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Art (and History) on Trial: Historic Murals of Rincon Center

by Rob Spoor

On the first day of May 1953, the House Committee on Public Works launched debate on a motion to destroy of one of the largest and most expensive works of art ever commissioned by the federal government. According to Rep. Hubert Scudder (R-Sebastopol), murals by the artist Anton Refregier in the lobby of Rincon Annex, the main downtown post office in San Francisco, slandered California pioneers and pushed Communist propaganda upon unwitting postal customers.

Nearly 30 years later, plans were announced to raze the outdated post office and replace it with a huge mixed-use development called Rincon Center, stretching from Mission Street to Howard Street. Faced with the loss of the Refregier murals, local citizens howled. Their outcry led the developer to save the murals and incorporate them into the new project.

How could the same murals provoke such different reactions? The initial frenzy had to do with both Cold War politics and an exaggerated reverence for the Yankee pioneers who settled California. To venerate the latter, many artworks were commissioned or considered over the years, including a Daniel Burnham monument atop Telegraph Hill (proposed in 1905), a Tower of the Pioneers at Land's End (proposed in 1915), Pioneer Monument (built 1894, Civic Center), Pioneer Park (top of Telegraph Hill, given to the city in 1876), and two Native Sons monuments (downtown and Golden Gate Park). The excesses of the era from the Gold Rush through the Gilded Age were largely overlooked in favor of the heroism, generosity, and endurance of the early settlers. As that era faded further into the past, along with its most ardent boosters, a more realistic and, perhaps, cynical view developed. Anton Refregier was among many artists who adopted the more realistic view of California's distinctive history.

To those in an America still traumatized by decades of depression, labor unrest, the Second World War, and the spread of Communism, the post office murals represented nothing less than an attack on the American Dream. The Rincon murals were hardly alone. In many cases, public art commissioned during the Roosevelt years by the Work Projects Administration attracted increasingly strident attacks from later reaction-aries. They decried "left-wing art" and felt that taxpayers should not be confronted or subverted by decadent radicals. It didn't help that Refregier's distinctive style fell into the general category of "Modern Art," which was viewed as incom-prehensible at best, reprehensible at worst. It certainly didn't help matters when George Biddle (a painter and Harvard classmate of FDR who proposed the WPA Federal Art Project in 1933 to provide relief for American artists) once remarked, "The most serious threat to the success ofÖ the Project is the high emotional level and the low mental caliber of our Congressmen."

Was it merely a matter of style? Actually, no–a number of minor skirmishes developed while Refregier was still painting. After he resumed work in 1946, following a hiatus during the war, the Catholic Church protested the enormous belly of a friar depicted in a Mission Dolores mural while the Indians appeared gaunt. Refregier performed artistic liposuction. The VFW and even some labor organizations were incensed that labor organizer and alleged Communist Harry Bridges appeared to be rallying workers, including one with a VFW insignia on his hat, in the mural "Maritime and General Strike," and pointed out several inaccuracies in the three historical events depicted. The longshore workers union was especially sensitive to the association with 1930s-era Communism, from which they'd distanced themselves by the late 1940s. Refregier painted out the VFW symbol.

The "Torchlight Procession" mural was originally titled "Union Wins 8 Hour Day." However, the suggestion of a union triumph was too controversial for Refregier's overseers in Washington. He retitled it "Importation of Coolie Labor," but the local Chamber of Commerce and the employers' association protested. As "Torchlight Procession," all references to Chinese laborers and union victories were eliminated.

In the "Transcontinental Railroad" mural, a majority of the workers appear to be Chinese, suggesting that they were largely responsible for building the railroad. Anyone even slightly familiar with California history knew that this was completely accurate. But as more detractors from outside the Bay Area lined up to criticize the murals, it was fuel for controversy. In the mural "Sand Lot Riots," a reference to Irish agitator Dennis Kearney and his "Sand-Lotters," Kearney's cohorts are shown assaulting Chinese men. It was felt that this not only highlighted an unpleasant episode in San Francisco history, but inflamed racism. Refregier eliminated the Irish connection by renaming it simply "Beating the Chinese."

