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S.F. announces Coit overhaul

A $1.7-million fund is created to help upgrade the iconic tower and repair its famous frescoes.

May 26, 2012|Lee Romney
  • A visitor to Coit Tower explores the monument's interior murals, which were painted in 1934 and depict life in California during the Great Depression.
A visitor to Coit Tower explores the monument's interior murals,… (Dave Getzschman / For the…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Amid a vigorous citizen campaign to raise awareness about the decay of San Francisco's Coit Tower and its Depression-era murals, city officials have announced a comprehensive effort to overhaul the historic landmark.

Mayor Ed Lee and David Chiu, president of the Board of Supervisors, late Thursday announced the creation of a $1.7-million fund to repair the severely damaged frescoes and upgrade the dramatic concrete tower built in 1933 with a bequest from philanthropist Lillie Hitchcock Coit.

"Now we can move forward on the improvements that this iconic piece of San Francisco's skyline deserves," said Chiu, whose district includes the structure atop Telegraph Hill.

The unexpected announcement came less than a week before voters will weigh in on a measure to restrict commercial activity at the tower and channel the bulk of funds raised from its elevator fees and concession sales to pay for its upkeep.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, May 28, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Coit Tower: An article in the May 26 LATExtra section about the creation of a city fund to rehabilitate San Francisco's Coit Tower said the move came less than a week before voters weigh in on a measure to restrict commercial activity there and channel the tower's revenue to its upkeep. It came less than two weeks before voters go to the polls, on June 5.

The Department of Recreation and Parks, which oversees the building, has opposed the measure, pointing out that money raised from the tower helps support dozens of other parks and playgrounds that don't generate revenue. The San Francisco Arts Commission, responsible for the frescoes, also has weighed in against the ballot measure, calling it "overly restrictive."

Jon Golinger, who heads Protect Coit Tower, said the funding news also came a day after the group obtained a 106-page draft report detailing extensive damage to both the tower and its artworks.

"This is alarming information, but it is great news that the public outcry ... has finally forced the city to take the problems at Coit Tower seriously," he said.

The murals, completed as part of the Public Works of Art Project in 1934, depict urban and agrarian life in California at a time of great social and economic turmoil. They were painted by 26 artists and 19 assistants, many of whom had studied with or were influenced by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

The report, commissioned by the city, described severe distress to the murals -- the largest collection of frescoes on the West Coast -- including missing plaster, mineral blooms, soiling from the hands of hundreds of thousands of visitors and droppings from book lice, spiders, flies and mud daubers.

The ceiling paint contains lead, and the 180-foot tower itself is in disrepair, with a leaking roof, porous walls and several chunks of reinforced concrete that appear ready to break off. Ventilation and temperature control also are of concern, according to the report.

San Francisco cultural affairs director Tom DeCaigny, who heads the city's Arts Commission, applauded the dedication of resources -- $1.45 million of which will come from an underutilized municipal bond fund and go largely toward structural repairs.

The Recreation and Parks Department already had committed $250,000 to mural restoration and said it would dedicate 1% of elevator fee revenue to continued upkeep. That, DeCaigny said, will enable the commission to monitor the murals' condition twice a year.

"This is an opportunity to see the value of making an investment in ... our city's cultural assets," he said, adding that art conservator Anne Rosenthal was expected to begin cleaning the murals within weeks.


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