Secret Rivera

Four decades after it was rescued from a storage shed, Diego Rivera's magnificent City College mural remains a hidden treasure

But such considerations are quibbles compared to the mural's earlier handling: For years it was nearly impossible to see the work, even assuming one knew where to find it. "At one point I came within an inch of bringing up for censure the [theater arts instructor] who held the key [to the theater]," recalls Masha Zakheim, who taught English at the college from 1966 until 1991 and whose father, Bernard Zakheim, was among the muralists whose work is displayed at Coit Tower. "Talk about frustrating. We had this wonderful work of art on campus, and you couldn't get access to it."

Bergman, the librarian, recalls the time two European tourists came into the library asking for help finding the mural and her having to persuade campus police to open the door. "We get scholars, diplomats, you name it, from all over the world, who come here to see it," says Will Maynez, director of the college's physics lab, and another of the mural's fans. But they're the exception. Among the public, the mural remains obscure even on campus, which has no signs to direct visitors to it.

The college's rekindled interest in the mural can be traced to the late 1980s and a controversial plan to move it from the theater into a new college library, which opened in 1995. Although nothing like the library Timothy Pflueger once envisioned, the current library was designed with a soaring four-story atrium specifically to accommodate the mural.

Rivera and Chief Mural Assistant Emmy Lou 
Packard on Treasure Island, 1940.
Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley
Rivera and Chief Mural Assistant Emmy Lou Packard on Treasure Island, 1940.
Plenty of Elbowroom: The mural gets few 
Paolo Vescia
Plenty of Elbowroom: The mural gets few visitors.

Opponents of the move, who expressed concern that the mural might be damaged, prevailed. In hindsight, even some who favored the move say things may have worked out for the best. Although the new library would have been a better venue than the theater, they say, the atrium still would not have allowed for optimal viewing. "It was a blessing in disguise," says Bergman. "If the mural had been put there, that's undoubtedly where it would have stayed."

Since then, its protectors have had loftier goals.

During a brainstorming session in 1999, Guadalupe Rivera Marin challenged the college community to "think big" about the mural's future, suggesting that CCSF make the work the centerpiece of its own building. Chancellor Day seized on the idea, and the dream of a Pan American Center was born. "His attitude was, 'Sure, we can do that,'" recalls Bergman, who was present at the session. "It was a transformational moment."

Timothy Pflueger had grand plans for the mural. San Francisco's leading architect and one of its most important arts patrons during the first half of the 20th century, Pflueger had made his mark in the 1920s, designing the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. headquarters (at the time the city's tallest structure) and the Stock Exchange building. Pflueger's friendship with Rivera blossomed in 1930 after he arranged for Rivera to paint his Allegory of California at the Stock Exchange.

When finished, the Exposition mural was to have become the cornerstone of Pflueger's next project, the futuristic library he intended to build at San Francisco Junior College (as CCSF was then known). The library would complement a hilltop Science Building, also designed by Pflueger, and which remains the college's most imposing structure.

To accommodate the move from Treasure Island to the campus near Balboa Park, Rivera conceived the mural as portable, its 10 panels attached to steel framing. Portability appealed to him for reasons other than logistics. In 1933, his unfinished mural at New York's Rockefeller Center was tragically desecrated after Rivera and John D. Rockefeller came to an impasse over the latter's insistence that he remove an image of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

As letters between the men contained in the archive reveal, Pflueger's library plans became more ambitious as Rivera's arrival neared. Pflueger envisioned the mural as covering the entire south interior wall of the library's reading room. Facing north off the hill in the center of the campus toward Judson Avenue, the mural would be visible from afar through the building's solid glass front. By the time Rivera was halfway finished, Pflueger had proposed an even grander idea. Although it would mean nearly doubling the scope of the work, why not have the artist cover the reading room's east and west walls as well? Rivera agreed. He would execute the nearly 1,800 square feet of mural envisioned for the Exposition and return once the library was constructed to complete the painting.

But with the United States' entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, steel that might have gone into the building's construction was instead used for Liberty ships. Within months of the war's end, the architect dropped dead of a heart attack on a downtown street.

The war and Pflueger's death contributed to the mural's fading into anonymity. Even now, the details surrounding its disappearance, as revealed in archival materials, are not widely known. Placed in temporary storage in a military hangar on Treasure Island after the gala unveiling in November 1940, the mural soon became a source of friction between the Navy, which wanted it moved, and the San Francisco Unified School District, which -- while hoping to see it placed in Pflueger's planned library -- had no idea what to do with it in the meantime.

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