WPA - Murals
The WPA might have shut down in 1943, but some projects took years more to complete. Among those is San Francisco’s last WPA project, the Rincon Annex Post Office. The building’s architect was Gilbert S. Underwood (Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite). The design with hints of classic Greece and Moorish Spain is termed “art-deco moderne”.
With the building complete, the W.P.A. held a competition for a mural in 1941. The winner was , a Russian emigrant to the United States.
His work, entitled, “History of San Francisco” was begun that year. Comprised of 27 panels painted with casein tempuro on white gesso over plaster the work covered 400 square feet of wall space. Work was soon interrupted by WWII. And it wasn’t until 1946 that Refregier resumed painting. The mural finished in 1948, cost $26,000 and was the largest single commission of the Painting and Sculpture division for the WPA.
It is an impressive work. It is even more impressive when one learns of the controversy that ensued. Refregier designed and painted the entire history, but along came the revisionists. This painting showed the Padres in a bad light, the hanging man was a little too dark, the workers on the railroad a little too chinese, Sir Francis Drake had blood on his sword, there was too much red which might support communism. Refregier fought to keep what he could, but in the end made 92 changes to the murals before they were finally finished in 1949, possibly the last WPA project to be completed. You can read about the controversy in individual panels of the mural on
But the story wasn’t over. On 1 May 1953, the House Committee on Public Works, fueled by the fears of the “McCarthy Era” began debate on a resolution by Rep. Hubert Scudder (R-Sebastopol) to destroy the murals as they slandered California pioneers and pushed Communist propaganda upon unwitting postal customers. The resolution was waylaid, but not before the California Senate passed a resolution supporting Scudder’s resolution. Rob Spoor elaborates on the trial in
In 1978 the Rincon Annex Post Office was closed. The city, hoping to avoid destruction of the murals, had the building placed under the protection of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1979. Today it is the entrance to the , offering a delightful mix of old and new architecture and art.
While you can definitely check this building out on your own, you might want to consider taking a tour. offers many free tours in San Francisco including the waterfribt area. The tour I took was sponsored by the and led by historian . I am sure there are others. Getting out and walking around is a great way to see any city.
Rincon Annex isn’t the only WPA Post Office. In fact, during the years of the New Deal,