Ruth Gottstein died in late August at the age of 100. She was the founder of Volcano Press, a small publisher in the Sierra foothills that brought out Dell Martin’s “Battered Wives” and more than 50 other books, most dealing with domestic violence and other forms of oppression. Through the decades she fought to preserve the great murals that her father, Bernard Zakheim, had painted in San Francisco in the 1930s. When Ruth was 89, according to her obit in the SF Chronicle, “she became the face of Proposition B, a 2012 San Francisco ballot initiative that mandated that the city prioritize revenue from Coit Tower tours to restore the historic murals, the tower itself and the surrounding Pioneer Park.” It passed.
Coit Tower was built in 1933 with money from a woman who had a thing about firemen. The architect denied it had been designed to look like a firehose, insisted he was aiming for “a simple fluted shaft.” A New Deal agency funded the painting of the interior walls in 1934 by Bernard Zakheim, who worked by applying dyes directly onto wet plaster. He entitled the murals “Aspects of Life in California.” His daughter Ruth appears in one of them, a schoolgirl dressed in a sailor’s blouse. ”I never wore a blouse like that,” she told the Chronicle years later. “I don’t know what my father was thinking.”
The obit by Sam Whiting explains, “The clothes she was wearing in the fresco are consistent with Catholic school uniforms, which grated her even more because she attended only public school. Her father was a socialist and put a copy of Karl Marx’s treatise ‘Das Kapital’ in the painting and refused entreaties to remove it. Still, he was able to collect his fee of $619 for four months of work.”
(It was also in 1934 that Diego Rivera was pressured by the young landlord, Nelson Rockefeller, to remove Lenin from the mural commissioned for the lobby of Rockefeller Center. The painter refused and EB White wrote a long poem about the stand-off with the unforgettable refrain, ‘I paint what I see,’ said Rivera.)
In the early ‘90s I met Ruth Gottstein at the Inner Sunset home of her friend, Esther Blanc, a retired UCSF nursing professor who I was interviewing for the Anderson Valley Advertiser. (I took down as much of her life story as I could. The editor called it “tape-recorder writing.”) Ruth was preparing to publish a book by Esther called “Wars I Have Seen,” which included some very insightful stories and a play set in Spain, where she had served as a nurse during the Civil War. Ruth liked the AVA interviews and included them in the Volcano Press book, which is out of print, alas, and the AVA archive doesn’t go back that far.
The Chronicle obit was full of interesting info. Bernard Zakheim had run a successful furniture factory south of Market until the crash of 1929 wiped him out. Home furnishings’ loss was art’s gain. He studied under Rivera and devoted himself to painting frescoes. When he finished the Coit Tower job in April ‘34, daughter Ruth, then 11, wrote a letter notifying the head of the Public Works of Art Project that her father needed more work.
That letter, according to Whiting, helped Zakheim land a larger commission by the Federal Art Project to create 10 murals for the circular walls at Toland Hall, the main auditorium within UC Hall, the UCSF medical school. His ‘History of Medicine in California’ was completed in 1938, but its content was later deemed too disturbing and distracting, and it was wallpapered over in the 1940s.”
The Toland Hall murals were painted between 1936 and 1940. As described in Synapse, the UCSF weekly, they were ”reminiscent of Rivera’s. One panel illustrates the chaotic condition of medicine as it was practiced in the San Francisco of those years; Dr. Elbert P. Jones (for whom Jones Street is named), weighing the gold dust which was the only fee he would accept (nuggets would not do); Dr. Townsend opens the first San Francisco medical office in 1846; Dr. Fourgeaud, another of the early physician-pioneers and his family; Dr. Clappe amputates a miner’s leg while another pours whiskey for anesthesia; Dr. Toland on horseback, with saddle bags bulging and plans in hand for his Medical School; Dr. Willis shoots drunken Dr. Hullings for tearing up his diploma.”
The effort to remove them was part and parcel of the red scare that began almost immediately after World War 2 ended. Herb Caen described the graphic purge in the Chronicle Feb. 13, 1948: “A few weeks ago Artist Bernard Zakheim’s huge murals in the UC Mcd School on Parnassus were ordered covered with wallpaper. Because they were allegedly distracting students. The famed Dr. Howard Nafziger, one of the medicos who ordered the wallpapering, asked a classroom of 60 students which they preferred: the mural or plain wallpaper. Fifty-six voted for the mural. But the wallpaper will stay where it is. ‘We were just curious,’ said Dr. Nafziger. ‘HE is curious?” Dr. Lynch [an OB-GYN professor] among others unhappy about the wallpapering, remarked at the time: “My God! That’s what we want! We want the students to notice it. We want them to have something to come back to in twenty or thirty years, something they’ll remember and want to come back for.’ ’I want the students’ undivided attention,’ said Dr. Nafziger.”
The Great Herb revisited the subject in 1964: “The Journal of the American Medical Association convention reproduced on its cover one of artist Bernard Zakheim’s frescoes in Toland Hall in the UC Mcd Center, a belated tribute.” Back in 1948, Zakheim painted ten striking and expensive frescoes in the lecture hall, which certain powerful medics led by the late Dr. Howard Nafziger, found ‘too distracting.’ Despite protests by the artists’ community, four of them were covered with wallpaper, behind which they remain covered to this day. As for Zakheim, who now lives in Sebastopol, he has had a tough time of it ever since. ‘All of a sudden,’ he says, ‘nobody had a job for a controversial fresco painter.’”
Some UCSF Administrators never appreciated Zakheim’s murals. In the ‘40s the wallpaper had been varnished on. “In the ‘50s,” according to Guang-Shing Cheng in Synapse, “the wallpaper was covered with oil-based paint, which compromised the surface of the murals underneath. It was not until 1962 that Professor Chauncey Leake and Chancellor John B. dc C. M. Saunders, with the help of Zakheim’s children, organized a successful restoration project. If and when UC Hospital is demolished, campus planners intend to preserve the murals, which are on movable frames, and to reinstall them in a reconstructed Toland Hall in whatever building goes up.”
The plan had changed by 2019, when Administrators determined that the murals would cost $8 million to move and notified Zakheim’s family that they had 90 days to come get them and move them at their own expense. Saving the murals, Whiting wrote in his obit, “became Gottstein’s last cause and she wrote what her son described as ‘a scathing letter’ to all 19 regents of the University of California demanding that the murals be preserved. Surprisingly, UC backed down.
In the summer of 2021 the murals were about to be removed and put into storage when a neighborhood group trying to delay the destruction of UC Hospital (in order to delay the building of a gigantic new facility on Mt. Parnassus), got a restraining order. As Whiting described the situation, “The skylight has been lifted off the building to create an opening large enough to extricate the panels by crane. Work was under way to cut the murals out of the wall in preparation to be airlifted. That project was suspended by the court order, and the skylight opening covered by plywood and heavy plastic.”
But Ruth’s obituary ended on a relatively happy note: “UCSF had each individual fresco panel airlifted to safety by crane last fall. The artwork is in storage, and UCSF has formed a committee as it tries to figure out where and how to display it.”