Makeover of SF’s Coit Tower nears completion 

click to enlarge murals
  • Mike Koozmin/s.f. examiner
  • A painter does careful brushwork while restoring Depression-era murals at Coit Tower on Thursday. The murals in the tower, which opened in 1933, had been subjected to decades of moisture and mineral buildup.
Anne Rosenthal stood inside yellow caution tape that looped over her cart full of special paints and old photos of Coit Tower’s murals, delicately using a thin brush to fill in scratches and chips on “City Life.”

Rosenthal and two other conservators, the core team behind mural restoration efforts in 1989, are two-fifths of the way through their task at hand.

“It’s a time-consuming process,” Rosenthal said of the restoration work on the 80-year-old murals.

The work is part of a $1.7 million project that includes $250,000 for mural restoration. Other work on Coit Tower, which has been closed since mid-November, has involved waterproofing the exterior and the roof to minimize future moisture penetration, which caused white mineral salts to form on the Depression-era murals.

The exterior and interior construction at The City’s iconic tower was in its final stages Thursday afternoon, much to Rosenthal’s relief.

“It seems there will be less activity,” she said, explaining that less noise and fewer bodies are helpful to mural restoration “because our concentration is so much better.”

The conservators with ARG Conservation Services have yet to complete work on the first floor and move on to the second floor. They are working five days a week, “hopefully” six, Rosenthal said.

“We have a very tight deadline,” she said. “It’s a little bit of an awesome responsibility to finish on time.”

Officials from the Recreation and Park Department and San Francisco Arts Commission have set a target to reopen Coit Tower in mid- to late-April.

“It is a simple building but waterproofing is not easy,” said David Wessel, principal with the Architectural Resources Group, an ARG partner company. “What we have is a flat roof on top of the murals. It’s tough to keep water out.”

Working through construction without wet conditions has been the “silver lining to our drought this year,” said Tom DeCaigny, the Art Commission’s director of cultural affairs.

Other work on the tower, which first opened in 1933, included electrical and water system upgrades and improvements for access for people with disabilities.

The site will reopen with a new concessions operator, which will be responsible for putting money back into maintenance and upgrades for the structure.

Without such investments to the tower, mural restoration work would be “essentially meaningless,” said Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg.

Restoration of the murals includes work on portions of the tower around the artwork. Inside, the first floor ceiling, once peeling, has been re-plastered and repainted in its original “light mushroom” color. Through thorough research and examining photos of the murals before and after previous restoration efforts, the team was able to identify fine details to bring back to life, like a sandstone-colored strip between the murals and the ceiling that had been painted over. Fixing the tile floor is another component.

“The floor and ceiling work does a lot for peoples’ perceptions of the murals,” said Allison Cummings, senior registrar for the civic art collection of the Arts Commission.

But she added that the ultimate desire is not to have a product that looks new.

“It’s an 80-year-old space,” she said. “We’re not repainting the murals; we’re restoring them.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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