Some San Francisco preservationists are raising an alarm about the decay of WPA murals inside the city’s iconic Coit Tower. As they collect signatures to place a measure on the ballot to preserve the 75 to 80-year-old artwork, historians say other WPA projects in the Bay Area and across the nation are similarly threatened by time and neglect.

We look at the distinctive artwork, buildings, bridges and other public works from that era.

Jon Golinger, chair of the Protect Coit Tower Committee
Gray Brechin, project scholar for the Living New Deal Project, a historical geographer and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Department of Geography
Philip Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department

  • Kt

    My favorite Works Progress Administration project is the Muni L-Taraval loop around the zoo. It was completed in 1937 and is still in use today. ūüôā

  • DN

    A WPA Mural is prominently featured in the entry to Burlingame High School:

    It was at risk of being removed from its central location in 1973, but it remained in place, and needs restoration.

  • Brad Rex

    Whether it’s visiting friends or snootey know-it-all pals from the city, I like to offer a walk down Yacht Road for a look and listen of the Wave Organ.
    ¬† As for the WPA murals, now is the time to act.¬† Gov, of Maine, Paul LePage has already removed one from the Department of Labor.¬† He now says he regrets it, but it’s a bit late for regrets, once the art is lost.

  • Greg Ptucha

    My K-9 public school in Dearborn, Michigan was a 1929 structure with two dramatic, large WPA murals on the upper walls of the school library’s high ceilings. ¬†They showed Michigan’s unique geography, its natural resources, working people and the primary industries and agricultural products of the era. ¬†I spent hours being educated and inspired by those murals, which, along with the elegant building (serving working class first generation students from E and S Europe), made students aware that education was prized as an important endeavor. ¬†Those murals were topped by the superior Diego Rivera murals in the wonderful Detroit Institute of Arts, which were of the same era, although I’m not aware if WPA funded any portion of Rivera’s work. ¬†Migrating to California, it’s disheartening to see the common use of trailers for public school purposes–a sad message about our civic regard for public schools.

  • Kimball Livingston

    The fantastical Hilaire Hiler murals at the Maritime Museum building above Aquatic Park do not, in their imagery, broadcast a political message, but the artists who worked on the building were of the same ilk as the muralists of Coit Tower. To this day you can see where work stopped on the tiling of the exterior wall bordering the main deck – when the workers learned that the building was being repurposed from a “people’s building” to a profit-making nightclub-restaurant – and walked away.¬† The building, and the murals, are a gem open to all in one of the most attractive spots in the city.

  • lee davis

    i would have liked to purchase reproductions of the marvelous murals,

    when I visited the Coit Towers. There were only a few poor post cards.

    Perhaps these would help support the art work.

  • Jr Joan

    What is happening to the murals in Coit Tower is bewildering & disgusting. This site has been making $ for San Francisco but none of that $ has been spent on maintaining it properly. WHERE DID THE MONEY GO! Now there is all of this “talk” about whether or not it is “worth saving”. Is this the way be treat our city’s more controversial historical sites (even if they are profitable)? Suck it dry and let it rot. If that the ‘policy” – all involved should be ashamed of themselves. These are indeed cold manipulative times we are living in!

  • Charles Locher

    I’ve just turned on the radio. ¬†Has anyone mentioned the murals up the stairway surrounding the elevator? ¬†These are by Lucien L. who did the murals ¬†at the Beach Chalet. ¬†

  • Alice Jurow

    Thank you for this excellent show. Dr. Brechin’s remarks about the achievements of the New Deal’s public works programs are so true, and so heart-breaking. I wish that some of our political leaders could make the case for the economy-building and civilizing uses of government.

  • J. W. Harrison

    Partnership with arts education need not be limited to college/university level, please consider Ruth Asawa School of the Arts’ talented visual arts¬†students.

  • Kate Patterson

    The San Francisco Arts Commission is responsible for the care of the Coit Tower murals. We have taken steps towards starting a major restoration project that will treat the space in its entirety with the goal of protecting the murals and improving the overall visitor experience. There is a great article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times about the murals, which details all of the issues we face when it comes to restoring these precious frescoes. It is important to note, while there is some damage, most of the issues we see are treatable and we have been told by our conservator that the murals are in much better shape than they were 20 years ago, when they were last restored. We are working hard to make sure that these murals will be around for many generations to come. This type of work is costly and we could use your help. You can donate to ArtCare, a fund dedicated to the ongoing care of the city’s Civic Art Collection. You can learn more on our website Thanks!

  • SanFranciscoChick

    Fabulous program. 2 things immediately came to mind: 1) the WPA was so successful on many levels including providing jobs, infrastructure, art, learning etc so why not do it again? This is a no-brainer; and 2) Coit Tower generates money, is an icon, an art gallery, a magnet for the world, a San Francisco history museum etc so why not prioritize its stewardship immediately? The Arts Commission and Parks and Rec owe the city an apology and need to get to work on the murals, the grounds, the structure NOW and geeeeez, I’m a native San Franciscan, and there’s a bunch of us around and I think we would probably all volunteer to stand at the door and greet folks!

  • Melindanokes

    Is there a WPA Mural registry ? I believe there are two WPA murals outside my classroom at John Muir Elementary School in the Western Addition. How do I find out? Regardless, I love entering my classroom ready to teach under the gaze of such magnificent public art.

  • Micki Morales

    A female caller mentioned a woman who has written a book on the murals in California along with short bios on the artist. Please supply the book title and author. I’d so enjoy visiting our California WPA murals.

  • Rrothma

    City Guides give tours at Coit Tower every Wed and Sat. at 11 am

  • Rrothma

    The name of the book they talked about is “Coit Tower San Francisco its History and Art” by Masha Zakeim 2009 ed

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor