Commentary – Save the UCSF Murals

It’s Happening…Again?

Things should go well for UC San Francisco.  They’re a major employer and – as pointed out in a recent Zoom presentation with Nancy Pelosi – their research and patient care have protected San Franciscans and benefited our country from the AIDS crisis to the current pandemic.

But hubris enters the picture when UCSF assumes that its priorities are the same as all San Franciscans. The case in point is their proposed redevelopment of the Parnassus Heights campus. Big. ‘UGE.  Too big to fail?

A section of “The History of Medicine in California” at UCSF by artist Bernard Zakhein. The mural faces an uncertain future as UCSF moves forward with redevelopment plans. Photo by Richard Rothman.

Some residents beg to differ. And among them are friends of the Zakheim murals.  The series of 10 New Deal-era fresco panels, located in the one-story Toland Hall auditorium appended to UC Hall, portray “The History of Medicine in California” from before the Spanish conquest up until their 1938 painting.  Seven stories in height, the 1917 UC Hall is the oldest building on campus, and served as its first hospital.  UC Hall was on the chopping block in 1996, with the plan calling for the removal and conservation of the murals “at an appropriate facility.” But it survived, and the 2014 long-range plan called for its being seismically-retrofitted and converted to housing by 2019.  That didn’t happen either.

This time, UCSF means it. In fact, they have issued a request for proposals to remove the Zakheim murals, possibly even before the environmental impact report (EIR) is certified.  This poses problems.  A lot of problems.  ‘uge problems.

Photo by Richard Rothman.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), an undertaking of this scope has to account for its impacts on a variety of environmental factors.  One of these is cultural resources, such as historic buildings and murals that have been recommended as San Francisco landmarks.  One of the purposes of the EIR is to account for these impacts, provide alternatives to avoid them, and offer mitigation for any they consider “unavoidable.”

But draft EIR contains only the wimpy usual suspects, states the destruction of the Zakheim murals is likely “unavoidable,” and offers digital representations on a website.  Not only is that an insult to the nature of the WPA-funded public art – meant to be experienced by the public themselves – it is also not sitting well with those who honor Biddy Mason, a freed slave who is shown as an equal among white doctors in one panel.  That was progressive in 1938, but in this summer of unrest over race and representation, UCSF hopes we won’t notice if they, well, go away.  In fact, they’re counting on it.

So even before the draft EIR public comments are in, UCSF issued the request for proposals (RFP), with an original deadline of Aug. 28.  Oops.  That was too early on a number of counts.  For one thing, UCSF gave the Zakheim family 90 days to remove the murals on their own, at their own expense, by Sept. 2.  And AFTER that they would publish a RFP in the Chronicle.  Oops again. So they quietly moved the RFP deadline back to Sept. 11 – that day of infamy that also happens to be the deadline for EIR comments.  And then they plan to stash them in a UCSF warehouse, without climate control, for at least five years.

Want some more problems?  If the Zakheim murals were paid for with WPA funding back in the 1930s, they belong to the American people, under the auspices of the General Services Administration.  What happens if you take someone else’s property and hide it in your garage – or, in UCSF’s case, your warehouse, where nobody can see it?

And what about the artist’s rights, under the California Art Preservation Act?  More problems for UCSF.

A hand bill seeking supporters of the movement to save the murals. Photo by Lope Yap, Jr.

Will it happen this time? The friends of the Zakheim murals say no, that the murals’ demolition is very much avoidable. They’ve said no in newspaper articles across the country, on the air at KGO Radio 810AM with John Rothmann, and even on stickers all around the UCSF campus.  And they mean it.  They won’t be going along quietly.  And some lawyers are going to be busy for the next year(s). Because while we may argue about the best way to portray our country’s difficult history with race and representation, public art like this does belongs to all of us – giving us the opportunity to celebrate the overcomers like Biddy Mason, and to challenge us to find ways to talk about things like Indians and missions, quacks and snake oil salesmen – which are all in “The History of Medicine in California.”

Is it happening?  Watch this space.

For more information, visit


Laura Voisin George, UCSB Student, Architectural Historian 

Lope Yap, Jr., VP George Washington High School Alumni Association

Sept. 5, 2020

Categories: Commentary, UCSF

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1 reply »

  1. I think the biggest agruement is that they were produced with WPA money and therefore belong to the people for the people to see as originally intended and produced. You can’t change something after the fact because it suits your current needs. UCSF, as wonderful an institution as they are, in their desire to show the public how committed they are to ethics and integrity, should redesign their plan to incorporate the murals as is. The redesign may be a tad more expensive but, art of this importance, cannot be reproduced and, once gone, we lose a segment of ourselves and our culture.


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