Brass Plaque
One of four different brass plaques at the Monterey County Courthouse, this one representing agriculture.
Photo Credit: Peter Hiller

It is rare for any artist to support a family solely through artistic prowess, and rarer still during the Great Depression. Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876-1947) was such an artist. Mora used his wits as well as his expansive creative abilities to keep food on the table.

An illustrator, writer, cartographer, architect, photographer, sculptor, and painter, Mora’s extensive talent spanned several decades including during the New Deal era. Born in Uruguay, the son of a classical sculptor, Jo Mora grew up and attended school in neighborhoods in New Jersey, New York, and Boston. After attending art school, training with his father and honing his artistic skills as an illustrator for Boston area newspapers and book publishers, Jo followed his heart and traveled west.

Mora’s depiction of Justice as seen on the east side of the Monterey County Courthouse.

Justice
Mora’s depiction of Justice as seen on the east side of the Monterey County Courthouse.
Photo Credit: Peter Hiller

In 1903, Mora rode the train to California on his own to work as a cowboy at the Donahue Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley where he would learn the ways of the Californio vaqueros and take time to draw, paint, and photograph the California Missions along the El Camino Real. He continued back to Arizona, living with the Hopi and Navajo, learning their languages and documenting their daily lives and sacred ceremonies in drawings, paintings, and photographs.

After two and a half years in Arizona, Mora tore himself away from a life he loved, married, and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, working full time as an artist. He painted murals, continued to write and illustrate children’s books as he had done in Boston, as well as create heroic sculptures and decorative elements on numerous buildings in California. A rock and bronze statue of Miguel de Cervantes in Golden Gate Park was one of several sculptural commissions during this period of Mora’s life.

Mora and Stanton: Jo Mora (left) and Robert Stanton with one of the column caps in Mora's studio.

Mora and Stanton
Jo Mora (left) and Robert Stanton with one of the column caps in Mora’s studio.
Photo Credit: Lewis Josselyn from the Jo Mora Trust

The Mora family, his wife Grace, son Jo Jr., and daughter Patti moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea, as Mora was commissioned to create a monumental cenotaph in honor of Father Junipero Serra for the Carmel Mission. The family would quickly become ensconced in the community, living first in Carmel and then moving to nearby Pebble Beach.

In 1937, in collaboration with architect Robert A. Stanton, a family friend and neighbor, Mora undertook two enormous projects under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Stanton was charged with designing a new courthouse for Monterey County and Jo was commissioned by the WPA to add artistic elements to the building. Stanton’s monolithic design gave Mora many options for his part of the project. He drew on his love of California and the Southwest to produce ornamental pieces tht reflected the history, commerce, and people of California—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo.

Jo Mora in Studio:

Jo Mora in Studio
Mora posing with three of the bas-relief panels for the King City High School Auditorium, King City, CA.  Source
Photo Credit: Lewis Josselyn from the Jo Mora Trust

Mora created bas-reliefs capping the four tall columns in the west interior courtyard of the building; five travertine bas-relief panels above the west entrance; twenty three different 3-dimensional concrete heads of persons both real and archetypal; four different brass plaques on the building’s exterior doors ant the interior elevator doors; a bas-relief figure depicting Justice on the east side of the building, and a sculpted center column in a reflecting pool in the central courtyard of the building.

The success of the courthouse project would led to another Stanton-Mora undertaking in the southern end of Monterey County, the King City High School Auditorium, where Stanton designed the building and Mora, again working for the WPA, created bas-relief style figures for the column caps on the building’s sides, as well as a spectacular 9-panel bas-relief on the front. Mora depicted the performing and visual arts, along with images inspired by California’s many cultures.

Monterey Courthouse: In order for court to stay in session during the construction of the new building, Stanton's design was to build around the old courthouse and then remove the old building, board by board, through the open columns. Mora added many decorative elements to the completed building.

Monterey Courthouse
In order for court to stay in session during the construction of the new building, Stanton’s design was to build around the old courthouse and then remove the old building, board by board, through the open columns. Mora added many decorative elements to the completed building.  Source
Photo Credit: Photograph from the collection of the Pebble Beach Company.

