Coit Tower murals fading away

Thousands of visitors trudge by the murals that ring the inside of Coit Tower each year as they head to the elevator to go to the top of the historical structure.

If they stopped to look closely at the frescos, however, they might see scratches in the paint or the grime that has built up over the years.

“There are no barriers in front of them and people can touch them. … If they were hanging in a museum somewhere, they wouldn’t need to be preserved,” said Senior Registrar Allison Cummings of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

It has been 15 years since the 27 murals from 1934 were touched up, and city agencies are looking for the money to do the needed work on the historical paintings.

The work by the 26 artists under the theme “Aspects of California Life” is widely considered to be a precursor to the Works Progress Administration era that created about 8 million jobs for public projects through federal money.

An icon of the New Deal, the murals were inspired by famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, husband of renowned painter Frida Kahlo, and the true frescos are “priceless in nature,” Cummings said.

The story of the paintings includes left-wing imagery such as the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” being censored, and delays in the tower’s opening for months after an infamous labor strike over low wages that resulted in riots and the death of two strikers at the hands of police.

The left half of “City Life” includes a traffic accident, armed robbery and leftist newspapers and was painted by Victor Mikhail Arnautoff, who had worked as an assistant to Rivera. The piece was one of the most controversial murals at the time.

The Recreation and Park Department owns Coit Tower, which is perched on Telegraph Hill and overlooks the Bay and nearby North Beach. The agency is working with the Arts Commission to find funds for the restoration work. The agency said it was too early in the process to put a price tag on the restoration.

“We want to make sure that the murals are around for a long time,” Arts Commission spokeswoman Kate Patterson said. “This is a multiyear process, and we’re just kind of at the beginning.”

Murals on the walls of the Golden Gate Park Visitor’s Center, which is below the Beach Chalet restaurant, are from the same time period. About five years ago, the paintings there underwent a $2 million conservation project when the whole building was renovated.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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