Janie Sheppard: Ben Cunningham’s Coit Tower Mural Revealed

Mendocino County

Making a special trip to San Francisco was worth it to see muralist Ben Cunningham’s 9’ by 23’ fresco, “Outdoor Life.” Cunningham is the artist who painted the mural in the Ukiah Post Office, which is currently under a death sentence, thanks to ill-conceived, purported cost-saving measures by the Postal Service.  Public art is endangered nationwide; to save it we first have to know it is there. Hidden treasures must be revealed.

Ben Cunningham’s mural in Coit Tower is a revelation; most of the time it remains unseen; thus the special trip. The picture above is only part of the mural.  Because the mural is in a very tight space and goes around a door, I could capture it only in segments.

So, from left to right, here are the segments:

The portion depicting the empty-plate picnic is next, above the door. Framing the door to the right is the remainder of the mural.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays San Francisco City Guides conduct tours of Coit Tower.  Only with a tour can the Ben Cunningham mural be viewed. “City Guides is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and perpetuate this history and folklore of San Francisco and celebrate its rich history of cultural diversity,” says its brochure.

The guides are volunteers, and if the quality of our guide is any indication, they are excellent and forthcoming with fascinating information.  Such as:

• The Coit Tower artists were influenced by Diego Rivera whose politics are reflected in several murals.  You can see an original Diego Rivera mural at the nearby San Francisco Art Institute. One DR-influenced mural had depicted a symbolic trio of the blue eagle symbol of the National Recovery Act, the words “In God We Trust” and a hammer and sickle circled by the legend “Workers of the World Unite.”  Now, it is a blank space, the only one in Coit Tower.  This bit of protest art resulted in Coit Tower being locked up for months, postponing its opening.  Someone, no one knows who, painted over the offensive symbols, making Coit Tower safe for the public.

• In a nasty bit of photo shopping, on July 5, 1934, a Hearst paper published a “photo” of a real mural entitled “Library,” doctored to show a hammer and sickle surrounded by the words “Workers of the World Unite.”  On that day, two union members were shot to death in San Francisco.  Foreshadow of a recent incident in Tucson, do you think?

• By 1960, vandalism had made a mess of the murals, closing Coit Tower to the public until 1977 while restoration and installation of protective railings made the interior safer from the public; or, at least signaled that vandalism would not be tolerated.

• During the 6 months it took 26 artists to paint the murals, a Colonel Somebody-Or-Other chaperoned those wily — and thought to be lusty — artists from a tiny apartment within Coit Tower.  Sadly, the apartment is now used as a storage room for various junk foods purveyed in the Gift Shop.  Our guide said, and I totally agree, that a better use of that space would be to restore it, renting it out to earn money that could be used to preserve the art within and the outside of Coit Tower for future generations.

The battle to preserve the Ukiah Post Office made me fall in love with New Deal art.  If I had a million dollars, I’d fix up the little apartment in Coit Tower and rent it myself.



I have a painting dated 1932 by signed Ben Cunningham. I have had it since 1966 when I lived in Oakland California. It looks like a exotic women with a flower in her hair playing cards. I would like to know more. Thanks, Susan

Lucky you. Just Google him and you’ll turn up quite a bit.