Collaborating to Preserve a Public Treasure: The Rehabilitation of Coit Tower and Its WPA-Era Murals

Tuesday, November 3, 2015: 10:25 AM
Presenter: Jennifer Correia , ARG Conservation Services, San Francisco, CA
Co-Presenter: Allison Cummings , San Francisco Arts Commission, San Francisco, CA
Coit Memorial Tower (c. 1933) was designed as an observation tower and selected for the first Public Works of Art Project endeavor in the United States during the Great Depression. Murals were painted on the first and second floors by 26 artists and 19 assistants in 1934, funded by the Public Works of Art Project.  Coit Tower is not only an iconic city monument, but also a repository of significant works of art visited by over 200,000 people each year. The building is a city landmark and listed on the National Register for Historic Places, and its significance includes architecture and the interior artwork.  Coit Tower is managed under multiple jurisdictions, with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department responsible for maintenance and operation of the building, while the San Francisco Arts Commission protects the murals.

A condition assessment was initiated in 2012 focusing and weatherproofing and accessibility to support the ongoing maintenance of the building and artwork.  A majority of the murals and frescoes are an integral part of the building, and the condition of the murals is directly affected by the condition of the building. The design team explored the dynamic between the building and artwork and provided prioritized recommendations for repair and upgrade. After issuance of the recommendations, the City initially set aside $1.5 million for the rehabilitation work and additional grant funding was eventually secured. Construction began in 2012 with installation of new roofing followed by a larger restoration effort starting in 2013 that required the building to close to the public for a six month period.  During this period construction and conservation crews overlapped tasks to minimize the closure of this public resource.

The rehabilitation project was significant for blending of art and architecture, and the successful collaboration between two lead City agencies, the San Francisco Public Arts Commission and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.  Input and oversight was also provided by the city’s Public Works, Planning and Transportation (MTA) departments in addition to public groups and an incoming concessionaire to run daily building operations.  Leaks at the interior have been a problem throughout the building’s history, and teamwork between agencies and project consultants was integral to identifying potential water infiltration sources and developing strategies for repair.  A mural protection plan specific for the scope of construction work was developed and implemented by the entire team.  During construction it was necessary to perform abatement and repair tasks in mural spaces, and design practical protection measures for the interior artwork that would not impede the effectiveness of repair work. It was important to incorporate code-necessitated upgrades in a sensitive manner that does not detract from the building’s historic features.