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Streetwise: Western Neighborhoods Under Construction

by Frank Dunnigan
May 2022
Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
Over the years, San Francisco’s Western Neighborhoods have been graced with numerous examples of mural and mosaic artwork. Appearing in both government and private buildings, such architectural embellishments have always been a joy to behold—reflecting the visions of many long-gone artists. Sadly, many of these works have disappeared over the years, but several others remain as splendid survivors.
Ocean themed Art Deco mural on west wall of Alexandria Theatre - Phaeton image by Anderson Gin and David West Reynolds.
ALEXANDRIA THEATRE - When the Alexandria Theatre opened in 1923, its architectural theme was clearly Egyptian. In 1941, though, it was updated with a new Art Deco style in the auditorium and lobby areas. It was converted to a triplex in 1976, and films ended in 2004 when the building was closed. New condos have been constructed on the site of the old theatre’s parking lot at 369-18th Avenue, and plans call for an aquatic center in the theatre building itself. Read more about this 99-year-old building.
Mural on the back wall of the Balboa Theatre - Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke.
BALBOA THEATRE - The Balboa is a splendid survivor among neighborhood movie houses and just like Queen Elizabeth II, it celebrates a 96th birthday in 2022. Remodeled in the early 1940s and twinned in 1978, it continues to serve appreciative audiences. Unfortunately, a vivid outdoor mural that was added to the 38th Avenue side wall of the building in the 1980s, was lost during a renovation project. Read more about the Balboa.
BEACH CHALET - Built in 1925, the Spanish Colonial building was updated in 1936 with a series of lobby murals by artist Lucien Labaudt under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. The panels depict various scenes of San Francisco life in the 1930s. Read more about the Beach Chalet murals.
Mural over entrance to West Portal Chase Bank branch, 2022 - Photograph by Arnold Woods.
WEST PORTAL CHASE BANK - A mosaic entitled GATEWAY TO THE PACIFIC BASIN adorns the entrance to the Chase Bank branch at 98 West Portal Avenue, dating back to the building’s construction for Home Savings in 1977.
CITY COLLEGE - Artist Diego Rivera’s “Pan-American Unity Mural” was created in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) on Treasure Island, and later moved to the City College of San Francisco campus. The piece includes images of the artist, along with his wife, Frida Kahlo—another noted artist whose name became part of CCSF’s street address in 2018. The work has been on a two-year loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art since 2021, and it is set to return to CCSF in 2023. Read more about the Rivera mural.
Welcome United Nations flower mosaic in front of Conservatory of Flowers, May 1, 1945 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
CONSERVATORY OF FLOWERS - For more than 100 years, the Conservatory of Flowers has had a floral mosaic in place at the western end of its property, with themes ranging from holiday celebrations to major conventions held in San Francisco to sporting teams, and on multiple occasions a giant working clock against the floral backdrop. This 1945 exhibit welcomes the United Nations.
Tiled staircases and Griffin reliefs in Irving Theatre lobby, December 10, 1942 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.
IRVING THEATRE - The vivid mosaic-style tile risers on the twin staircases were a signature component of the Irving Theatre from the time it opened at 1332 Irving Street in 1926. Sadly, it was one of the first neighborhood movie houses to succumb to the wrecking ball in 1962, and was replaced by a non-descript apartment building.
First Gap Store at Ocean Avenue and Fairfield Way in 1969 - Courtesy of Gap Public Relations.
THE GAP - The very first store operated by The Gap (“Levis, Records & Tapes” was the company’s motto at the time) opened in August of 1969 on Ocean Avenue adjacent to the El Rey Theatre. The company expanded into numerous locations across the US, but the bright rainbow circles associated with the company’s original location have long since disappeared.
Murals flanking Parkside Theatre screen in 1943 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.
PARKSIDE THEATRE - The Parkside Theatre opened in 1928 with “Old West” murals adorning the interior walls. This artwork was later hidden by draperies and the building was re-named “Fox Parkside” in 1965. Movies came to an end in 1990 and the interior elements were gutted in 2001 for the building’s new use as a pre-school.
Mural at San Francisco Ice Arena in 1990 - © Darcie Westerlund / Courtesy of Darcie Westerlund.
