Mother’s Building at SF Zoo Named a City Landmark

By Thomas K. Pendergast

About 100 years ago, a couple of brothers named Herbert and Mortimer Fleishhacker decided to honor their departed mother Delia by sponsoring a building created as a place to relax for women with young children.

The Mother’s Building was located near a huge public seawater swimming pool they had built – Fleishhacker Pool was one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the world (1925-1971) – but it now sits on the grounds of the San Francisco Zoo. The idea was that women carting their kids around all day could take a break from that stress and relax a bit while socializing with each other; at the time it was the only structure in the west dedicated for this sole purpose. 

In September, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to grant the building landmark status and plans are now underway to renovate the dilapidated structure with the goal of opening it up to the public by its 100-year anniversary in 2025.

The building sits in District 7. The supervisor for that area is Myrna Melgar. She and her neighbor, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar and others, are trying to bring the historic building back to life. 

“It was dedicated to serve as a resting place for mothers and young children. They had amenities like milk, water and medical advice,” Melgar said. “It also houses the artwork of all-female artists that were commissioned during the Work Progress Administration, WPA, of the 1930s during a time when workforce opportunities for women, particularly for women artists, were very, very limited. 

“So, while the Mother’s Building is listed among the National Register of Historic Places it has never been locally landmarked.”

The building is owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and operated by the zoo. 

Shannon Ferguson of the San Francisco Planning Department said the building was constructed in 1925 for Herbert and Mortimer Fleishhacker to honor their late mother. It was donated to the City and dedicated to serve as a place for mothers and small children to rest after a day of recreation. Ferguson said it was the only structure in the west with this use and designed to enhance the comfort of mothers and young children, so it is historically significant for its association with this unique women’s history. 

“At the time, the Mother’s Building was part of the original playfield and pool complex. It was an element of the grand scheme of expansion and improvement of the city park system,” Ferguson said. “It provided a recreation zone on the western edge of the City. It also represents new patterns of recreation for women. 

“The building is significant for its association with early recreational facilities in San Francisco. Further, it is significant for an example of Italian Renaissance Revival Style and the work of well-known architect George Kelham.”

Bay Area artists Helen K. Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli were selected to paint murals on the walls in the interior of the building. 

The murals were begun in 1933, completed in 1938 and they depict forest scenes from the Noah’s Ark story. The ark’s passengers disembark on the east wall and ark lands on the south wall. The construction of the ark is on the north wall and loading the animals is on the west wall. 

For the building’s exterior, artist Heather Bruton created mosaics of children and their animal friends, depicting a boy and a girl with a horse, a dog and a rabbit. Another mosaic shows Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and San Francisco’s namesake, surrounded by a deer, wolf, snake and birds. 

Assisting Bruton with these were her sisters, Margaret and Esther Bruton.

District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar helped get funding to start the process and supported giving the building landmark status. 

“It’s an extremely unique and historic design that’s worthy, especially with the murals inside the building,” Mar said. “One other issue that needs to be resolved is access to the building, because right now it’s on land that the zoo has a long-term lease for, so in order to access the building currently you have to go through the zoo entrance. I’m interested in seeing if we can create public access to the Mother’s Building from Sloat Boulevard. There’s even a park area right in front of the Mother’s Building, so I’d like to see that turned into more of a public park.”

Another person involved with finding the money to get things started is local community advocate Richard Rothman, who lobbied Melgar and Mar for it and managed to get $50,000 dollars from each of them through the City budget. This money will be used to do an economic study on how best to reuse the building, said Rothman.

Right now, they are in the process of hiring consultants. 

“I’ve been working on this project for over 10 years,” Rothman said. “It’s been closed since 2000. I got involved; I just started going to the joint zoo committee meetings. 

“We got a grant, I think in 2016, to do an assessment of the building and then (former D4 Supervisor) Katy Tang and her assistant Ashley Summers got us $300,000 to do the short-term and immediate repair. It’s just been a long, slow process,” he said.

“And then came along Supervisor Melgar, because the other two (D7) supervisors before her weren’t interested in the Mother’s Building. She’s the first woman supervisor representing District 7, so she’s really been supportive, and things are happening now.

“We want to do the economic study and then we want to see what’s the best possible use and then go out and raise the money to bring the building up to code and ADA standards,” he explained. “Except for the west wall, which has some water damage, the murals are in beautiful condition.”

Rothman compared his efforts to get important people into the restoration project to a sheep herder, but he feels it’s worth it. 

“Why I’m so passionate about wanting the Mother’s Building open to the public is because I want the public to see these free of charge … so you don’t have to go to the museums to see artwork. You can see artwork right in public there. So, people can enjoy this artwork here and really appreciate it.” 

The Mother’s Building on the grounds of the San Francisco Zoo was recently named a city landmark. Courtesy photo by Maryanne Hale.

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