A handful of animals at the San Francisco Zoo are in need of dire help.
In recent decades, llamas, sheep and other animals have faded, literally, from the public eye due to harsh weather conditions triggered by the nearby Pacific Ocean.
The animals aren’t among the zoo’s living creatures. Rather, they are displayed on murals adorning the interior of the Mothers Building at the zoo, a nearly century-old structure that must undergo a $5 million restoration before city officials can reopen the site to visitors.
Around a decade after the Mothers Building opened in 1925, the murals were splashed on the walls as part of the WPA Federal Art Project.
The 1,200 square feet comprised by the four murals on the north, south, east and west walls tell the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, from building the ark to loading animals onboard to disembarking them.
But it’s the animals on the west wall facing the ocean that have most deteriorated over the years. It’s estimated that up to 50 percent of the paint on the west wall is compromised to such an extent that it likely cannot be saved.
The murals were painted using egg tempera, an organic method that uses an egg-base in the binder. But because the paint was slapped directly onto the plaster, moisture that infiltrated over the years caused the paint to fade.
“What essentially has happened is … moisture comes through the wall and affected the paint layer,” explained Allison Cummings, senior registrar of the Civic Art Collection and Public Art for the San Francisco Arts Commission.
That’s not to say the murals are by any means destroyed or hold any less significant value.
Painted by Helen Forbes and Dorothy Pucinelli between 1933 and 1938, the murals effectively increased the prevalence of the Mothers Building as a symbol for feminism. Both artists were women, a rare feat at the time, and the building itself was originally intended for mothers and young children to rest while visiting what used to be Fleishhacker Pool, which at the time was the biggest saltwater pool in the world.
The building later served as a bookstore for the zoo before it closed in 2002. The Mothers Building remains closed to the public today.
Retired city employee Richard Rothman, who sits on the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee and gives tours at Coit Tower where iconic murals there underwent a $500,000 restoration project in recent years, has made it a personal passion project to ensure the Mothers Building receives the same treatment as other historic sites in The City.
“It’s important to keep it on people’s radar,” Rothman said on a recent Thursday while touring the Mothers Building, which was most recently cleaned by volunteers in 2010.
Even with the musty smell, layers of dust and dirty windows inside after years of disuse, the building still emanates an air of history and significance.
In 2014, the Recreation and Park Department received a $102,484 grant to conduct a building conditions assessment and seismic evaluation, which was completed earlier this year by Architectural Resources Group.
The study is serving as a road map for city officials to reopen the building as a history museum one day, as well as an ambitious plan for the zoo to build a two-story insectarium next to the Mothers Building that would eventually reactivate the Sloat Boulevard entrance to the zoo by making it accessible.
“We would love to cough up $5 million, but our number one priority is safety, animal wellness and welfare,” said Joe Fitting, the zoo’s deputy director. “It has to be a partnership. There’s no way that we can do this [on our own].”
In addition to looking for funding, Rothman is hoping to find additional photos of faded murals that can be used when the murals are restored.
ARG’s report recommended that restoration of the murals happen within the next decade. But there’s more work to be done in that time frame: The west wall needs to be waterproofed, and seismic as well as mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems upgrades are needed too.
The murals have also received “significant conservation treatments” over the decades, most recently in 1990, said Cummings, with the Arts Commission. Efforts to minimize the infiltration of moisture have taken place too.
Rothman, however, is ready for the building to reopen and — perhaps most significantly — for the murals to receive treatment that allows them to look new again.
“It’s just beautiful artwork, and this needs to be open and shown to the public,” he said.