After being closed for six months of repair, Coit Tower recently reopened its doors in San Francisco. The 13-story, 210-foot-tall tower underwent a $1.7 million restoration—its most comprehensive ever. The chief work involved repair of its water-damaged fresco murals, of which there are 25 in total. Located in Pioneer Park on Telegraph Hill, the tower has served as a prominent city landmark since the early 1930s. Although today it serves as a museum, it was originally used as an observation tower.
Designed by architects Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard, the structure was named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a San Francisco socialite who left a third of her estate to beautify the city. Coit also wanted the tower to serve as a memorial to the city’s firefighters, with whom she frequently volunteered. Although debunked, some still believe the tower was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle.
There are 3,681 square feet of murals inside the Art Deco tower, painted by 25 artists and their assistants under FDR’s Public Works of Art Project. Many were faculty and students from the California School of Fine Art, and four were women, including Maxine Albro, a prominent San Francisco-based artist, whose 42-foot-long mural features an agricultural scene. At one point, Albro, whose artwork is also featured at San Francisco State University, worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera. All of the murals except two were painted on site.
The frescos, featured on walls, hallways, and even winding up a lower portion of a spiral staircase, portray life, current events, industry, and San Francisco during the Great Depression. They depict a variety of political views and include figures as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt and the founding president of Bank of America.
Over the years harsh weather damaged the murals. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department hired Architectural Resources Group (ARG) to lead the building restoration and Anne Rosenthal Fine Arts Conservation to conserve the murals—which took two-years to complete. Conservators first cleaned the mural surfaces with dry sponges to remove any dirt. Then they restored the murals with a technique called inpainting, which repaired deteriorating paint while allowing future conservators to reverse restorations if needed.
Looking toward the future, ARG focused on waterproofing the flat roof and exterior, as well as creating a climate-controlled environment for the murals. The firm repaired the exterior reinforced concrete and brought historic windows and bathrooms up to code. Accommodations were also made for accessibility and improvements to the gift shop.
“How do you preserve artwork in an area that was not intended to contain artwork?” said David Wessel, principal at Architectural Resources Group. “The biggest challenge was determining where water was getting into the building.” The firm used infrared technology and water testing to trace the leak.
ARG thought a source of the leaks was the 100-year-old water tanks—originally installed to service plumbing—sitting in the middle of the tower. They hired a diver to explore them, learning that they were in fact safe and still functioning. It was only the roof that was leaking, with water moving from the top of the building downward through concrete rock pockets.