Virginia Tieman

Gain Insight on the Coit Tower Murals

In Artist, Public, Purpose on November 27, 2011 at 8:17 pm

A sign that is positioned in Coit Tower for all to see reads:

“In January 2008, Coit Memorial Tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the building is noted for its Art Deco design, the chief reason it received this national honor was for the twenty-seven murals that grace the rotunda and inner stairwell of the structure.

When Coit Tower was completed in 1933, its interior consisted of over 3,000 square feet of blank wall space. But in early 1934, the building became the pilot project of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), an offshoot of the Civil Works Administration, one of the “alphabet soup” of federal agencies that put people to work during the Depression. One of the goals of the PWAP was “…to support porfessional artists and thereby create quality art.” A committee headed by Dr. Walter Heil, director of the de Young Museum, selected the common theme, color palette, and sizing of the murals.

Many of the most important Bay Area artists of the time were hired to create the artwork. The twenty-six artists worked together to support the unified theme of Aspects of Life in California, 1934, depicting scenes of agriculture, education, urban and rural life, and New Deal idealism. Inspired by the 1920s public art movement in Mexico, the decision to use the medium of fresco for the murals was linked to artists such as Diego Rivera, with whom several of the Coit Tower muralists had worked. In fresco, the artist paints directly onto a wet plaster surface; as the colors dry, the picture becomes part of the wall and any changes must be chipped out. The muralists earned an average of $31.22 per week, completing the project in six months’ time.

In the 1930s, the American art scene was divided into two distinct schools: Regionalism, which glorified rural America, and Social Realism, which offered a more critical and urban view of American society. This political and idealistic split within American art is clearly represented in the body of work inside Coit Tower.

Before the Tower opened to the public, during the politically charged atmosphere of the 1934 Maritime Strike, several murals were negatively described in the press as depicting Communist symbols. Eventually one of the controversial pieces was removed, and the building finally opened to the public in October 1934.

With some murals restored in 1960 and others in 1975, the Coit Tower murals remain a definitive representation of the art of the Great Depression.”

Maria Conlon, in the video below, speaks about various murals in Coit Tower — highlighting hidden images that can’t be seen without previous knowledge.

As a journalist and someone who enjoys learning the history behind cultures, I suggest that everyone should go on a Coit Tower mural tour and be enriched by the lessons and history that is packed so nicely into the building.

Below are photos and details of the murals in Coit Tower.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Also, here is a list of the artists and murals that make up the walls of Coit Tower. (Some are mural titles while others are descriptions of which pieces they painted)

1. Ray Boynton; Animal force and Machine force.

2. John Langley Howard; California Industrial Scence

3. William Hesthal; Railroad and Shipping

4. Clifford Wight; Surveyor and Ironworker

5. Ralph Stackpole; Industries of California

6. Suzanne Scheuer; Newsgathering

7. Bernard B. Zakheim; Library

8. Malette Dean; Stockbroker and Scientist-Inventor

9. Victor Arnautoff; City Life

10. George Harris; Banking and Law

11. Frede Vidar; Department Store

12. Clifford Wight; Farmer and Cowboy

13. Maxine Albro; California

14. Ray Bernard; Meat Industry

15. Gordon Langdon; California Agriculture Industry

16. Otis Oldfield; SF Bay, East

17. Jose Moya; SF Bay, North

18. Rinaldo Cuneo; Bay Area Hills

19. Otis Oldfield; Seabirds and Bay Area Map

20. Fred Olmstead Jr.; Power

21. Lucien Labaudt; Powell St.

22. Parker Hall; Collegiate Sports

23. Edward Terada; Sports

24. Ralph Chesse; Children at Play

25. Edith Hamlin; Hunting in California

26. Ben F. Cunningham; Outdoor Life

27. Jane Berlandina; Home Life

  1. You might also want to look into the fact that lawyer-turned-artist George Biddle, friend of FDR’s in prep school and at Harvard, had studied painting in 1928-9 under Diego Rivera and proposed to FDR in 1933 to create public funding for artists.

  2. Please correct the spelling of Coit Tower muralist Ralph Chesse’s name, to help this less-known contributor to be appreciated. He had an amazing quadruple-threat career in San Francisco and elsewhere as painter, actor, marionetteer, and program director/manager –

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