By Thomas K. Pendergast
“The Life of Washington” murals at George Washington High School in the Richmond District are not alone in their dubious fate. Another set of New Deal-era murals is in danger of destruction – but this time for a different reason and with a different response from Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who has initiated a landmark designation to save them.
In a unanimous vote, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution requesting the SF Planning Department prepare a Landmark Designation Report for the City’s Historic Preservation Commission, who are then requested to consider the 10 mural frescos, dubbed “History of Medicine in California,” for landmark status. The murals are located in Toland Hall at the Parnassus Campus of the University of California, San Francisco. They were painted by artist Bernard Zakheim.
The murals are threatened with destruction because Toland Hall is slated for demolition to make room for new research and academic buildings as part of UCSF’s massive renovation project. The problem, like with the Washington murals, is that they are frescos painted on the wall plaster of the hall, so they cannot simply be removed like panels. The wall would need to be preserved as well.
“I realize this is a remarkably complicated situation, but I wanted to ask of my colleagues on this panel and the Board of Supervisors to initiate landmark designation for these 10 incredible, radical works of art that sit on the University of California San Francisco campus,” Peskin said, when he introduced the resolution at the Board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee.
“This is the beginning of what is going to be a lengthy process, hopefully to confer landmark designation, which in this instance is honorific, unlike landmark designations on other properties in San Francisco,” he said. “And I want to be clear about this: the State of California, the University of California … is not subject to our local laws, but I believe that these incredible, radical, 10-part murals, frescos deserve that level of honor, deserve that protection.”
This is the opposite approach by Peskin to the murals of New Deal-era artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School, which the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) plans to cover with panels because critics of those murals claim they traumatize some students with their glorification of white supremacy and colonization. In that case, Peskin declined to ask for a landmark designation after the Historic Preservation Commission recommended the school for that honor.
Like Arnautoff, Zakheim learned his mural skills from the famous artist Diego Rivera. They both have murals in Coit Tower, as well.
According to Woody LaBounty, vice president of Advocacy and Programs at San Francisco Heritage and one of the founders of the Western Neighborhoods Project, Zakheim was a Polish Jew born in Warsaw in 1898. He came to the U.S. after WWI and opened his own custom furniture shop in San Francisco in the 1920s before Diego Rivera invited him to study fresco painting with him in Mexico City.
He organized exhibitions by Jewish artists in the early 1930s, and aside from Coit Tower, he also did two frescos for the Alemany Emergency Hospital, a building that today is a SF City landmark.
Zakheim was commissioned to paint murals at UCSF in what was described at the time as a “dark, ugly cave” to educate medical students on the history of their field. “The History of Medicine in California” depicts founders, scientists and educators pivotal to important and revolutionary breakthroughs in medicine, as well as practices and knowledge of First Nation peoples. It also acknowledges the skill and medical expertise of African-American midwife Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
The Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation is also urging preservation of the murals. In a July 19, 2020 letter Executive Director Jackie Broxton described Mason as a “central figure” in the murals “working as an equal with Dr. John Griffin.
“They were a team that was an essential medical resource to the early Los Angles community,” Broxton wrote. “Her philanthropy is legendary as she fed the homeless, cared for the sick, founded a school and orphanage. She is most widely remembered for the crucial role she played along with eight other men in the founding of First AME Church in Los Angeles.”
Mason was an enslaved woman and midwife who was taken from the South and eventually came to San Bernardino in 1851. She and her family were freed in 1856 and she became the first African-American woman to own property in Los Angeles.
LaBounty quoted Zakheim as once saying “I did not pick only the beautiful or heroic parts of history.” The murals also include scenes of murders, amputations and autopsies.
Others have praised Zakheim’s work for being concerned with human values and drama, sympathizing with human struggle. The Spanish soldiers spanning panels of First Nation people were intentional and “symbolic of the invasion of California.” The murals are also a statement on exploited peoples.
Aside from both of them having murals in Coit Tower, should the SFUSD cover Arnautoff’s murals then these two artists will have something else in common.
In 1948, as the Cold War began heating up, Zakheim’s murals in Toland Hall were considered too left-leaning and subversive. UCSF apparently didn’t bother covering them with expensive panels, however, instead choosing to cover them over with wallpaper.
Throughout the 1950s they remained hidden from view but were eventually uncovered in the 1960s and given conservation treatment.
Brian Newman, the senior associate vice chancellor for real estate at UCSF, said that the university is officially neutral on the resolution to save the murals but sympathetic with its goals.
