Controversial Murals Derail Schools’ Landmark Status

By Thomas K. Pendergast      

An effort to give landmark status to two Richmond District schools is languishing in limbo after the nomination of both schools by the City’s Historic Preservation Commission was rejected by the San Francisco Board of Education. 

Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, located at Arguello and Geary boulevards, and George Washington High School, located at Geary and 32nd Avenue, were both nominated for official landmark status in January of 2018. 

Gina Simi of the SF Planning Department said 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 and art. 

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 Works Progress Administration during the economic Depression of the 1930s. 

The problem, however, is the murals at Washington, because they depict George Washington’s life, which includes images of African-Americans as slaves, and another mural depicting westward expansion showing white men walking over the body of a Native American.

In the early 1970s, these murals triggered another series of murals in response, depicting the achievements of black, Asian, Latino and Native Americans by the artist Dewey Crumpler.

There is also concern that placing landmark status on either school will hamper or limit their ability to make substantial construction changes  because of restrictions that come with the status.  

This came to the attention of the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the SF Board of Supervisors at its Feb. 11, meeting when the status of Roosevelt came before the committee, after having been separated from Washington for consideration.

At that meeting, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin said his understanding of the rejection of both schools, along with a third, formerly Hilltop High School (a.k.a., the Sunshine School), for potential designation as local landmarks, were all tied to the murals at Washington. 

“All three of them got conflated with the controversy at Washington,” Peskin said. “The ultimate resolution to recommend against all three landmark designations was really directed at one, which is not before this panel, and I have no intention as chair to bring before the Land Use (and Transportation) Committee of the Board of Supervisors.”

In a letter from March 21, 2018 to a preservation planner with the Planning Department from Myong Leigh, the SF Unified School District (SFUSD) deputy superintendent of policy and operations, opposition to the landmark status designation for Washington was made clear. 

“As you heard at the Board of Education meeting on March 6, the Board of Education is opposed to the nominations based on several factors,” Leigh wrote. “First and foremost, the commissioners are very concerned about depictions in the Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School that many members of our community view as racially insensitive. In general, commissioners are also concerned that conferring landmark status could lead to other currently unforeseen and potentially unwelcome complications regarding SFUSD’s potential plans for modernization, structural upgrades and future uses of the buildings.” 

The district’s new chief facilities officer, Dawn Kamalanathan, agreed that there was “considerable concern” over the murals at Washington, but also that there is concern about the potential cost impacts to future renovations at these sites if the proposed landmark status should go forward.

“The board was, in my understanding, unequivocal on its opposition to the motion and we do have a new board now, and that we’re just looking for an opportunity to re-engage them and at least see if they would like to understand the topic in more depth and if they have any feedback that they’d like to share. It’s really as simple as that,” Kamalanathan said.

At the Board of Education meeting on March 6, 2018, Leigh explained that the proposed landmark designation would not be binding on the district, and shouldn’t prevent the board or the district from making alterations “in a controlling legal fashion.”

Desiree Smith, a preservation planner with the Planning Department, gave a more detailed explanation at the school board meeting.

“City-designated landmarks are listed under Article 10 of the San Francisco Planning Code,” Smith said. “Once a property is designated at the local level, any building permit triggers a specialized permit review process. However, properties owned by the San Francisco Unified School District are considered state land, and therefore they are exempt from the San Francisco Planning Code. 

“As a result, landmark designation will not change how these properties are maintained or upgraded by the school district. Local designation of public schools is purely honorific. The inclusion of the murals in the landmark designation report does not affect the outcome of whether the murals remain or are removed,” Smith said. 

She noted that the murals are under the jurisdiction of the California Art Preservation Act, a state law regulating the potential physical alteration or destruction of fine art, so landmark designation would not affect compliance with the law. 

Robert W. Cherny, a professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, who wrote a biography about the controversial mural’s artist, Victor Arnautoff, addressed the board of education to explain the context of the mural to the board. 

“In all of the large murals at George Washington High School, Arnautoff presented a counter narrative to the prevailing high school textbooks of the day,” Cherny said. “In two of them he put Native Americans in the center. In the third he put enslaved African Americans in the center. In a fourth he put working class Americans raising a flag in the center. In all four of those large murals, George Washington is on the margins and it’s other people who are in the center. 

“He put enslaved African Americans in the center of the mural on Mt. Vernon to demonstrate that George Washington was a slave holder, something that was left out of many of the contemporary textbooks of the day.

“In the mural in which he depicted the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that’s a quote of his, he put those ghastly gray pioneers literally walking over the dead body of an Indian to demonstrate that the settlement of the west was an act of conquest that involved the slaughter of Native Americans. That was a very bold effort on his part to counter the kinds of textbooks that students were seeing and I hope he won’t be penalized for that in the future.”

At the Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting on Feb. 11, Peskin noted that the landmark designation was “mostly honorific.”

Then he enquired if any major renovations were scheduled for Roosevelt in the near future.

“I think, to your point, of like major renovations, that would be anywhere on the scale of north of $20 million, I don’t think something like that is anticipated for the near future for Roosevelt,” Kamalanathan responded. 

Peskin asked her if the landmark status proposal was on the agenda for the next school board meeting and she said it was not, but instead they were planning on including it in the superintendent’s bulletin that goes out to the board of education on Fridays apprising them of issues across the district.

Peskin recommended that it be reintroduced to the new Board of Education for its consideration.

In an emailed response to further inquiries, a spokesperson for the SFUSD, Laura Dudnick, said the Board of Education has not discussed the issue recently but has been informed that it is now before the Board of Supervisors via the aforementioned bulletin.

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