Exploring the Depression's artistic legacy in San Francisco

LA Times | Travel

Stocks have crashed, industry is shuddering and banks are failing. The restless unemployed will soon fill the streets. Yet in San Francisco, some crazed optimist in the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower has hired Diego Rivera to decorate a private club for stockbrokers. Could this be th...

By Christopher Reynolds // 03.07.09

Stocks have crashed, industry is shuddering and banks are failing. The restless unemployed will soon fill the streets. Yet in San Francisco, some crazed optimist in the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower has hired Diego Rivera to decorate a private club for stockbrokers.

Could this be the most doomed, stupid idea of all 1930? Here is Rivera, an intermittent communist who'd met with Stalin in Russia only two years before, perched on the scaffolding above the financial titans of Sansome Street. He's supposed to sketch grand visions of happy, healthy California, its produce plump and shiny, its hills dotted with oil wells, the Golden State agleam with capitalism. All this, a year into the Great Depression.

What is the muralist thinking? What are the stockbrokers thinking?

Even as I stand before the mural on a Friday morning last month, my eyes an inch from the artist's brush strokes, I can't quite imagine. But I do feel a little closer to the 1930s, and I know I'm not the only one who has been wondering lately about those years.

The remedy is a trip to San Francisco -- good not only for plain fun but also for some encouraging revelations. In the face of the hard times between 1929 and 1941, including a bitter maritime strike in 1934, all sorts of strange and wonderful creations and transformations emerged here. Murals. Bridges. Even a couple of islands.

In my single-minded mission, I made it to the first nine of these 11 Depression-era landmarks in 24 hours. As a saner, slower traveler, you could easily cover five in a weekend. Most are inexpensive or free. And you've probably already visited several Depression landmarks without thinking of them that way.

The Golden Gate Bridge, for instance. Or the Top of the Mark, the bar that hovers 19 stories above the top of posh Nob Hill. Or Coit Tower. Or, if you're driving in from the Oakland airport as I did, the Bay Bridge beneath your wheels.

1. Bay Bridge

In fact, even though we're not slowing down, think of the Bay Bridge as our first stop. It was finished in 1936, six months before the Golden Gate, and for the armada of ferry boats that used to carry as many as 50,000 commuters daily across the bay, it was the beginning of the end.

At the Oakland end of the span, you'll notice construction: Nearly 20 years after the Loma Prieta quake, seismic fixes continues. When work is done in a few years, traffic between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island will run on one level instead of two, giving drivers bigger views, and cyclists and pedestrians will have a pathway to the island.

2. Coit Tower

Even now, as you zoom across the bridge, you'll glimpse a landmark that those pre-'30s ferry commuters never saw: Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

It was 1933 when a $125,000 bequest by local philanthropist Lily (sometimes spelled Lillie) Hitchcock Coit paid for a streamlined 210-foot tower with commanding views. Coit adored the city's firefighters, but I haven't seen evidence to back up tour guides who say the building was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle.

The view would have been enough, but the tower gained another dimension in 1934, when its ground floor was covered with murals by artists in the federally funded Public Works of Art Project. About 25 artists were paid about $31 a week, and the walls they left us amount to a portrait of the city 75 years ago: ferry commuters, fedoras, newspapers, high anxiety. And of course, the artists couldn't resist peppering the imagery with a little political spice -- notice the library denizen reaching for a volume by Karl Marx, and the copy of the Daily Worker high on the news rack display.

3. Alcatraz

After all that fun below, the view from the top of the tower (admission: $5) didn't knock me over. First, it was raining. Second, the view portals are awkwardly glassed in, making decent photography almost impossible.

Still, from the top of the tower, you see a lot, including a small, densely built island to the north.


Though most of its buildings date back to earlier years as a military prison, Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1934.

That meant retrofitting the whole place to boost it from minimum to maximum security, and the penitentiary remained in business until 1963, its notoriety spread worldwide by movies.

Now it gets about 1.8 million visitors a year, about a quarter of them foreigners, who pay admission of $26 to $33 per adult.

4. Treasure Island

But let's go back to the view from Coit Tower. Look east toward the Bay Bridge, then look down to its footings on tiny Yerba Buena Island. Then check out the strange, flat, 400-acre patch of land attached to it by a causeway.

