Murals in Peril*

Coit Tower isn’t very tall – only 210 feet (64 m). In fact, it’s short compared to some of the other buildings on the San Francisco skyline (the shape made by hills and buildings against the sky). But it stands on top of Telegraph Hill, so it’s hard to miss (avoid seeing) by day or by night.

Telegraph Hill, which is popular with many tourists, is an important part of San Francisco’s history. It gets its name from a signal (something used to send messages), located at the top of the Hill, that was used to identify ships arriving in San Francisco harbor (place near the city where ships stop). In 1850, the signal alerted (sent a message to) San Franciscans that California had become the 31st state in the U.S.

Coit Tower was built on Telegraph Hill as a gift from wealthy socialite (well-known rich woman) Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She was a little eccentric (unusual, odd) – for example, she loved to chase fires (go where fires are burning) – but she wanted to add “to the beauty of the city which [she] had always loved.” The Tower was designed in the art deco style – with strong, simple shapes and colors – that was popular in the 1920s and 30s. It was dedicated (officially opened) in 1933.

Many people have seen the Tower from the outside; fewer, however, know about the art treasure inside. The interior walls are covered with fresco murals created by 27 different artists and their assistants. Frescos are works of art created by painting directly on the surface of a wall or ceiling, often when the surface is still wet, so that the painting becomes a permanent part of the wall or ceiling. Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is one of the most famous examples of fresco.

A mural is any work of art painted on a wall or ceiling, often as a part of the design of the building. According to a recent report, more than 2500 murals were painted in post offices, schools, and other public buildings in the U.S. in the 1920s. The murals in Coit Tower tell a story of life in California in the early part of the 20th century. They include scenes of “the grim (serious) reality (truth) of city life, the pastoral (peaceful) beauty of California’s agriculture (farm life), and the worlds of food and leisure (relaxing activity).” Famous Mexican muralist (someone who paints murals) Diego Rivera influenced many of the artists who painted the Coit murals.

Many of the public murals in the U.S., including those in the Coit Tower, are in danger today. The U.S. Post Office, for example, is down-sizing (becoming smaller) and closing many of their buildings, including some with murals. The Coit murals, however, face a different peril (serous and immediate danger) – the San Francisco fog.

One of the problems with frescos is that anything in the environment that damages the wall or ceiling they’re painted on also damages the paintings. This kind of deterioration (becoming worse) seriously damaged Da Vinci’s Last Supper and required a major effort by art conservators (someone who repairs art) to rescue (save) the painting.

In the Coit Tower, moisture (small amounts of water) from the almost daily San Francisco fog penetrates (goes into) the walls. As it evaporates (dries), it moves through the wall to the painting on the face of the wall and leaves tiny white salt crystals (pieces of salt) that slowly destroy the paintings. This process causes the wall and the paintings that cover it to slowly crumble, or fall apart.

People in San Francisco have begun to raise money to try to preserve (save and protect) the tower.

If you’d like to learn more about the Coit Tower  murals and what’s being done to save them, you can read and listen to this story from the PBS Newshour.

*Peril = serious and immediate danger

~ Warren Ediger – English tutor and coach and creator of Successful English, where you can find clear explanations and practical suggestion for better English.

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under Creative Commons license.

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17 Responses to Murals in Peril*

  1. sirjoe777 says:

    Dear Warren,
    thank you very much indeed for telling us a story we here in Europe cannot imagine about the “american way of life”!
    A working class art – it look likes so to me – moving example, particularly seeing on the footage a picture with a Karl Marx book!
    And getting pretty all they said in.

  2. Jesús says:

    It was really good to read this column, it taugh me more about the cities in the US like San Francisco.

    Thank you Warren

  3. Peter says:

    Warren ,
    You outdid yourself hand over feast on this post.
    The post is from above and beyond.
    Man ,it Barly happens ,but ,you got me this time my friend ,and you got me all right.
    I mean,all bragging aside, I normaly find some new word and expressions that are new,I must say, not very often.
    Perhaps ,one or two hear or there.
    But on this post ,you got me with several new words. Thank Warren.
    My favorite is “fresco”
    “keep it up my friend.”
    You posts are appealing to me.
    You always spice up your posts buy a trace of eccentricity that I found very tasty.
    Love your post,no argue there.
    But ,there is one question I wanna ask
    How on earth do you find your materials?
    I just read it one more time.
    Dude you are killing me here.
    If you must know,I love your current post the best.
    I rate it among top 5 on the blog
    The first 4 goes to Jeff. He doesn’t come to raring ,though. His skills are off chart.
    He is one smooth writer.
    But ,you are the type of write I like most.
    Just ,keep it that way,will you
    Amazing post my friend
    In fact, I m goona cop and paste it on my iPhone and devour the genius of you word on this very post over a cup of coffee
    I can thank you enough for your beautifully done post.
    You know what, to me
    Jeff Is a smooth talker and writer
    Lucy always write in style,no argue there.
    But, every time you put up a post there it moves the blog to the whole another level. You bring a class to the blog.
    I love to see more of your work in the blog.
    Indeed Ur posts class up the blog.

