Built in 1940 as a post office, this racy-looking Streamline Moderne building is rich with authentic Art Deco touches. One wall of the huge lobby has retained its original aluminum Moderne service windows, along with their deco-lettered labels (Stamps, Will Call, and others). The remaining three walls are lined with glass cases that contain Gold Rush-era artifacts uncovered during the building’s construction.

But the real reason to come here is to admire the 27 huge casein tempera murals completed under the Depression’s make-jobs Works Project Administration (WPA). Painted between 1941-1948 by a Russian immigrant, Anton Refregier — and influenced by Diego Rivera — the murals depict California’s story from pre-history to the post WW II signing of the United Nations charter.

Refregier did not hesitate to incorporate historic injustices into the murals, which created a firestorm of national political controversy. When the 8-year project was completed in 1948, Republican Senator Hubert Scudder led an effort to cover over the murals; he was backed by then-Senator Richard Nixon, who felt the murals were “inconsistent with American ideals.” Lucky for later generations, a coalition of artists and citizens came to the rescue.

Today, listed on the National Register, the building and its murals have attained cult status with the city’s residents. Most tourists, however, don’t know it exists.

Tip: City Guides offer a free walking tour of the Refugier murals.

For the Fun of It: Watch this short video from the 1930s describing some works, including murals, created under the WPA. You can also read the text of a 1964 interview with Anton Refregier.

The SF Waterfront Editors Recommend…

American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA—Begun at the  height of the Great Depression (1935), the WPA put millions of unemployed Americans to work. American-Made gives a comprehensive and entertaining overview of this massive project. Says Kirkus Reviews: “The book is filled with plucky, fast-talking characters who by dint of charm and grit pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to participate.” The Arizona Republic calls it “A lively and uplifting look at hard times—and a government program that worked.”  About $10. Buy American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA.

San Francisco Art Deco—The fabulous period of art, architecture, and design known as Art Deco began in the 1920s and remained vibrant for 20 years. Art Deco left an indelible stamp on the entire Bay Area, but especially in San Francisco. The 1925 Diamond Jubilee, coinciding with the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in France, introduced the Art Deco age to the culturally-open City By the Bay. The Roaring Twenties created a need for thousands of new commercial and residential buildings, and many of these (e.g., Timothy Pflueger’s Pacific Telephone and Telegraph building) were Art Deco masterpieces that embodied the new moderne styling sweeping the country. Using a variety of building materials, including terracotta, Vitrolux, and neon, many of the city’s graceful and dramatic buildings turned heads 70 years ago just as they do today. About $22. Buy San Francisco Art Deco.

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times—This excellent book received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly; and Booklist noted: “It’s often said that politics is theater, and theater certainly is political, especially in times of extreme hardship and tumult. Quinn illuminates both sides of the coin in this energetic and adeptly detailed account of the remarkable achievements of the Federal Theatre Project, one particularly vital facet of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s altogether revolutionary Works Progress Administration…Much more than the sum of its fascinating parts, Quinn’s history couldn’t be timelier as we face yet another time of economic hardship.” Price: $12. Buy Furious Improvisation.

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