That's Treasure Island, created from scratch to house the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40. This was San Francisco's effort to wow the world with its new bridges and artistic wonders. (More later on that.) Unfortunately, the 1939 World's Fair in New York gave it stiff competition.

After the expo, the island was supposed to become an airport -- but then came Pearl Harbor, and suddenly it was a naval station. For more than 4 million sailors in the Pacific theater, Treasure Island was either the beginning of the war, the end, or both.

Since then, the island has lapsed into an afterlife as a lonely enclave of affordable apartments and toxic cleanup sites. Let's just give it a glance and move along to the star of this tour -- that other bridge.

5. Golden Gate Bridge

For years, I'd been wanting to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge, or at least bike to it. Now I finally have. You just rent a bike on Columbus Avenue from Bike and Roll or Blazing Saddles ($7 an hour and up at either spot), make your way a few blocks to Fisherman's Wharf, then follow the shoreline bike and footpath to the south.

It's only about 3 miles to the bridge. You pass Fort Mason, the Marina District and the grassy expanse of Crissy Field. If you like, you can stop at the Warming Hut, a rehabbed old building that now houses a smart little cafe and bookshop run by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. I'd never noticed it before, but from just outside you get a marvelous perspective on the bridge and no tourist mob.

As for the bridge itself, construction began in 1933 under chief engineer Joseph B. Strauss. Architect Irving F. Morrow is the one who came up with the color. (Apparently, the U.S. Navy favored a black bridge with yellow stripes.) It was completed April 19, 1937.

There's plenty of room for bikes, toll-free, around the clock, on its eastern sidewalk. (At certain times, you can ride on the western side too.)

6. Top of the Mark

Now it's time for a drink. Ditch the bike, put on something presentable, find your way to the top of Nob Hill and step into the posh InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco. For a little reminder of our own recession, check the rates: For a high-end property with a four-diamond rating, they have lately been as low as $144 a night.

The Mark Hopkins opened in 1926, a combination of French ch√Ęteau and Spanish Renaissance. Then in 1939, the owner, George D. Smith, converted the 19th floor penthouse into a cash-generating cocktail lounge with a wraparound view and called it the Top of the Mark.

During the war years, it became a favorite spot for last drinks before sailors shipped out. Waiters like to point out the Weepers' Corner, where wives and sweethearts huddled to watch their men's ships sail away.

There are fewer tears now (there was a conventioneers' cocktail party taking up half the room when I arrived), but the views are still striking, especially at dusk. If you show up just after 5 p.m., you can take in the view for the $7 cost of a beer (although they'd rather sell you one of their many, many $13 martinis).

7. War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building

Just a few miles away, in the gritty Civic Center neighborhood (avoid, avoid, avoid this stretch of Market Street), the War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building (which make up the Performing Arts Center) have stood since 1932. The buildings, twins from the outside, with a courtyard between them, were built to honor World War I veterans.

Because the San Francisco Ballet was performing the night of my visit, I got a chance to see the 3,200-seat venue with dancers bounding beneath the heavy gold curtain, well-heeled San Franciscans filling the seats. It was an elegant night, compromised only by my choice of lodgings: The Hotel Metropolis, at the scruffy end of Mason Street near Market, is fine on the inside, even a bit chic, and cost me a mere $60 for the night. But now that I've seen the street-corner crowd that gathers outside after dark, I can't recommend it to families or solo travelers.

I returned to the War Memorial complex the next morning to be shown a few backstage sights by veteran tour guide George F. Lucas (no, not that one). For me, the most striking stop was the Herbst Theatre (formerly known as Veterans Auditorium), where in June 1945, world leaders huddled to sign the charter creating the United Nations. Though the Rockefeller family's offer of some precious Manhattan real estate eventually lured the organization to New York, it looked for a while as though the U.N.'s home would be San Francisco.

The interior space has been changed and upgraded through the years, but the Herbst Theatre (which opens for tours most Mondays) is still used for speakers' series and other special events. Those speakers have some serious competition; the auditorium's side walls are dominated by eight enormous paintings celebrating earth, air, fire and water. They were painted for a 1915 exposition by celebrated landscape artist Frank Brangwyn, but somebody clever held onto them and had the theater interior designed around them.

From here, our tour morphs into a mural medley, with a little comfort food on the side.