SAN FRANCISCO ICE ARENA - Shortly before its 1991 demolition, San Francisco Art Institute student Darcie Westerlund was permitted to photograph every nook and cranny of the San Francisco Ice Arena building on 48th Avenue for her 1990 senior thesis. The site is now home to a series of condo buildings constructed 30 years ago, in 1992. Read more about the Ice Arena.
SEARS ROEBUCK - The Sears Roebuck Company commissioned mural in many of its U.S. locations, including the post-World War II store that anchored the corner of Masonic & Geary from 1951 to 1991. The panels, by artist Eugene Montgomery, depicted local history from the early days through the post-1906 recovery, and were displayed on the upper walls of the interior’s main floor, but are now lost. Read more about the Sears murals.
Group portrait of muralist and children painting bus shelter at Stanyan and Waller - © Greg Gaar Photography, Greg Gaar Street Photography 1970s-90s / Courtesy of Greg Gaar.
STANYAN AND WALLER BUS SHELTER - A local muralist, along with neighborhood children, decorated an existing vintage MUNI bus shelter at Waller & Stanyan Streets in February of 1986. The structure is no longer standing.
Mural of St. Francis at St. Gabriel School in 2012 - Photograph by David Gallagher.
ST. GABRIEL SCHOOL - St. Gabriel Parish in the Outer Sunset/Parkside was split off from St Cecilia Parish in 1941. The school opened in 1948 with Grades 1-4, adding a new grade level each year, with the first graduating class in 1952. By the mid-1950s, with 3 classes of 50 students each in Grades 1-8, St. Gabriel’s was the largest Catholic elementary school west of the Mississippi, with 1,200 students. Read Jim Clifford's memories of the 60th anniversary of that first graduating class.
Murals at Sutro Baths ice skating rink, circa 1940 - Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.
SUTRO BATHS - Ice skaters at Sutro’s were once surrounded by a large mural depicting a mountainous village scene. The original swimming pools were walled off and closed in January of 1954 because of health and maintenance issues, leaving the ice rink and museum attractions as Sutro’s final offerings when the cavernous old place went out of business in March of 1966. The property, sold to a developer two years earlier, was vacant and undergoing a slow demolition when it was destroyed in a spectacular blaze in June of 1966.
16th Avenue tiled mosaid steps, 2007 - Photograph by Mark Roller.
16TH AVENUE TILED STEPS - Many 1930s public stairways across San Francisco have been beautified in recent years by the addition of mosaic risers depicting various artistic scenes—the first of which was installed in Golden Gate Heights in 2005. Read more in this 2014 Streetwise column.
Detail of Hooper Foundation for Medical Research portion of Toland Hall murals at UCSF Medical Center, 1990s - Logan Sims photograph - Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review.
UCSF MEDICAL CENTER - A series of WPA-era murals on the history of medicine, commissioned in 1938, wraps around the back and side walls of a lecture room in Toland Hall at the UCSF campus on Parnassus Avenue.
Portion of Dewey Crumpler mural installed in 1974 at Washington High School, 1990s - Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review.
WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL - George Washington High School, built in the Outer Richmond District in 1936, included a series of hallway murals by artist Victor Arnautoff, who learned his skill at the hands of noted artist Diego Rivera. In 1974, the San Francisco School Board commissioned another artist, Dewey Crumpler, to install an additional mural, depicting people from additional ethnic groups. The murals have been the subject of great controversy in recent years, and a summary of the situation, the panels, and the artists can be found here.
Portion of Noah's Ark mural in Mother's Building at San Francisco Zoo in 2014 - Photograph by Richard Rothman.
MOTHERS BUILDING - The Mothers Building, a resting spot for mothers and their small children at the San Francisco Zoo was dedicated to Delia Fleishhacker by her sons Herbert & Mortimer, early Zoo benefactors, in 1925. The building later served as the Zoo’s gift shop from 1978 until 2002, but there has been a decades-long closure. Efforts are underway to restore the building and its classic artwork—both murals and mosaics—designed and installed by two women artists, Dorothy Puccinelli and Helen Forbes, who worked for the federal government’s WPA program in 1938. Read more about fund-raising efforts and the goal of landmark status for the Mothers Building. Hear more about the history of the building in the Outside Lands Podcast Episode #167 from April 2, 2016.

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