They completed their comprehensive Parnassus Heights redevelopment plan last fall.
“That plan went through a process to validate the need to replace UC Hall, which is seismically deficient and functionally obsolete. Toland Hall, the lecture hall, is inside UC Hall,” Newman said. “And so that determination was made by UCSF leadership and right now we have plans for a research and academic building on the footprint of UC Hall.
“Unfortunately, that entire building has significant amount of deferred maintenance, like a lot of institutional buildings,” he explained.
They are now doing a high-resolution digital capture of all the murals, which he said they will do regardless of any other plans for them.
“In the middle of the Great Depression … the New Deal was what we all came to know as the governmental solution that put millions and millions of people to work, gave the nation hope and gave us this incredible legacy of art and public works projects that still serve us today,” Peskin said.
“What I’ve come to realize is that happened less than 20 years after a pandemic that was the Spanish Flu. The legacy of murals that came out of Bernard Zakheim were informed by that New Deal era, and I’m starting to realize that the era that preceded it, that was informed by a pandemic.”
“My message to the university is, we have to find a way. The answer has to be: ‘We’re going to do everything we can,’” District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai said. “When you look at it in the context of Coit Tower, the Alemany Hospital in my district, what this individual meant to San Francisco history, Jewish-American history, and artistic history in the city and county of San Francisco and the United States, it becomes that much more significant and the price tag becomes, in my mind, a secondary choice. I know that we can find a way to do this.”
UCSF Statement on Zakheim Murals
July 28, 2020
UC San Francisco is assessing how best to relocate the large 10-panel set of murals painted on the walls of Toland Hall auditorium in the century-old UC Hall. UC Hall is seismically deficient and must be replaced by a new facility that meets California’s seismic codes. The construction process is slated to begin in 2022.
Painted by the artist Bernard Zakheim between 1935 — 1938, the “History of Medicine in California” murals were commissioned as part of a New Deal–era arts program. Zakheim used a fresco technique that applied paint directly onto wet plaster making the murals a part of the walls when they dried.
Two historical preservation firms hired by the University independently concluded that the murals’ fragile condition, large size, and the curved walls on which most of them are painted make it likely that any attempt to relocate could result in irreparable damage to at least 20– 30 percent of the murals. Based on the firms’ assessments, the cost of removing, storing, and reinstalling the murals at a new site could be $8 million or more.
As required by a draft environmental impact report we recently published, we described the potential worst-case scenario that the murals may be damaged or destroyed in the process of removing them. However, this is only a worst-case scenario description required for that report, and UCSF is continuing to work in good faith with all parties to develop a plan for safely relocating the murals, if possible.
First, UCSF is taking immediate steps to preserve the murals digitally. To allow the public and scholars to explore the murals up close and learn more about their history, we are developing an online exhibit as well as a virtual reality interpretive exhibit to be hosted on campus by the UCSF Library and Archives alongside related historical materials.
Second, UCSF has recently put out a request for proposals (RFP) soliciting competitive bids from experts who believe they can safely remove and relocate the murals. If removal and relocation of the murals is successful, UCSF will explore options to relocate the murals to a museum or other institution where they can be properly maintained by experts. Such a setting would expand accessibility to scholars and the public, with the benefit of the historical context that a museum or similar institution can provide about the murals’ creation and the history they depict.
UCSF has also reached out to Bernard Zakheim’s family, including Nathan Zakheim who works in art preservation, to share our initial findings on the challenges to relocating the murals in order to solicit their input and to determine whether they would like to make arrangements to attempt to remove and take possession of the murals themselves. The University has also reached out to other stakeholders including historic preservationists, conservation groups, and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) — which is responsible for stewardship of artworks created under the New Deal art programs of the 1930s and ‘40s. The GSA has informed the University that it considers the murals to be the property of the federal government on loan to the University, and the University has engaged them in our efforts to find a solution for preserving the murals.
Most recently, UCSF has learned that the murals contain a portrayal of Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who rose to become a pioneering midwife, entrepreneur, and
philanthropist, and who is shown in Zakheim’s mural on equal footing as a medical authority with white male physicians, officials, and patients. We were glad to learn about Ms. Mason’s extraordinary life story and achievements from the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation and are in dialogue with them. Separately, Ms. Mason’s descendants have reached out to UCSF and we are having a similar discussion about the options we are exploring for the murals. For both the descendants of Biddy Mason and the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation, we are transferring a digitally preserved high-resolution image of the panel featuring Biddy Mason onto canvas so that they may display the artwork.