8. The Beach Chalet

From the opera house, I headed west along the edge of Golden Gate Park until the Pacific Ocean blocked my path, then turned left. There, in a two-story Spanish Revival building known as the Beach Chalet, I found yet another batch of classic murals. In 1936, the federal Works Progress Administration hired artist Lucien Labaudt -- formerly a designer of gowns and costumes for high society -- as principal designer of a fresco project.

Aided by assistants, mosaic artists and wood carvers, he came up with a series of cheerful scenes: picnickers, bathers, fishermen, a guitarist and a photographer, all wedged in amid bits of local scenery, including Chinatown, City Hall and Baker Beach. If any political commentary found its way in there, I missed it.

We should be grateful we can see any murals at all. The Army took over the building during World War II, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars ran it as a bar and meeting hall from 1947 to 1981, after which it was closed to the public for more than 15 years. After costly restoration and refurbishing, it reopened in 1997. Upstairs, the Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant offers ocean views. In back on the ground floor, there's the Park Chalet Garden Restaurant, which opened in 2004, offering a more casual menu and view of park greenery. Try the macaroni and cheese with chicken and truffle oil.

9. Stock Exchange Tower

Now, back to Diego Rivera, stockbroker's friend and intermittent communist. To see what he did in the Pacific Stock Exchange Tower in 1930 and '31, sign on to a tour offered monthly through www.sfcityguides.org or show up at 9 a.m. or 3 p.m. on a weekday and politely ask the doorman for help. Before you go inside, look at the statues by Ralph Stackpole outside and notice that the old stock market floor is an Equinox gym.

Once you're on the 10th and 11th floors -- which are the private domain of the City Club and its members -- you'll find a hall and dining area full of Art Deco details. Be sure to check out the handrails on the stairwell. Bending brass to create outlined figures, sculptor Robert Boardman Howard aimed to portray a day in the life of a stockbroker: There he is in business clothes, then a golf outfit, then top hat and tails.

This seems exactly the sort of thing that would cause Rivera to throw a fit. After all, he is the guy who, in 1933, added a portrait of Lenin to a mural in New York's Rockefeller Plaza, prompting the sponsors to fire him and destroy the work.

But artists have to earn a living too, and this was Rivera's first job in the U.S. He devised a 30-foot-high design for an allegory of California and used tennis star Helen Wills Moody as the model for the woman whose face would symbolize the state's beauty and promise. He also included the oil wells, the ag workers and a couple of boys playing with a toy airplane. Not a hint of skepticism.

It's gorgeous to look at, but a little incongruous, given the rest of the artist's career. So it makes sense to follow the example of Val Espinoza, a fellow tourist I met on the steps beneath Rivera's allegory. Espinoza and his wife, Rosa, had come from Fresno just to look at Rivera murals, and this was one of three stops for them. (I'll have to check out these two others on my next trip.)

10. San Francisco Art Institute

They had already been to the San Francisco Art Institute, open daily and free, to see Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City." (Completed in May 1931, the work is a sort of great big pun -- a 23-by-30-foot mural of a mural in progress, complete with a self-portrait of Rivera from behind, wide bottom and all, perched dead center on a scaffolding board.)

The Espinozas also had been to Rivera's last and largest mural in the city, which happens to bring our tour full circle. It was born beneath the Bay Bridge, on Treasure Island, during that Golden Gate International Expo.

But don't start for the island yet.

Beginning in July 1940, Rivera and his helpers painted on a vast 10-panel wall, 22 feet high and 74 feet wide, while visitors watched. The mural, titled "Pan American Unity," is dominated by a goddess who is part Native American and part machine, with a supporting cast of dozens. Frida Kahlo is there, as is Stalin, depicted as a totalitarian villain along with Mussolini and Hitler.

11. City College of San Francisco

Unfortunately, none of the expo-goers got to see the completed project, because Rivera and his team didn't finish it until November 1940, after the event was over.

Somebody put the panels into storage and they didn't come out until 1961, four years after Rivera's death. Now they stand in a theater named for Rivera at City College, free and open to the public for selected hours Mondays through Saturdays.

So there you go -- a full itinerary of Depression wonders, all within about 45 minutes of one another.

If you're like me, you'll be startled by just how much enduring, transformative work came out of those years after the crash of '29. But it's a little spooky too, to be reminded all over town that it took a world war to close the book on those hard times.