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Coit Tower Murals
About Marc Norton Online

Noe Valley Voice

May, 2005


I enjoyed the photo of one of the Coit Tower murals in Rosie Ruley Atkins' article about her Telegraph Hill adventure ["Telegraph Hill Thrills," by Rosie Ruley Atkins, April 2005].

Some details of the mural, not shown in the photo, reveal even more "clear hints of the artist's political views."

The Coit Tower mural of a public library scene was painted by Bernard B. Zakheim. The man reaching for a book in the painting is fellow artist John Langley Howard. The book he is reaching for is Das Kapital, by Karl Marx. He is crumpling a newspaper in his other hand.

Another fellow artist, Ralph Stackpole, is reading a newspaper with the headline "Local Artists Protest Destruction of Rivera's Fresco," a reference to the destruction of Diego Rivera's mural in Rockefeller Center after Rivera refused to remove a portrait of Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian revolution.

Another man in the library is reading a headline about the Nazi slaughter in Austria, years before the U.S. entered the war against fascism.

These details, and more, help to explain why the powers-that-be launched an all-out political attack on the Coit Tower murals as they were nearing completion in early 1934. As a result, the opening of the murals was delayed for months. This was the same year that saw the bitter maritime worker strike that led to the deaths of several workers on "Bloody Thursday," and then to San Francisco's great General Strike. The murals did not open until after the strike was settled, and only after a controversial slogan, which read "Workers of the World Unite," was removed from one of the murals.

For years afterward, the murals suffered from vandalism. In 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era, the San Francisco Chronicle asked, "Is this art or merely grotesque rebellion of starved souls against the existing order?"

In 1960, the blacklist still in force, the Coit Tower murals were closed, and stayed closed until 1977. Just a few years ago, the city tried to charge $5 or $6 per head to view the murals, but fortunately that experiment didn't last too long.

In these days of endless war and growing neo-fascism, the Coit Tower murals are a treasure we should protect.

The story of the murals is told well in Masha Zakheim Jewett's book Coit Tower, San Francisco: Its History and Art.

Marc Norton