Both of these striking buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are still in use today.

Memories of Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald

Milton Hebald, WPA Artist
Milton said “I know how to pose.”
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

A man of style, dedicated to a life of art, Milton Hebald passed away in January at age 97. Although I had long heard about him from colleagues in New Mexico, I first met Milton at an exhibit of his artwork in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Many memorable conversations followed.

Milton was dedicated to reaching people through art in public places. He generously lent three of his bronze sculptures to an exhibition of WPA art I co-curated in 2010 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.

On his way to becoming a renowned sculptor, Milton won awards for his art as a child in New York City. He was the youngest student to enroll in the Art Students League. In the mid-1930s, Milton went to work for the WPA, teaching and producing public art.

He later put his artistic skills to work making models and casting metal in the defense industry during World War II. He was later drafted into the Army.

In the 1950s he won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy in Rome and with his wife, Cecille, began a half-century of living and working in Italy. After Cecille died he remarried and returned to New Mexico, and later moved to Southern California to be closer to his family.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
The sculpture is among of Hebald’s best known works.
Photo Credit: Harvey Smith

Milton was known for celebrating the classic human form at a time when many of his contemporaries were moving into abstract art. Among his most recognized public works is the much-loved Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park; the sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Zurich, and the monumental Zodiac Screen he created for the iconic Pan American Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. (The terminal is now demolished, but the sculptures are in storage).

Milton continued to work daily into his 90s, sculpting small terra cotta figures.  His sense of style was on display when I was photographing him next to one of these terracotta pieces. Striking a jaunty pose and a far off gaze, he commented, “I know how to pose.” During our last visit, a few months before he died, I watched him patiently instructing his great-granddaughter, Cecille, in drawing, while his granddaughter, Lara, looked on.

Milton’s memorial celebration last month in Culver City, California brought people together from across the country to extol the life and work of one of the last surviving WPA artists.

The New Deal’s Forgotten Art Form

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039

“History of Transportation,” by Helen Lundeberg, 1039
This massive petrachrome mural in Inglewood, California was recently restored.

The Federal Art Project (FAP) encompassed a wide variety of art forms—from sculpture and fresco to oil-on-canvas and wood relief. However, few realize that an entirely new medium was invented by an FAP artist solely for use on public projects in Southern California.

American artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright first achieved prominence in the art world when he and fellow artist Morgan Russell co-founded the Synchromism movement, an approach to painting that analogized color to music. These works were among the first abstract paintings in American art.

During the 1930s, while MacDonald-Wright was in charge of the FAP in Southern California he devised an entirely new method of creating murals, which he called “petrachrome.”

The petrachrome process is significant not only to those interested in the New Deal but also to art historians in general. The process was similar in principle to a paint-by-numbers. Cement was first tinted with different pigments corresponding to the different sections of the mural. Next, crushed rock, glass, or tile was added to the mixture, which was then applied to the mural surface. Typically, the different color sections were delineated by strips of brass.

The colored cement was allowed to harden and then polished, creating a bold, striking appearance. Instead of a mural being painted onto a surface, the petrachrome process was designed so that the mural was the surface. Reports at the time claimed that the result “more enduring than marble” and “should last as long as the remaining great monuments of antiquity.”

Once the FAP was terminated in the early 1940s the petrachrome method seems to have disappeared completely, leaving only a handful of examples scattered around Southern California. The most celebrated of these is Helen Lundeberg’s “History of Transportation” in Inglewood. Recently the subject of an extensive renovation, Lundeberg’s mural is 8 feet tall and 240 feet long—making it one of the largest New Deal artworks in California.

Other examples of petrachrome murals can be found in San Diego’s Presidio Park, Santa Paula High School, Upland Elementary School, Santa Monica City Hall, and Canoga Park High School.

The majority of petrachrome murals still exist today. That they, by and large, remain in good condition is a testament to their resilience. I hope to publish a fully illustrated volume dedicated to preserving the legacy of MacDonald-Wright’s petrachrome process.