Anton Refugier’s mural in Rincon Annex (Photo © Laurie McAndish King)

The San Francisco waterfront is home to four exceptional WPA mural sites, which you can tour at your leisure.

Begin at Rincon Annex, where you’ll view nearly 30 powerful images by Russian immigrant Anton Refugier, depicting the story of California from pre-history to post-WWII. Painted in casein, some were modified after a Congressional investigation into their “anti-American” content.

Head north to Coit Tower, with its Diego Rivera-style frescoes which were quite controversial in their day; some of these images, too, were altered because of their “subversive” content before being displayed to the public. Muralists include Clifford Wight, Ralph Stackpole, and John Langley Howard. Go on a Saturday; the murals on the spiral staircase are open to the public at 11 a.m.

Next, stop at the Maritime Museum, where Artist Hilaire Hiler covered 5,000 square feet of the interior with bizarre sea creatures, brilliantly colored fish, and magnified microorganisms populating the mythical undersea worlds of Atlantis and Mu. Ranger Jordan Yee provides knowledgeable interpretation of Hiler’s atypical WPA style, as well as of the exterior hieroglyphics by artist Sargent Johnson.

The 1st floor of the Beach Chalet, just south of the Cliff House on Ocean Beach, houses restored WPA-era murals by Lucien Labaudt depicting classic SF locales: The Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, Baker Beach, Golden Gate Park, Land’s End, the Marina, Downtown, and Chinatown. Don’t miss the mosaics and intricate wood carvings (I love the octopus) from the same era.

Want to learn more about WPA-era art in California? Check out At Work: The Art of California Labor. “This is a visual journey that follows early events and conditions, from the rise of statewide organized labor to the changing demographics of the wartime workforce; from the zenith of the California Labor School to the farm workers’ movement; from the disenfranchisement of workers in the service economy to the potent effects of globalization felt at the end of the twentieth century.”


Or check out San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay, a Depression-era guide to San Francisco that relates the city’s history from the vantage point of the 1930s, describing its culture and highlighting the important tourist attractions of the time. David Kipen’s lively introduction revisits the city’s literary heritage—from Bret Harte to Kenneth Rexroth, Jade Snow Wong, and Allen Ginsberg—as well as its most famous landmarks and historic buildings. This rich and evocative volume, resonant with portraits of neighborhoods and districts, allows us a unique opportunity to travel back in time and savor the City by the Bay as it used to be.

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