Group Fights for Coit Tower's Decaying Murals

A proposition on San Francisco's June ballot hopes to funnel more revenue from Coit Tower back into the landmark and its decaying murals.

A view from San Francisco's Lombard street looking towards Coit Tower on Jan 17, 2009.
Three of the muralists' descendants, including Jayne Oldfield Blatchly (center) and Ruth Gottstein (right), take part in a Proposition B rally at Coit Tower in San Francisco. The proposition on the ci

On a recent day inside the echoing halls of San Francisco’s famous Coit Tower, tourists from across the world filed past the 1930s murals lining the walls. As they studied the colorful frescoes depicting Bay Area scenes of the Great Depression, no one paid much attention to 90-year-old Ruth Gottstein standing in front of a library scene. Little did they know they were passing a living character of the murals.

The library scene was painted by Gottstein’s father, muralist Bernard Zakheim. The little girl in the painting, was Gottstein herself.

"I’m portrayed in my father’s mural," Gottstein said matter-of-factly. "I’m the little girl on the left in the mini blouse."

There are 27 murals in Coit Tower, painted as part of Roosevelt’s Federal Works Progress Administration. Gottstein remembers coming to Coit Tower as a 12-year-old to watch the artists work.

"I remember the smell of the wet plaster and the scaffolds where the artists were working," Gottstein said.

But when Gottstein walks past the famous murals today she sees something beyond the vivid images.She sees the wear and tear.

"All of these murals are so damaged, it’s unbelievable," she said.

The murals have fallen on hard times – maybe not as dire as the scenes they depict but bad enough that some are concerned.

"The place is not in good shape," said Jon Golinger of the Protect Coit Tower Committee. "Lead paint is peeling from the ceiling. The murals are in decay --  there’s no real information about what you’re looking at."

Golinger and a group of activists have created Prop B which will appear on the June ballot. The Proposition would create city policy urging San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation Department to funnel more of the revenue from Coit Tower, back into the landmark and its murals.

"Currently the way they’ve run this place, a fraction of that money, about seven percent, gets spent back on Coit Tower," said Golinger.

The non-binding proposition would also urge the city to limit private parties at the tower. The sentiment is in response to the department's search for a new concessionaire to run the tower: the city offered to allow the chosen candidate to stage a certain amount of private events inside.

The San Francisco Parks Alliance is among the groups who oppose Prop B. Director Matt O’Grady said it sets a bad precedent that parks should have to pay for themselves. He said revenue from Coit Tower goes to support other city parks, including some in underserved neighborhoods. Coit Tower is one of the only city parks that pays for itself.

San Francisco's Parks and Recreation Department recently pledged $250 thousand dollars to help the city’s Arts Commission restore the murals, with one percent of the Coit Tower’s ongoing revenue going back to the site.

But to Jayne Oldfield Blatchly, whose father Otis Oldfield painted the tower’s San Francisco Bay scene, the murals deserve more.

"It’s really sort of a sad waste that they were so done in such pride and care at the time," said Blatchly, standing in front of her father’s painting. "Now they are just absolutely treated as non-existent."

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