    Thank warren,

  4. emiliano says:

    It has to be difficult to preserve “los frescos” against the weather effects but I think it is something
    absolute necessary if we want to leave a legacy of the human art works to our next generations.
    Da Vinci’s Last Supper was a great mistake of Leonardo as he painted “The Last Supper” on an
    inappropriate suface. It was a big mistake and after a short period of time the painting begins to
    be deteriorated which it was an absolute disaster.

    Our great painter Francisco de Goya painted some of his master paintings “Black Paintings” on
    the walls of the house he was living. “La Quinta del Sordo” was the name of the house but not
    for him (he was also deaf at the end of his life like Beethoven) but for a man who was so either.
    “Saturn Devouring His Son” and “Witches Sabbath” could be some of the his most famous and
    we have them as they were taken out from the walls and carried to the Prado Museum together
    with the other Black Paintings.
    As Goya could painted what he really like to paint over the walls of his own house we could
    have now the most free art painting made by an artist without being censured or being paid
    by his work.

    If you like to see wall paintings you may see also see here in Madrid the “San Francisco el
    Grade Basilic” but it is necessary to see the Wiki in Spanish as in English said nearly nothing
    you can not see the wall paintings.
    It is funny as this Basilic was built in a place where it was a church founded by San Francisco
    first, and Franciscanos have been ruled the church for long….the same that were in California
    and founded the city of San Francisco.
    Here in Spain there are the most famous “Frescos” of the Romanic age that are painted on
    the walls and vaults of “El Panteon de los Reyes” in the city of Leon.
    I have seen them and they are absolute fascinating but also very well conserved as Leon city
    has the appropriate climatology to conserve this art works in the perfect form.

    Sorry Warren, but the art treasures of this country Spain are absolute immense. Every one
    of the old cities like Leon, Burgos, Segovia, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Barcelona,
    Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba……of course Toledo and so forth.
    Even the little one have incredible gothic cathedrals, romanic churches and monasteries
    and all kind of art demonstrations.
    Thousands of years of history have this kind of results.

    It seems I am proud of the art, history and culture of this my country, yes I am but it
    is something natural as every one of us are of their own either.

    If you like “Frescos” see “La Quinta del Sordo” from Goya and “El Panteon de los Reyes”
    in Leon, but see Wiki in Spanish.

    My best for you Warren and thank you.


  5. emiliano says:

    I have enjoyed a lot seeing “The Frescos” on the walls of Coit Tower
    and listening to the video also.
    Talking so much about my own city and country I have forget to
    say that, too much less of modesty, thank you Warren indeed you have
    the virtue of springing the best feelings of music and art inside me.
    Curiously seeing your notes I remember so much things I have seen
    along my life that is an absolutely pleasure to read them.

    Sorry and thanks a million Warren.


  6. emiliano says:

    as always said Betty……another mistake to correct:

    “I have forgotten”…… is just unforgivable my dear emiliano
    to have such mistakes….
    How difficult to write in English, it is
    the same tune by long.

    My dears, it is absolutely necessary to preserve this site where we could learn so
    much reading, listening and writing……”Have A Premium Subscription as Soon
    as Possible, it is the best action you coud
    do now”.
    Have in mind the wise advise that Jeff said to us every moment at the
    beginning of his/her podcasts.
    Seriously do that, and vote, please.


  7. Betty says:

    Thank you very much indeed, Warren, for this rich article which not only has helped me learned more about murals as an art, it also pointed me to one more useful source of learning good English.

    I followed your link to the PBS Newshour, and I read and listened to the whole news, many times.

    There are many vocabularies in the news, which I enjoyed reading and listening.

    I think the correspondent Spencer Michels has done a very good job in this news reporting, and you have done a very good job in introducing to us so many new words and the priceless artworks in this San Francisco landmark.

    Thanks again.

    Betty 🙂

  8. Betty says:

    Thanks, Emiliano, for remembering me when you decided to correct the grammatical mistake.

    It is funny, we are so absorbed in our writing that we do not notice any mistake.

    The mistake is in front of our eyes after we pressed the “Submit Comment” button.

    Very often, I wish I spotted the mistake before I submitted the comment, but it seemed impossible to see the mistake until after too late.

    It is part of the fun of writing, I guess.

    Anyway, Emiliano, I know you are a very good painter. My daughters are very artistic as well. I always wonder how come children could draw so well.

