Effort to restore Coit Tower murals deserves support

Thursday, January 19, 2012 | by

Ask most San Francisco visitors to name the city’s most iconic landmark, and we’ll wager Coit Tower comes up as often as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Rising above Telegraph Hill, the tower was built in 1933 as a gift to the city from Lillie Hitchcock Coit, in honor of San Francisco firefighters. Ornamenting that exquisite concrete beacon are the 1936 murals painted under the direction of the Jewish immigrant artist, Bernard Zakheim.

It’s hard to imagine a more beloved piece of public art in San Francisco. Which makes it incomprehensible that the Zakheim murals have fallen into disrepair.

As our story this week details, the murals are chipped and aging. The lighting inside Coit Tower is poor and inappropriate for a fragile, aging work. Water damage from exposure poses an ongoing threat.

Couple this with a resource-starved city budget, which has little money to spend on restoration and preservation, and you have a prescription for cultural disaster.

Over the years, we have done stories on Zakheim and his contributions to the Bay Area. Though the Coit Tower murals are his most famous, he also painted murals for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (still on display there) and for the UCSF Medical Center.

The artist completed many works inspired by his Chassidic childhood. He also created paintings, done in the early 1940s, drawing attention to the coming Holocaust — a prospect many minimized at the time.

Zakheim is a vitally important Jewish artist with a peerless Bay Area connection. As a Jewish community, we cannot allow his legacy to decay.

And as Bay Area residents, we cannot allow Coit Tower and its art to ever resemble the Parthenon in Athens, a relic of a bygone era.

The public debate today so often revolves around the role of government, the size of government, the tax burden and the choices we make with public money.

At a time when schools are falling apart and seniors face drastic cuts to their health care, it might strike some as quixotic or foolhardy to cry out for more money for paintings that line the interior of a tourist attraction.

But art and culture are the lifeblood of civilization. Without them, we have precious little excuse to carry on. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to preserve our cultural treasures while we still can.

We strongly support the effort to restore Coit Tower’s murals.