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San Francisco Mural Month of May

by Gail MacGowan

May is Mural Awareness Month in San Francisco! This inspires GuideLines to explore historic photos of some of the famous murals found along the routes of City Guides tours. On the route of the City Guides Nob Hill tour, Grace Cathedral boasts murals by John DeRosen and Antonio Sotomayor. In the photo shown above from September 1949, John DeRosen is working on the mural of St. Francis of Assisi found in the Cathedral’s south aisle.

Neighboring murals show the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945; the 1906 burning of Grace Church; and Fra Junipero Serra at Monterey in 1770. Murals in the north aisle include depictions of Francis Drake holding the first English-language service in North America in 1579 and the founding of Grace Chapel in Gold Rush San Francisco in 1849.

Probably less well known are the murals by Bernard Zakheim in UCSF’s Toland Hall, which Lorri Ungaretti includes in her City Guides tour of the Inner Sunset. Zakheim, a San Francisco artist who had immigrated from Poland, had been instrumental in organizing the Coit Tower mural project. His Toland Hall murals, painted from 1937-39, show the history of medicine. Controversial from their unveiling because they depict both the good and the bad done in the name of medicine, the murals were wallpapered and painted over in the late 1940s after a neurosurgeon claimed that when he lectured in the hall the murals distracted students’ attention. The photo shown below is from 1962, when the murals were brought back to light after 12 years under wallpaper. They had been 40-50% destroyed, but using the original sketches, Zakheim’s son was able to restore them. Long-range plans call for Toland Hall to be demolished, but UC plans to remove the Zakheim murals and reuse them in a new building.

For many of us, the first San Francisco murals that come to mind are probably those in Coit Tower. Commissioned by the U.S. government as a Public Works of Art project to help artists survive the Great Depression, the frescoes showcase the work of some 25 artists and numerous assistants, several of whom had been students of famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Shown here is a 1934 photograph of work on Victor Arnautoff’s mural “City Life.” Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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