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SFUSD schools, murals destined for landmark status

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A controversial mural inside George Washington High School has contributed to the school’s eligibility as a historic landmark. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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A 1,600-square-foot mural depicting scenes from the life of George Washington has existed on a wall inside George Washington High School for some eight decades.

For at least half that time, the mural — and, more recently, the school’s name — have stirred controversy.

“The huge mural of George Washington’s life includes depictions of African Americans that students in the ’60s found offensive — and we would agree,” said Donna Graves, a historian and cultural planner. “And there’s a section that’s about westward expansion and it shows all these white guys … walking over a body of a Native American.”

In the early 1970s, that mural triggered a series of “response murals” inside the school depicting the achievements of black, Asian, Latino and Native Americans by Dewey Crumpler, now a prominent Bay Area artist.

Last year, Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney suggested a name change for the high school that would not honor a “slave owner,” sparking a national debate.

Whether valued or criticized, the Washington mural and three more of the school’s “New Era”
murals have contributed to the high school’s eligibility as a historic resource.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission backed efforts to designate three San Francisco school buildings as city landmarks, deeming them particularly significant for their historic, social and artistic attributes.

Along with George Washington High School in the Outer Richmond, the Inner Richmond’s Theodore Roosevelt Middle School and the site of the former Sunshine School at 2728 Bryant St., built specifically to serve disabled children, are on track to become city-recognized landmarks.

All three schools were built in the 1930s and, in one way or another, carry memories of the New Deal era — a period that saw the launch of federal programs under President Franklin Roosevelt meant to support working class communities during the Great Depression.

Graves, along with architectural historian Christopher Verplanck, crafted an extensive report that evaluates the school buildings’ historic, architectural, social and artistic attributes.

The nominations are sponsored by San Francisco Heritage, a nonprofit working to preserve The City’s architectural and cultural identity, in an effort “to document and protect the incredible architectural and artistic legacy of New Deal-era projects in San Francisco,” according to SF Heritage President Mike Buhler.

George Washington High was largely built on Public Works administration funds — the agency was created in response to the Great Depression — while its murals were sponsored by the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program to fund arts in the U.S.

Grave’s report identified Theodore Roosevelt Middle School as significant for boasting The City’s “only Dutch and German expressionist style building,” designed by renowned local architect Timothy Pflueger. The school also houses three New Deal era murals.

The facility at 2728 Bryant St. that was once home to the Sunshine School is significant for “its association with events as the first public school specifically designed for children with disabilities built west of the Rockies and for its association with the Public Works Administration,” the report notes. The building now houses the Hilltop Pregnant Minors Program.

“It’s really notable as a place [for] reflecting changes in society — kids who had disabilities, whether it was physical limitations or chronic illnesses, were no longer to be kept at home or in an institution,” Graves said. “The school district had a responsibility to create a place to educate these kids.”

The San Francisco Unified School District has some of the “oldest school buildings west of the Mississippi,” district spokesperson Gentle Blythe said.

But the landmark distinction is rather rare. San Francisco’s current historic landmarks list includes several hundred sites and facilities, but only two SFUSD schools — Mission High and Balboa High.

Historic Preservation Commissioner Ellen Johnk pointed out the designation would not make the school district eligible for additional funding or maintenance.

However, the landmark designation could offer some protections for the buildings by defining features of the schools that “are very important to the building [and] when there is a needed alteration, we can take that into account,” said Shannon Ferguson, a preservation planner.

The Historic Preservation Commission must approve the designations at a second hearing before recommending the nominations to the Board of Supervisors.

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