Secret Rivera

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

Incredibly, the de Young Museum passed on the chance to take the mural in 1941 after determining that the panels were too large to fit through its doors. Museum officials balked at spending the $4,800 it would have cost to lower the work piece by piece through a skylight.

Meanwhile, the mural came perilously close to being destroyed while in the Navy's care. As he helped douse a hangar fire in 1941, a fireman pierced one of the crates with an ax, leaving a 20-inch gash in a section of the mural that depicts a woman embroidering beside a young girl. Pflueger wrote to Rivera, who was back in Mexico, to tell him about it, prompting Rivera to volunteer to repair it upon his return. In a letter, Rivera asks Pflueger to send him a photograph of the mural -- "one of the whole thing, and some details. Everybody is asking for them, and I have none." That was shortly before the library plans were halted. Rivera was never again to see the mural.

For a long time, neither was almost anyone else.

Early on a June morning in 1942, a convoy of trucks made its way across the Bay Bridge from Treasure Island to the college, coming to a halt at the foot of a hill. There, against the wall of the men's gym, workmen carefully offloaded the precious cargo, placing the crates vertically side by side. The next day a team of carpenters arrived to build the shed against the gym to cover the crates.

The move was well planned. Pflueger had seen to it that the panel damaged by the ax was put in place last. After the shed was built, a makeshift "door" was positioned against the spot so that Emmy Lou Packard, Rivera's mural assistant, could repair the damage in accord with Rivera's wishes. A memo reveals that Packard, accompanied by Pflueger, examined the damage in the summer of 1942 but decided against attempting the work, thinking it best to wait until the mural was moved for display.

Little did anyone suspect that that wouldn't happen for nearly 20 years. "That shed was part of the scene for as long as I can remember," says Jim Keenan, 60, whose father worked at the college and who remembers playing next to it as a child. Keenan is now the college's buildings and grounds superintendent. "We used to throw baseballs against it. There was never any thought about what might be inside."

If not for Timothy Pflueger's architect brother, Milton, who in 1957 was commissioned to design the City College performing arts theater, the mural might have never seen the light of day. That December, a month after Rivera's death, Milton Pflueger presented the Board of Education, which governed the college, with a bold idea to rescue the mural from the shed. He sought permission to reconfigure the theater lobby, making it a few feet taller, wider, and deeper to accommodate the artwork. It wasn't an easy sell.

A conservative board member railed against Rivera as a communist. A spokeswoman for the teachers' union warned of the mural's bad influence on impressionable young minds. But calmer heads prevailed after board President Bert Levit suggested that if all artwork was judged by the artist's political and moral standards, the nation's galleries might be empty.

Although there were news stories in 1961 when the mural was unveiled in its new home, the buzz from the "rediscovery" of one of Rivera's monumental works didn't last long. Emmy Lou Packard was brought in to repair the ax damage of two decades earlier. (In one of her letters, she notes with pleasure inviting Mona Hofmann, another of Rivera's assistants on murals in San Francisco and at the Detroit Art Institute, to view the restoration; Hofmann was unable to determine that the panel had been damaged.)

Packard, a noted painter whose credits include the student union parapet at UC Berkeley, went on a campaign to promote the mural, with little success. She wanted a tour bus company to include the mural as a regular stop, but it wasn't interested. Having weathered McCarthy-era opposition to providing the mural a home, college officials also weren't keen on promoting it.

Despite a flurry of publicity about the mural's installation, before long remarkably few people seemed aware of its existence. Even Bertram Wolfe, Rivera's biographer, didn't know where it was. In 1962, while preparing to update Rivera: His Life and Times, Wolfe wrote to Milton Pflueger for help in finding the mural. "[It] was supposed to be put up in some building at San Francisco State College," he stated, erroneously. "Has that been done?"

Of all the people who've rooted for the mural to emerge from obscurity, Donald Kairns may have the most personal motive. The son of the late Emmy Lou Packard, Kairns, 68, a retired insurance broker from Philadelphia, is the last known living person among the many real people whose portraits Rivera included in Pan American Unity. He was 5 at the time.

Kairns occupies a prominent spot in a middle panel, kneeling at the foot of a ceiba tree, the Mayan Tree of Life. "I remember hating the fact that I had to wear shorts that day," he says. To his left a few feet away is one of several Rivera self-portraits in the mural. He is holding Paulette Goddard's hand. Near them stands Frida Kahlo, depicted in traditional native dress and wearing handmade earrings that were a gift from Pablo Picasso. To the right of Kairns is Timothy Pflueger. In his hands are the plans for the library that he would never build.

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