george washington high school

Controversial Murals Halt School’s Landmark Status

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Two Richmond District schools were originally proposed to be considered for “landmark” status, but one is getting straight-armed by the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Board of Education. Theodore Roosevelt Middle School will receive the honor, George Washington High School will not.

The SF Board of Supervisors (BOS) unanimously approved Roosevelt’s designation, but Washington was left off the agenda entirely after the school board made it clear it wanted no part of honoring a building that has murals showing black slaves and a dead Native American literally being walked over by pioneers. 

GWHS Mural #1

Landmark status is a local honor from the City that acknowledges a public-owned resource as being of special significance. While both schools are architecturally noteworthy, the controversial murals derailed Washington’s chances for landmark recognition.

“What really strikes me about these two schools is they were both built during a can-do era, long before most Americans had been trained to hate their governments,” said Christopher VerPlanck, a historical preservation consultant who co-authored the nominations for both schools. 

“The New Deal, and schools in particular, were about the government helping to improve people’s lives through providing work to the unemployed, modern educational infrastructure to San Francisco school children, as well as public art for all of its citizens to enjoy,” he said.

Distinctive Architecture    

“In our contemporary era of private splendor and public squalor, we need to be reminded that the government can indeed be a source of good, and that everyone, not just the rich, deserves access to high-quality infrastructure,” VerPlanck said.

The primary architect for both schools was the renowned architect Timothy Pflueger. 

Built in 1929-30, Roosevelt Middle School has a unique style of architecture, German Expressionist, which is rare for a building in the United States. The German Expressionist style of thinking about design started in the early 20th century and is loosely connected to the Bauhaus School of Art and Design.

Although the building actually pre-dates the New Deal era, Roosevelt could be described as “cutting edge,” for its design embraces the “modernism” that was all the rage then.

George Washington High School is a New Deal-era school designed in the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco and built through the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).    

Peskin Rejects Washington

Despite its architectural significance, Washington did not make the cut. 

District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin only put Roosevelt on the agenda of the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s Land Use and Transportation Committee. Even though both buildings were proposed for landmark status by San Francisco Heritage, only one was eventually brought to the Board of Supervisors. 

“Washington will never get a landmark designation,” Peskin said. “When you’re in the business of doing something largely symbolic, there’s no reason to cause division. Many consider this art hurtful, so there’s no reason to cause that division.”

A Year-Long Controversy

The simmering controversy has been brewing for more than a year, since feelings around the murals at Washington came to a head at a meeting of the SFUSD Board of Education on March 6, 2018. 

One of the speakers, Robert Cherny, a professor emeritus at San Francisco State University who wrote a biography of the mural’s artist, Victor Arnautoff, explained the context of the times in which the mural was created, saying that the artist presented a “counter narrative” to the prevailing high school textbooks of the time because his representation of the westward expansion included the slaughter of Native Americans, and he presented Washington as a slave owner, both facts the official narrative back then tended to either ignore or gloss over. 

“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,” Cherny said. “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.”

Another point of view was offered by then-Commissioner Shamann Walton.

“I don’t understand how people who are not affected by the depiction of a mural could come in here and tell us how Native Americans and Indians should see the mural and what’s on there, when (Native Americans) came here and told us it was offensive to them and they said that these murals caused problems and issues for their community,” Walton said. “I don’t see how anybody could come up here and try to tell us how positive that is, or what the positive point of view is. It‘s insulting to me that anybody who is not affected by the depiction can come in here and try to do that.

“I am tired of the community being insulted when they came here and specifically said how they felt about those murals and how they depicted their community,” Walton explained. “That is insulting. No I don’t want to see slaves on the wall. I hope nobody else comes into this school district, at least while I’m sitting at this dais, and try to tell us how we should not be offended, and particularly people who are not depicted on these murals, telling us how people should not be offended by somebody’s art. It is not art to some people.”

At the meeting last year, others on the board shared similar sentiments.

“It’s such a hot button issue. In all of my years growing up in the City, I actually never saw the mural until the group (Native American parents)  presented and Commissioner Sanchez showed me the mural. It’s absolutely horrific,” then-Vice President Stevon Cook said. “And to think our kids are there today, they were there yesterday passing by that every day, is something that I think as a district we should make as a top priority.

“So, I’m hoping by the end of the month there’s a plan that’s clear, that’s swift, and that addresses it with the urgency that we say we stand for as a district that celebrates diversity and believes in social justice and wants to continue to highlight excellence for minority communities. As long as that mural stands, we’re not living up to that,” Cook said.

Not Worth the Fight

Two of the commissioners on that school board are now on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors: District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton and District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney. 

Recently, Peskin suggested that it was not worth the fight to bring Washington to the current BOS for landmark status because he did not think they would approve it, 

“When dealing with different peoples’ feelings about history and dealing with different communities, everyone should feel like they are being treated with dignity and respect,” Peskin said. “Bad feelings between groups do not need to re-erupt but need to be repaired.”

The George Washington High School Alumni Association wrote a press release giving its opinion of the murals controversy. Follow this LINK to read more .    

GWHS Mural #2

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