Coit Tower is a portal into the lives of so many colorful San Franciscans. That starts, of course, with the wondrous life of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, whose generous gift to The City created what became one of San Francisco’s defining features. But the lives Coit Tower has touched range widely, from the people who first battled, then collaborated, to build the iconic tower, the all-star group of artists unexpectedly hired to fill its walls with reflections of the Depression-era world around them, the millions of people who have visited Coit Tower in the 82 years since it first opened, and the many who fight to protect and preserve Coit Tower and its murals today.
One of those remarkable people is artist Edith Hamlin. Hamlin was born in Oakland in 1902 and introduced to art by her father, who took her on sketching trips. She attended the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and worked in San Diego throughout the 1920s. In 1929, Hamlin moved to New York and took several trips between there and the Pacific coast, spending time in New Mexico and Arizona, which influenced much of her subsequent work. She returned to San Francisco in 1933 and married Albert Barrows, an artist who assisted Diego Rivera on his big mural project at the School of Fine Arts, which is still there today.
In December of 1933, soon after the construction of Coit Tower was completed, Hamlin was one of the four women and 21 men who were selected by the New Deal Public Works of Art Project to paint 3,691 square feet of mural on the interior walls of Coit Tower. Hamlin was given the subject of recreation and outdoor activities and handed a quirky divided section of wall space that she made the most of with her fresco mural “Hunting in California.”
In her book, “Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art,” Masha Zakheim describes Hamlin’s mural this way: “On each side of the elevator door on the second floor, two hunters take aim at a graceful curve of iridescent mallard ducks overhead, while three deer inhabit a forest whose large-leafed branches unify this elegant scene by their shapes and the foliage tones of greens, browns, and pale yellows — a sylvan contrast to the earnest hunters on the marsh.”
In 1936, Hamlin received a Works Progress Administration commission to paint a set of three oil on canvas murals to decorate the walls inside Mission High School. Two of Hamlin’s Mission High murals, located on the east and south walls of the first floor library (now the Counseling Office), depicted the cultural and educational activities at early Mission Dolores that took place just one block from the school. A third mural Hamlin painted on the wall of the east stairwell of the Main Building depicted a modern city scene.
In 1973, Hamlin was invited back to Mission High to clean her murals and prepare them for protective storage while the school underwent an earthquake retrofit. After the building was fixed, the first two murals were returned to their original locations inside Mission High, where they remain in great shape today. However, the third Edith Hamlin Mission High mural was mysteriously never returned from storage and has not been found to this day. If you have any information about the missing Mission High mural, please contact the Mission High School museum staff at (415) 241-6240.
After divorcing Barrows, Hamlin married the prominent western painter Maynard Dixon, with whom she worked and lived in Tucson, Ariz., and Mount Carmel, Utah, until Dixon’s death in 1946. She then returned to San Francisco and continued to paint and restore some of her and Dixon’s earlier murals. Today, Edith Hamlin’s art lives on in private homes, post offices in Tracy and Martinez, in the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, D.C., and, of course, on the walls of Coit Tower, where it awaits you on your next visit.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.