"Cultural Life in San Francisco" originally showed books by controversial authors; they were painted out. Even Lotta Crabtree's pink outfit was considered too risquÈ for 1950s San Francisco (but remained unaltered). The Mexican ambassador protested the Mexican flag lying on the ground in "California Becomes a Republic." The flag was "whitewashed" by the painter, although close examination reveals the original flag's red and green stripes peeking through the attempted cover-up.

Throughout 1947-1948, Refregier alternately pushed ahead with new murals while altering the controversial ones. During this time, he reported that gangs of hoodlums began to mill about his scaffolding, and he no longer worked after sunset in fear of his safety.

Even as the small controversies were addressed, critics began to see a larger and more insidious plot on the part of Refregier. The plot? Excessive use of RED PAINT! Cited as the prime example was the "Four Freedoms" panel: a boy is reading a RED BOOK! The father is wearing a RED TIE! The four freedoms are displayed in RED PAINT! Propaganda! Subversion! Infiltration! Critics saw a general left-wing slant, the promotion of class warfare, and "communistic propaganda," which led to the 1953 debate on Capitol Hill.

Allied with Rep. Scudder, we find Rep. Richard Nixon (R-CA), Rep. Donald L. Jackson (R-CA), the American Legion of California, the Hearst newspapers, and an assortment of individuals and organizations presenting testimony in person or in writing. The attack on the murals ran from morning until early afternoon.

Late in the afternoon, Rep. John Shelley (D-SF) began the rebuttal. Following Shelley, Rep. William Mailliard (R-SF) and a procession of witnesses, including the directors of all three major San Francisco art museums, spoke in favor of artistic freedom, verified the general historical accuracy of the murals, and opposed their destruction. The testimony of Rep. Mailliard was particularly helpful. As a scion of an old San Francisco family and representative of the city's elite, he lent a decidedly patrician air to the proceedings, and at the same time deflated the charges of class conflict. As retorts and rebuttals flew, Reps. Scudder and Jackson admitted that they had never actually seen the murals! They had relied on feedback from others as the basis of their charges.

Five weeks after the hearing, the California Senate urged Congress to destroy the murals. By that time, though, the effort against the murals began to lose steam. The Examiner, the local Hearst paper, made a relatively subdued call for their destruction, but only "if loyal Americans found them subversive."

It never happened. Rep. Scudder's motion died with no further action. The murals were safe.

Postscript: Thanks to the efforts of concerned San Franciscans beginning in 1979, the Historic Murals of Rincon Center, along with the entire "Art Deco Moderne" post office lobby, were cleaned and restored as the entryway to the new retail, commercial, and residential complex.

The National New Deal Preservation Association is urging state governments to celebrate WPA art in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the New Deal in 2008. Following in the footsteps of San Francisco, other locales are recognizing New Deal art as cultural artifacts. In U.S. post offices alone, approximately 1,400 murals were painted, but nearly 200 are missing–vanished without a trace–possibly during renovations that took place before the importance and significance of the art was appreciated. Efforts are underway to either find the murals or learn their fate.

Join guide Rob Spoor for walking tours of the murals on May 8th and 18th beginning at 11 am. Plans are underway to include the 45-minute murals tour on the year-round schedule. Guides and a coordinator are being sought. Interested? Email the City Guides office, sfcityguides.org.

Sources: On the Edge of America–California Modernist Art 1900-1950, ed. Paul J. Karlstrom Painting on the Left, Anthony W. Lee San Francisco: Mission to Metropolis, Oscar Lewis National Trust Guide–San Francisco, Peter Booth Wiley Hunt for Lost Murals of the New Deal, Cain Burdeau, Associated Press

Mural photos courtesy of Rob Spoor

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Too much 'shock and awe?' Some said 'Yes!'

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Whole lotta Lotta? Yes, for some people.

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