Depression-Era Murals

Size does matter, and it’s because of its size that we call the 1930s depression the Great Depression. It was worldwide; it lasted more than a decade, and the unemployment numbers were staggering. In America alone, by 1933, nearly 13 million people — 25 % of the U.S. labor force — were out of work. But, as devastating as the Great Depression was, it also had a positive side; it left a significant legacy of public works.

When FDR took office in 1933, he and Congress immediately set to work creating agencies and funding programs that would create jobs. Most of the jobs focused on building infrastructure. The CCC, for example, worked on improvements to our National Parks; the WPA built roads, bridges, and dams. But it wasn’t all infrastructure — artistic works were funded as well. Artists were commissioned to decorate public buildings and other structures. Among these were several mural projects. Some of the murals were whimsical or chronicled historical events, and some delivered a clear New Deal theme: hard work will triumph over economic depression — hard work is the ticket to an ideal life.

San Francisco already had experience with mural art. Diego Rivera painted two murals here in 1930-31. His work influenced and inspired local artists who were able to secure funding from the WPA and other depression-era programs. Here are the five most notable examples of depression-era murals in San Francisco.

01) Arnautoff Mural (Z28-8-705)01) Zakheim Mural (Z28-8-701)01) Albro Mural (Z28-8-713)

Coit Tower

Coit Tower is on the National Register of Historic Places largely because of the 27 murals in the tower’s rotunda. The rotunda’s wide hallway encircles the entire floor providing over 3,000 square feet of wall space; the walls are entirely covered with depression-era murals. Completed in 1934, these murals were the first major project funded by the Public Works Art Project. The purpose was to support professional artists and to create high quality public art. Twenty-six of the best Bay Area artists were hired for this project; they worked together on a common theme: Aspects of Life in California.

Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was the lead artist. He was an instructor at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and had worked with Diego Rivera in Mexico and San Francisco. Most of the Coit Tower murals are frescos (water color on wet plaster) and are done in Rivera’s social-realism style: biting social criticism intertwined with scenes from everyday life.

My favorite of the murals is Arnautoff’s “City Life." It’s a 36-foot wide panoramic street scene chock full of details like an auto accident, and a robbery. Another favorite is “Library” by Bernard Zakheim. In the lower right-hand corner, a man reads a newspaper with the headline “Home Foreclosures; Banks Refuse U.S. Home Loan Bonds” and “Oil Magnates Arrested.” These headlines still strike a cord, especially now. Zakheim’s “Library” was among the controversial murals because the man in green in the lower right-hand corner is reaching for a book by Karl Marx.

As you would expect in a deep depression, the 1930s were traumatic and divisive. There were strikes and riots and disagreements about the appropriate role of government. These realities are reflected in the murals and some were highly contentious. In fact, the opening of Coit Tower was delayed for several months because of dissension about their content. One mural was removed entirely. For more detail about the art, artists and controversy, go to this website.

Not all of the murals were contentious though. Maxine Albro’s 42-foot-wide “California” is a beautiful and expansive view of California agriculture.


02) Presidio Chapel (Z28-8-546)

Presidio Chapel

In 1935, Victor Arnautoff created another mural in San Francisco, this time at the Army Chapel in the Presidio. The funding came from the WPA, but was channeled through the State Emergency Relief Administration. The 34-foot fresco was painted on the exterior wall of a covered patio. Fortunately, the area is now enclosed and the mural protected.

The fresco depicts the history of the Presidio in three sections. The left side captures some of the area’s early history as home to the native Ohlone people (photo 4) and as a Spanish garrison. The center section is dominated by a statue-like rendering of Saint Francis of Assisi. The right side has scenes of the U.S. Army’s peacetime activities.

Even without the mural, the Presidio Chapel is worth visiting. With its wooded hillside setting, red-tiled roof, and deeply textured stucco walls, this Spanish Colonial Revival Mission is postcard pretty. It was built in the early 1930s and served as the Army’s interfaith chapel until 1995. The Interfaith Chapel now serves as a community resource and is available for weddings, lectures, and other events.


