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Coit Tower Murals Controversy Subject of PBS Newshour Segment (Video)

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San Francisco's Coit Tower. The murals are on the inside.
San Francisco's Coit Tower. The murals are on the inside.

San Francisco's Coit Tower is home to three distinct treasures: a 360 degree panoramic view of the city from its viewing deck, the stunning art deco design of the tower itself by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard as well as a series of historic Depression-era murals decorating the inside of the monument's base.

The latter is increasingly becoming the subject of controversy as the artworks have gradually slipped into disrepair in the decades since artists like Ralph Stackpole and Bernard Zakheim were commissioned by the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project to depict slices of life in 1930s America.

The current state of the murals is described in a recent video from PBS Newshour.

In the segment, Zakheim's daughter, Ruth Gottstein, criticizes the city's Recreation and Parks Department for paying insufficient attention to murals' care. "If it were treated as a museum, if the walls were kept secure, if the entrance was guarded so that people could walk around it, as in any other museum of any importance in the world, it would be secure," said Gottstein. "And its not."

Some of the murals have sustained significant damage stemming from moisture seeping into the building due to the blanket of fog that regularly envelops the Telegraph Hill neighborhood the tower sits atop.

For its part, the Parks Department has a plan to restore the murals. The department is partnering with the city's Arts Commission to spend $250,000 on their upkeep in addition to the one percent of profits from whichever private vendor ultimately wins the contract to operate tower's gift shop. The department is also looking to increase revenues by mandating the new vendor host occasional private functions on the viewing deck during the evening hours when the tower is traditionally closed to visitors.

Two interconnected neighborhood groups, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers and the Committee to Protect Coit Tower, feel the city's efforts at preservation are insufficient and are in the process of gathering signatures to get a measure before San Francisco voters that would prohibit private events and require all profits made from charging visitors $5-7 to use the building's elevator, which totaled around $900,000 last year, go almost entirely toward the monument's upkeep.

The group also hopes to prohibit Coit Tower from playing host to any private functions.

Real estate blog Curbed doesn't take a particularly charitable view of the organization's motives.

"Perhaps the Protect Coit Tower Committee, which is essentially run by a small but powerful neighborhood group that historically opposes any development, is trying to privatize a public landmark," wrote blogger Sally Kuchar last year. "Because there's a small threat that the surrounding very fancy and very expensive homes could be bothered with shuttle buses bringing eager tourists to and from a San Francisco landmark for an occasional private event."

Around the Web

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Filed by Aaron Sankin