In the attic of a former Army barrack in San Francisco’s Presidio, is a set of murals Ian Gerber had heard about his whole life. As he stepped into the room for the first time last week and came face to face with the colorful scenes of military life he could feel the goosebumps. His late father Perren Gerber was one of the artists who painted them more than 60 years ago.
“I’ve seen photos of these and this is,” Gerber said pausing under a wave of emotion, “Wow.”
The murals were painted by Perren Gerber and several soldiers stationed at the Presidio in 1956 and 1957 as part of training to become map makers. But Ian Gerber said the work was an escape for his father who wasn’t keen on military life.
“I think it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, he wanted to do other things,” Gerber said. “But he proudly served.”
The murals are normally off-limits to the public but the Presidio offered to a special tour to Gerber who lives in Colorado. The scenes depict every day life in the military and the Presidio. In one of the elder Gerber’s scenes soldiers conduct what’s labeled a “gas chamber exercise.”
“Some of the humor in it — the way these gas masks are on and they’re bumping into each other,” Gerber said of the scene. “And as soon as I saw those I was like those are my dad’s.”
Gerber recognized an image of his mother in a soldier’s locker. Nearby a soldier stares down the barrel of his rifle. The scenes came as a humorous contrast to paintings by other soldier artists in the room - who depicted scenes of wounded men in combat or soldiers playing a game of baseball.
Gerber’s father died in 2010 after a lifelong career in art. His son said his father’s main job was designing animated Christmas displays for store windows. Art was always a central theme.
“If he couldn’t be drawing, painting,” Gerber said, “he wasn’t happy.”
Across from the long room which featured the wrap of colorful murals, sat a smaller room of austere white walls featuring caricatures all drawn by Gerber. They included scenes of restaurants, a couple dancing and a self-portrait of Perren himself at his drawing table.
“This is exactly my dad’s studio,” Gerber marveled at the image. “This is how he would sit, this is how his pens and everything would sit.”
He said his father had dreamed of doing a comic series of soldier life but couldn’t find a publisher. At one point Playboy magazine considered taking him on as an artist.
“The same style he was doing in 1956 he was doing in 2006,” Ian Gerber said.
Despite remodeling at many of the buildings across the Presidio, the set of murals somehow survived the decades fully in tact. Murals in some other Presidio buildings didn’t survive changing tastes and were painted over.
“Our guess is that the army personnel who ran it felt that the murals had value and had integrity and wanted to keep them visible,” said Rob Thomson, a Federal Preservation Officer with the Presidio Trust, the federal agency responsible for preserving the former Army base.
For now the murals remain off-limits to the public, tucked away in the attic space, sparsely visited. But park preservationists said access could change when the building is rehabilitated sometime in the future.
“We will take these murals into consideration and ideally make them accessible to the public,” Thomson said. “They’re very fragile — we need to develop a conservation program to make sure they stick around.”
Ian Gerber snapped photo after photo of his father’s work — trying to absorb as many of the images as he could in the hour-long visit. He posed for his own photo in front of the murals, his eyes beaming.
“This is an opportunity,” he said, “I never would’ve thought I’d get.”