03) Beach Chalet (Z28-8-571)

Beach Chalet

Completed in 1925, the Beach Chalet was designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk. Originally, the first floor had a lounge and changing rooms. The second floor was — just as it is today — a restaurant with great views of Ocean Beach and the Pacific. With funding from the WPA, the mural, mosaics, and woodcarvings were added in 1936-37.

Created by Lucien Labaudt, the fresco mural is titled “San Francisco Life”; it depicts “four San Francisco tourist locales: the beach, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Marina.” At the height of the Great Depression, few people could actually have indulged in these activities, so these scenes are intended to be inspirational: work hard and enjoy the good life.

Today, the Beach Chalet houses two restaurants: the ocean view Beach Chalet restaurant on the second floor and a brewpub, called the Park Chalet, on the back patio. The mural room serves as a visitor’s center. This website has more information about the murals.

04) Hiler Mural (Z28-8-603)04) Hiler Mural (Z28-8-619)


Aquatic Park Bathhouse (Maritime Museum)

Constructed between 1936 and 1939, San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, with its Art Deco bathhouse, was funded jointly by the City of San Francisco and the WPA. The bathhouse contains works by three recognized artists and were funded by the Federal Arts Project The carved green slate surrounding the entrance and the fanciful tile mosaic on the veranda wall were done by artist Sargent Claude Johnson; the whimsical sculptures are the work of Benny Bufano; the enormous lobby mural is the work of Hilaire Hiler.

Hilaire Hiler’s 5000 square-foot oil-on-canvas mural covers all four walls of the lobby from wainscot to ceiling. Titled “Undersea Life,” this whimsical mural is “Hiler’s vision of the submerged continents of Mu and Atlantis.” The room is like an aquarium with blue-green walls painted with “brilliantly colored fish, mythical sea creatures, and tremendously enlarged microorganisms.”

Use of the bathhouse was embroiled in controversy from the moment it opened. The city leased it to a private citizen who promptly turned it into a casino and private club. As you can imagine, the public was outraged; the lease was revoked, and the bathhouse was closed.

In 1951, the bathhouse was converted into the Maritime Museum. While the museum was a welcome addition to the waterfront, its panels and exhibit cases partially obscured the Hiler mural. 

2012 update -- the mural restoration and building renovation are complete and the Maritime Museum is open again.


05) Rincon Annex Lobby (Z28-8-689)05) Rincon Annex-Panel 24 (Z28-8-670)

Rincon Center

The historic lobby of the former Rincon Annex Post Office contains a 27-panel mural painted by Russian artist Anton Refregier. In 1941, Refregier was chosen, out of 83 artists, for the $26,000 project. It was the largest sum awarded by the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department for the WPA. Work on the mural began in 1941 but was interrupted by the war and not completed until 1948.

The mural is casein tempura on white gesso over plaster and covers 400 feet of wall space in the L-shaped lobby. The 27 panels chronicle Northern California history beginning with Native Americans and ending with a three-section panel called “War and Peace.”

A few of the panels reflect history’s darker side. There is an assault on Chinese railroad laborers, a civil war riot, vigilantes, and a general strike. These panels infuriated conservatives who viewed the work as subversive. “Led in part by a young and ambitious Richard Nixon,” they put the project on trial “before a congressional subcommittee.” “San Franciscans, including curators from all the major museums in the city defended the mural”; fortunately they won.

Sadly, much of the art created during the Great Depression was destroyed or painted over. Part of this was a lack of appreciation for the work; part of it was that some works were controversial. From the artists’ point of view, these works were simply illuminating the events that contributed to the depression. From the detractors’ point of view they represented “pinko commie” infiltration. Or, as our son Jim would say, “a communist plot.”


Giving credit where credit is due:

Brochure: The Story of Coit Tower - By the Friends of Recreation and Parks

Website: New Deal Art During the Great Depression

Website: History of the New Deal Art Projects


© Virginia E. Vail 2012