    Now they are older and they are under pressure to do well in academics and so they do not draw much.

    In fact, we sort of discourage them develop their talent in drawing and painting only because we all know that artist do not normally lead a normal life.

    So many famous painters were very poor when they were alive. Their paintings/pictures were auctioned for millions and millions of, say, US dollars. The painters are not in the auction room to share the pleasure of “success”. You know what I mean?

    Just one question to my friends here. Do you have children who always draw on the walls of your sitting room or their own rooms? My older daughter always drew and wrote on the walls of our sitting room when she was very little.

    She later told me that when she was tiny she waited for me to go to the kitchen and then she started drawing on the wall. No wonder I had never caught her at the particular moment.

    I myself loved drawing on walls and ceilings when I was very little. Yes, I slept on the top part of a bunk bed and so I could reach the ceiling and I drew and drew all day and night.

    I am happy to have learned the word “murals”, a useful word that brought back all the lovely memory for me. 😉

  9. Tania says:

    Hi! In my schoolbook of Antique History there were a lot of pages with frescos.
    The most common form of fresco was Egyptian wall paintings in tombs, frescos painted in ancient Greece and Roman Empire.
    In our churches all walls are painted with mural paintings.
    I don’t know: is fresco the synonym of the mural paintings?
    When I say fresco I see something more sophisticated.

    Thank you for this very nice video of the Coit Tower.

    Best wishes,


  10. Tania says:

    Hi! I’ve never heard about the Coit Tower designed in the art deco style from San Francisco.
    I’ve watched the video and indeed the Coit Tower is a national and historic treasure which deserves to be preserved.
    My first impression?
    It seems to be dedicated to the human labour, to the workers, to the working class.
    Especially when I saw the public library with famous works by Hegel and Karl Marx.
    Das Kapital; Capital: Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx in a central position in a famous fresco in the U.S.? Amazing to me!

  11. Tania says:

    Hi! Just to remember.
    “HEGEL (1770 – 1831) was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism.
    He revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.”
    The Marxism is the symbol of the communism.
    “Das Kapital, by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production,
    and how it was the precursor of the socialist mode of production.”

    For many years in my country the Marxism was the law – “a paradox characteristic of economic crisis in a capitalist economy;

  12. A mural is a painting applied to a wall or ceiling, often as a part of the design of a building or room. Fresco is one method of applying the paint – watercolor is common – to the wall or ceiling so that it penetrates (goes into) the wall or ceiling and becomes a permanent part of it. A mural could be painted with oil-based paints – and they often are – but they wouldn’t be frescoes because the paint is on the surface of the wall or ceiling.

  13. Betty says:

    Thank you very much indeed, Warren, for this further clear explanation of “murals” and “frescoes”.

    It is good that Tania queried the difference between murals and frescoes.

    I looked up the Chinese translation of mural and fresco; both returned with the same Chinese meaning: “wall painting”. I was very confused. I thought mural and fresco were the same. It is all in the clear now.

    My heart goes out to the painters who spent hundreds – if not thousands – of hours creating the art work, not knowing the future fates of their creations.

    Even the inner and outer walls of our houses or buildings need to be repainted every few years, those art works surely need at least the same level of maintenance as our dwellings.

    However, those murals are art works initiated by and belonged to the painters who are no longer with us and obviously not with their art works. We only have the conservators (someone who repairs art) to rescue (save) the painting.

    Repairs are repairs and can never bring the damaged art work back to the original state. I wonder whether there was any intention to keep the painting forever.

    Thanks again, Warren, I have learned a lot through your lessons.

    Best Regards

    Betty 🙂

  14. Tania says:

    Hi! Thank you for your kind explanation. It was necessary to know . In this way I can appreciate the art works from a monument.

  15. Kashif says:

    Thank you for giving us a change of taste. Your posts are always lengthier, detailed and pleasantly different than the other contributors. However, I feel that sometimes you go over the line in detailing things and situations. Someone like me, will truly love your posts, but seeing the rest of commentators, it seems fair to assume that it was a tough one for most. Just a suggestion of course.

  16. Joe says:


    Thanks for telling us the differences between fresco and mural. In China, we have precious legacy “Mogao Caves”. There are tons of ancient murals in the cavs. And they are all in peril too.
    I think there are advanced technique made to protect murals. But I forget how the method works.

  17. Betty says:

    Hi Joe

    I am so happy to read your message about Chinese murals.

    I looked up the Wikipedia and found some very interesting information.

    I was not good at Chinese History. I found Chinese History lessons very boring. The lessons always passed without a trace of “lesson” learned. I guess I slept throughout the lessons.

    On the other hand, the education authority probably had not included Chinese murals in the syllabus. So, I knew nothing about them until now.

    Thanks again, you are great.

    Betty 🙂

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