Work in Progress
With great enthusiasm, the artists went to work at Coit Tower at the beginning of January 1934. On January 16, Col. Harold Mack, representing the regional committee, wrote to Edward Rowan, a national director of PWAP, that the first and second floors of the Tower had been sandblasted and plastered and awaited the frescoes to be executed by "twenty-six master artists and ten helpers."
Dr. Heil, chair of the committee supervising the PWAP in Northern California, was pleased by the freedom of artistic expression, the promise of local autonomy, and, above all, the excitement of generating modern frescoes in the ancient tradition. Under the supervision of participating artist Victor Arnautoff, who also served as technical director or foreman, the work progressed according to plan. The government-appointed committee rested assured that, as Col. Mack had said at the December 18 meeting, any work causing problems of any sort could be "whitewashed or discarded after it was done." There was a drive to accomplish as much as possible by February 15, the end of sure funding, though Bruce in Washington was hopeful of an extension to six months, at which time the Civil Works Administration was to end. Local reporter John Barry wrote in his column in the San Francisco News that though the PWAP in Washington had been surprised that enough fresco painters existed to "carry out plans so elaborate" as those for Coit Tower, the artists were working away in harmony. "Were there many other creative workers that would get along so well?" he asked.
The physical problems of the Tower seemed resolvable. The artists' compositions accommodated such "architectural accidents" as doorways and the "gun-slit" windows piercing the wall spaces. Some artists who had never worked in fresco before, such as sculptor Ralph Stackpole and easel painter John Langley Howard, found the new medium a challenge. Many of the artists used one another's portraits in their work since, as they said, the models were so convenient. Col. Mack summed up the atmosphere of well-being in a compliment to the project, saying that the whole scheme was so arranged as to "produce unity." Above all, the artists sensed kindred spirits and a feeling of community among themselves.
A Disruption of Halcyon Days
But even as early as mid-February 1934 the serpent of controversy began to snake through this Garden of Eden. Its path had been laid by the destruction at the Rockefeller Center in New York of a Diego Rivera mural completed the year before. Rivera had placed a giant portrait of V.I. Lenin in that most capitalistic bastion of free enterprise. Rivera received payment for his unfinished fresco, and then his patrons suddenly destroyed the work.
The San Francisco Artists' and Writers' Union, a newly formed group with about 350 members, decided to join the nationwide protest, speaking out against this act of "outrageous vandalism and political bigotry." At a protest meeting convened in Coit Tower, muralist Maxine Albro presented a resolution, approved by the membership, regarding the destruction of the Rivera painting as "no isolated example of the prejudices of any private individual or group," but rather "an acute symptom of a growing reaction in the American culture which has threatened for years to strangle all creative effort and which is becoming increasingly menacing."
Concerned now about the spread of incidents like the obliteration of the Rivera mural, the artists cited frightening examples from Europe of growing repression and censorship in Germany, France and Austria. More than one newspaper headline chronicling all these events appear in the paintings at Coit Tower. Even the artists' February meeting has become part of the permanent record: Vidar's newspaper in his mural notes the occasion, and in Zakheim's mural Ralph Stackpole reads a newspaper whose lead proclaims, "Local Artists Protest Destruction of Rivera's Fresco."
However, the work at Coit Tower proceeded with few problems. In Suzanne Scheur's panel called Newsgathering, her window ledge San Francisco Chronicle front page announces the end of the art project in April, though some artists continued to add finishing details until June.As the project drew to a close, San Francisco's Mayor Angelo Rossi asked that the opening of the showplace be set for July 7, 1934.
The Political Climate
External events in San Francisco in 1934 were beginning to cause tremors that were to shake the artists in their Tower. All during the spring, unemployed longshoremen and their union, the International Longshoremen's Association, were in conflict with the Waterfront Employers Association at the waterfront, just a stone's throw below Coit Tower. The union grew more militant and by May decided to call a strike that "no one, not even President Roosevelt" could stop. This Pacific Maritime Strike, extending from Seattle to San Diego and supported by other unions, created a breakdown in coastal commerce, closing the port of San Francisco.
