by Thomas K. Pendergast
Two Richmond District schools are being considered for “landmark status” by the SF
Planning Department and the SF Board of Supervisors (BOS), after receiving
recommendations from the Historic Preservation Commission.
Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, located at Arguello and Geary boulevards, and
George Washington High School, located at Geary and 32nd Avenue, will both be going
before the supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee in February because
they have been nominated for official landmark status. After the hearing, the proposals
are expected to go before the full board for final approval.
According to Gina Simi of the SF Planning Department, the nominations are part of a
larger project documenting cultural resources associated with the New Deal era of San
Francisco history. Both schools were selected for this project based on their architecture
Roosevelt was built in 1929-30 and has three murals, while Washington has four murals
and an outdoor frieze, all of which were sponsored by the Federal Art Project during the
economic Depression of the 1930s.
Since the schools are both part of the SF Unified School District (SFUSD), any alterations
of the structures would fall under the supervision of the state of California, not the City,
Simi said. They could fall under the California Historical Building Code (CHBC), which
could then be used to guide any future alterations if the schools are designated as
landmarks. It is hoped that landmark designation reports can serve as a planning tool
when alterations are being considered. Without landmark status, there is no special
protection for the sites.
“These are incredible buildings. They really demonstrate this great period in American
architecture by a master architect, Timothy Pflueger,” said Andrew Wolfram, president
of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. “Both of them have this amazing
integration of architecture and art … It’s very impressive.” Wolfram said the architecture
of Theodore Roosevelt Middle School is what makes the place special.
“There’s an incredible theater, the auditorium, which is an Art Deco auditorium,
it’s a very beautiful space. The layout is pretty simple inside, very functional,
full of daylight. The gymnasium is really bright and sunny, so it’s a really nicely
designed building,” Wolfram said.
“But, it’s especially notable for the outside. Roosevelt is a really interesting architectural
style; it’s kind of a German Expressionist style, pretty uncommon in the United States,
and so it’s a really thoughtful, innovative use of architecture. It has great detailing and a
lot of craftsmanship, which is unusual and sets it apart. The outside has that really
German Expressionist architecture is a style of architecture that started in the
early 20th century and became a prominent early Modernist style in the 1920s
and 1930s. The style was closely linked with other expressionist artistic movements,
including those in film, dance, theater and the visual arts, and was adopted by the avant
garde Bauhaus school of art and design.
Roosevelt is also significant for its three well-preserved murals, including a pair in the
main lobby, created by Horatio Nelson Poole, and one above the second floor
entrance to the auditorium, by George Wilson Walker.
George Washington High School is a New Deal-era school designed in the Streamline
Moderne style and built under the auspices of the federal Public Works Administration
(PWA). Timothy Pflueger was also its primary architect.
“One thing that’s really impressive about George Washington is how it works with the
siting of the school, the way the school is an L shape and has the lower field and amazing
views of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a really refined concept of how it fit into that
particular site,” Wolfram said.
The school is especially significant for its Diego Rivera-influenced murals by
Victor Arnautoff, Lucien Labaudt, Ralph Stackpole, Gordon Langdon and Nelson
Poole, and for a massive frieze by sculptor Sargent Johnson and bas-relief portraits
by Robert Howard.
The main lobby, which has terrazzo flooring and Art Deco light fixtures, contains
a bronze statue of George Washington and Arnautoff ’s “Life of George Washington,”
one of the best-known New Deal murals in San Francisco.
The administrative office suite and the adjoining corridor contains Memorial Clock and
other class gifts, display cases and the “response” murals by Dewey Crumpler.
Crumpler’s “response” murals were painted in 1974 in reaction to earlier student
protests against Victor Arnautoff’s “Life of George Washington.” In 1967-68,
African-Americans students found the depictions of enslaved African Americans
shucking corn, picking cotton and loading barges as servile and humiliating.
Crumpler’s mural series consists of three Masonite panels painted with acrylics.
The formal title of the work is “Multi-Ethnic Heritage: Black, Asian,
Native/Latin American,” and represents the many ethnicities of the school’s student
body. Installed near Arnautoff’s mural at the west end of the hall leading from
the academic building to the auditorium, the three murals depict individuals such
as César Chávez, Emiliano Zapata, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ho Chi Minh and
Ruth Asawa, as well as mythical figures and others who represent everyday African
Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.