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


Adam Gottstein is a native San Franciscan and the grandson of renowned artist Bernard Zakheim. He lives in the quiet Sierra Foothills town of Volcano, CA.

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.

The Biggest Post Office Mural in the Biggest Town in the Biggest State

Mural “View of Alpine,” by Jose Moya del Pino

Mural “View of Alpine,” by Jose Moya del Pino
Alpine, Texas
Photo Credit: Jordan McAlister

This is definitely NOT a tall tale. In 1939, Bay Area artist Jose Moya del Pino entered the Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts competition for the post office mural in San Antonio, Texas. Depicting the Alamo and Sam Houston, he hoped to win the commission, but it was not to be. As consolation he won the commission for the newly built post office the small West Texas town of Alpine with his entry, “View of Alpine.” When he got word of his commission, Moya could not travel the 1,400 miles from his San Francisco studio to do his research, so he wrote to the local postmistress for help. Promotional materials on Alpine, describing itself as “the biggest town in the biggest county in the biggest state in the union,” became his sources.

Moya’s initial pencil sketch presents the central theme: the benefits of the post office to local Sul Ross College students and cattle-raising residents through books. The sketch includes the nearby landscape, college campus, cattle, and horse. Further in the process, color was added and details of the local landscape took shape. For the cowboy, Moya found inspiration in California, recalling in his oral history, “There was a fellow that lived around here, Mr. MacNear, who had a $40 hat, a Texas hat, and boots. I asked him if he would pose for a mural, and he said he would.”

Post Office, Alpine, Texas

Post Office
Alpine, Texas

Moya completed the mural in oil and accompanied the work to Alpine for the 1940 installation and unveiling. In his oral history, he recalled the local reaction,

“Oh, they were pleased. Some of the old-timers came to the installation and made a lot of comments. They would say, ‘Mr. Artist, I think it’s very good, your mural. Those hills, they are just like the hills of Alpine.’ Then a couple of students who studied at the college came and said, ‘But you know, one thing that is very wrong. You put a cowboy reading a book. And a herd of cattle so near the cowboy. That would never happen in Alpine, never. A herd of cattle never comes into town. They stay in the distance, long out in the range.’ And there was criticism like that.”

Alpine is still many miles from a big city, but it has enough attractions for a top ten list in the February 12, 2015 edition of Texas Monthly. The old post office is now the Brewster County Appraisal District office, but the mural remains, attracting tourists on the lookout for the Living New Deal.

Quotes and background information on the mural are taken from the Oral history interview with Jose Moya del Pino, 1964 Sept. 10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution at https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-jos-moya-del-pino-12903 .

Fran Cappelletti volunteers as Librarian for the Jose Moya del Pino Library/Ross Historical Society, www.moya-rhs.org, based in an 1864 Octagon House at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross, California. He writes about local history and helps to maintain a collection of books, photos and oral histories.