The California Art Research Project of 1937 explains that "in order to arouse public opinion against the striking workers a campaign of terror and Red baiting was resorted to." As part of that campaign, the newspapers decided to make a political example of the art of Coit Tower, which as a government-funded undertaking could conveniently be called "socialistic," or in any event, pro-labor. Certain members of the press had come to view the murals and were quick to see the possibilities of fomenting a scandal for "pure sensationalism," as the artists saw it, isolating out of context several details from four frescoes on the first floor.
The Errant Artists
First, news-hungry reporters noticed that three of the four San Francisco dailies in Victor Arnautoff's scene called City Life were depicted on the newsstand, with the glaring ommission of the San Francisco Chronicle, although a space was obviously allotted for it. The Artists' and Writers' Union retorted, with some amusement, that Arnautoff attributed his ommission to the prominence of the Chronicle in Zakheim's (and presumably Scheuer's) work --hence he had felt no need for further repeitition. Even more galling to the local press was Arnautoff's inclusion, on another rack, of two far-left publications, The New Masses and The Daily Worker.
Next, John Langley Howard in California Industrial Life also represented the left-wing press by painting a miner reading the Western Worker, a large group of militant unemployed workers with a black man in the foreground, and "the angry faces of some gold panners glaring at some tourists" who were standing near their limosine, chauffeur and lap dog juxtaposed with a broken-down Model-T Ford and a gaunt mongrel.
In his Library, Bernard Zakheim seemed to invite rebuke with more radical newspapers and especially a reader (ironically, he depicted fellow artist John Langley Howard) reaching for Das Kapital by Karl Marx.
However, it was the work of Clifford Wight that received the greatest censure. Wight had painted two tall figures --a surveyor and an ironworker-- on either side of a large window. Although the controversial part of his fresco is gone today, Junius Cravens, a contemporary critic, described what used to be there. Commenting on Wight's symbolizing some of the social and political problems of the time, Cravens said:
Over the central window [Wight] stretched a bridge, at the center of which is a circle containing the Blue Eagle of the NRA. Over the right-hand window he stretched a segment of the chain; in the circle in this case appears the legend, "In God We Trust"-- symbolizing the American dollar, or I presume, Capitalism. Over the left-hand window he placed a section of woven cable and a circle framing a hammer, a sickle, and the legend "United Workers of the World," in short, Communism.
On June 2, Dr. Heil had to telegraph Forbes Watson in Washington requesting guidance in what was about to become a serious controversy. He said that some artists had "at the last minute incorporated in their murals details such as newspaper headlines and certain symbols which might be interpreted as communistic propaganda." In defense of the project, he noted that the offensive elements had not been visible in the original design submissions. However, although the Tower wasn't yet open to the public, "through reporters, knowledge of these things has come to the editors of influential newspapers who have warned us that they would take [a] hostile attitude towards [the] whole project unless these details be removed." Heil asked what would happen if the artists themselves refused to make changes.
Watson answered that the murals had to be completed "according to the approved design without additions," to which Edward Bruce aded that "the objectionable features [must] be removed."
Complicating matters, the San Francisco Art Commission during its own preview tour of the art came to the conclusion that what it saw was "in opposition to the generally accepted tradition of native Americanism." Thereupon the Park Commission, caretaker of Pioneer Park, locked up Coit Tower.
In reaction to this new and unexpected action by city government, a group of local artists formed a vigilante committee, intending to storm the Tower and chisel the offensive portions out of the plaster. As a counter-move, the Artists' and Writers' Union threw a picket line around the Tower in order to support Wight and to prevent obliteration of the murals by either the vigilante group or the government.
The Battle Extended
After much dispute, the Arnautoff, Howard and Zakheim frecoes remained intact. However, the fate of the Wight slogans was more complicated. Wight refused to alter his painting and no other artist seemed willing to do so.
History does not record nor would anyone admit who finally removed the "decoration" in question. However, when the warring sides in the waterfront dispute had come to agreement, and when the newspapers were occupied with other issues, the Coit Memorial Tower at last opened its doors to a bemused public on October 20, 1934.