Coit Tower Muralists Get New Recognition

Coit Tower Muralists Get New Recognition
Jayne Oldfield Blatchly, daughter of muralist Otis Oldfield. (Photos: Geri Koeppel/Hoodline)
By Geri Koeppel - Published on May 15, 2015.

The daughter and three granddaughters of one of the Coit Tower muralists attended at a celebration on Thursday to mark the first anniversary of the tower's major renovations and to help kick off a new program to educate visitors about the team of artists who created the historic Depression-era works lining its interior. These 25 artists are finally getting their due, as 10,000 brochures with each of their photos and information about the public art project will be handed out over the summer.

Greta Haug-Hryciw, Rachel Haug Prescott, Jayne Oldfield Blatchly and Harvey L. Smith.

Jayne Oldfield Blatchly of Glen Park was on hand with her daughter Ellen Fortier and nieces Greta Haug-Hryciw and Rachel Haug Prescott for the occasion. Oldfield Blatchly, who was six years old when her father Otis Oldfield painted his mural in the tower, provided a living history that added rich context to the works. "I used to run around all the time; we came up here to play," she said. "It was our playground. We knew all the people. We had a blast." She said the artists and their families would go out to the North Beach bistros and socialize together. "It was a community up here, the Telegraph Hill artists," she added. "It was an experience to see them all working together in harmony and working together joyously. They did enjoy making their art for the public."

Oldfield even painted his daughter Jayne and her sister, Rhoda Oldfield-Mix, into his mural, which is in the vestibule across from the elevator. Look to the bottom right corner and you'll see the backs of two little girls. Rhoda is the blonde and Jayne is the brunette with a bow in her hair. They're looking out over the working waterfront. "At this time, we lived on Montgomery Street right across from this view," Oldfield Blatchly said. She recalled the tugboats and lumber schooners vividly.  "This is a view we had from our living room window back in the day. It is accurate and an absolute replica of the craft that was on the bay at the time."

Jon Golinger, founder of Protect Coit Tower, collected the artists' photos—some provided by their families and never before seen in public—and organized the event to launch the brochures and to mark the first anniversary of the restoration. Money for the brochures came from a grant from Delia Fleishhacker Ehrlich, great-niece of Herbert Fleishhacker, who was the head of the San Francisco Parks Commission when the tower was built. Funding for the $1.7 million restorations came mostly from 2004 Lease Revenue Bonds, with another $250,000 from SF Rec & Park. Also, in 2012, Golinger spearheaded Proposition B to prioritize funding for Coit Tower from money raised by its elevator rides to the top, which will guarantee ongoing maintenance. In the past year alone, he said, some damage already occurred from moisture and occasional visitor contact.

Jon Golinger shows a brochure. 

Many visitors to Coit Tower mistakenly think all of the murals inside were painted by a single artist because they're so similar in style and execution. But in fact, 21 men and four women created the 27 historic works between December 1933 and June 1934, and it was the first project in the country funded by the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, a precursor to the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The artists were paid $1 an hour and earned an average of $639 for their labor, a decent wage at the time, especially when you consider government workers earned an average of 62 cents an hour.

"This represents the democratization of art," said Harvey L. Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association. Working-class people didn't used to have the opportunity to go to museums or concerts, he added, nor did they have access to recreation—those things were for the wealthy before government programs and funding opened access for all. Coit Tower itself is free to enter; elevator rides are $6 for residents with discounts for seniors and  youths. Docent-guided tours of the murals are $7, or City Guides offers free tours at 11am every Wednesday and Saturday. 

"It's such a time capsule," said Greta Haug-Hryciw, Oldfield's granddaughter and the niece of Oldfield Blatchly. "This shows the life of the times. It teaches us how important art is and is a testament to San Francisco, FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt], the artists and the fact that they could make a living at their art. I hope that happens again."

The Coit Tower painters were Maxine Albro, Victor Arnautoff, Jane Berlandina, Ray Bertrand, Ray Boynton, Ralph Chesse, Rinaldo Cuneo, Ben Cunningham, Mallette Dean, Parker Hall, Edith Hamlin, George Harris, William Hesthal, John Langley Howard, Lucien Labaudt, Gordon Langdon, Jose Moya del Pino, Otis Oldfield, Frederick Olmsted Jr., Ralph Stackpole, Suzanne Scheuer, Edward Terada, Frede Vidar, Clifford Wight and Bernard Zakheim. (The Rec and Park web page for Coit Tower notes there were 26 artists, but one dropped out before painting anything.)

Books by Jayne Oldfield Blatchly and Harvey L. Smith are sold at Coit Tower.