Ruth Gottstein, 91, stood in front of a bright mural in Coit Tower’s lobby, beaming in front of the newly restored painting of a 12-year old girl in a blue dress.
In the 1930s, Gottstein's father Bernard Zakheim was among a team of artists hired to fill the lobby with murals depicting life in California as part of the government’s Works Progress Administration. The girl in the painting was Gottstein herself.
“I saw the artists at work, smelled the wet plaster,” Gottstein said recalling her visits to watch the artists painting the tower’s historic murals in the 1930s.
On Wednesday, Gottstein turned out as the city reopened Coit Tower following an eight month, $1.7 million restoration of the tower and its murals.
“It’s so subtle,” Gottstein said while admiring the restored murals. “Yet having seen rain stains and marks left by people, it’s been beautifully done.”
The nearly 80-year-old tower had deteriorated with the elements - leaky roofs had damaged the murals and chewed away at the lobby.
“If you were in Coit Tower two years ago,” said Jon Gollinger, who helped lead a neighborhood campaign to get the tower restored, “you’d see lead paint peeling from the ceiling, water seeping through both the walls and into the art.”
Neighborhood groups even went as far as passing a ballot measure calling for the city to prioritize the tower’s renovation. City leaders responded to the pressure by coughing up the funds for a full renovation.
“This is one of San Francisco’s most special icons,” said Phil Ginsburg, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the tower. “It means so much to the neighborhood, it means so much to the city.”
A team of restoration artists spent six weeks painstakingly touching up the murals, filling in the cracks and tweaking the aging plaster in the ancient fresco art tradition. Even the ceiling got a fresh coat of paint.
“The ceiling is as the building was in the 1930s when it opened,” said Allison Cummings, who oversaw the mural restoration for the San Francisco Arts Commission. “The stucco that surrounds the murals has been treated for the first time.”
Beyond the murals, the city hired a new operator to run the building and its gift shop, which was also the recipient of a full makeover. On Tuesday, the shop was selling Goorin Brother’s hats and books from North Beach’s legendary City Lights Bookstore.
Even the building’s original elevator, which carries visitors on a one-minute, six-second ride to the top of the tower, seemed to be the beneficiary of a new coat of paint and some polish. The top deck of the tower opened to sweeping 360 degree views of the city and bay.
The tower originally opened in 1933 and was paid for by Lillie Coit, the eccentric San Francisco heiress who had a soft spot for the city’s volunteer fire department. Upon her death, she left behind funds to build a monument to the city’s fire department.
The tall, cylinder-shaped tower, which resembles a fire hose, has graced the city’s views for nearly 80 years. As visitors returned to the sparkling eclectic edifice on Wednesday, somewhere Lillie Coit probably donned her fire helmet, and smiled.