July 1, 2011
Sensitive preservation brings the exuberant interiors of a WPA-era building back to life.
900 Beach Street
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Standing in the center of a ship’s prow of an office formerly occupied by Maritime Museum founder Karl Kortum, preservationist David Wessel looks over the bay toward Alcatraz, the once-infamous island prison and now-famous tourist spot parked in the center of San Francisco Bay. The office is at the top of the Maritime Museum, a white, streamlined, shiplike building with an interior bathed in color, perched right up against the edge of San Francisco’s Fort Mason. A semicircular wall of windows overlooks the glistening bay. With the sense of surveyed expansiveness, the building feels like the ultimate luxury. The strange juxtaposition of the Rock and this softer place is not lost on Wessel. “The prisoners on Alcatraz could hear the parties here,” he says.
Prisoners and parties, and we’re thrown back to the late 1930s, to the height of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the series of federally funded projects that included public buildings in Los Angeles; the Merritt Park-way, in Connecticut; and bridges everywhere. The Maritime Museum was originally built as a bathhouse in 1938, and the art it contained—most of it murals by a conceptually inclined color theorist and painter named Hilaire Hiler—was completed soon after. Hiler started with a mind-bending prismatorium: a circular window-walled room with a ceiling painted in blocks of light and dark shades, expressing a theoretical logic that would have made Josef Albers proud; visitors are just puzzled. Hiler ended the project with a blended-blue room that mimics the colors of the ocean, from deep to shallow.
That blue came to light when Wessel did a “reveal,” removing a slender strip of beige paint from the wall of a room now occupied by the city’s longest-existing senior center, as part of a massive refurbishment started more than 20 years ago. In 1958, the building was shifted over to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, and in the 1970s it joined the big league of the National Park Service, which still runs it. Trained first as a cabinetmaker and then as a historic preservationist, Wessel is the steward of the structure, shepherding the building through desalination, mural restoration, and the decision to leave the tilework on the terrace wall intact and incomplete.
At the entry, a bas-relief by Sargent Johnson, one of California’s first prominent African-American artists, kicks off the maritime motif. Fish, snail shells, and waves are all just barely carved into slate tiles that were laid using water-soluble materials and so, ironically, damaged by water until Wessel figured out how to remove the panels, electrically charge them to get the salt out, and treat them to prevent resalination.
Pass through the doors—original from the 1930s, just like the tiled floor with undulating patterns based on shoal maps of the bay—and immediately there are the blue-green surfaces of the main exhibition space, the color painted on canvas glued onto the walls. The mural was filled in by conservator Anne Rosenthal in a process known as compensation, restoring the colors to Hiler’s original brightness. There isn’t much in terms of exhibitions, but Wessel’s company, Architectural Resources Group, is in the middle of figuring out how to exhibit models of ships and everything else Bay Area maritime without getting in the way of the building and its art.
The Maritime Museum seems small from the outside, like a yacht anchored in the bay, but inside it is more Queen Mary 2, with a basement that doubles the size of the building. A ring of bleachers surrounding the central structure was once used by spectators watching cross-bay races; now people just use it to ogle intrepid bathers. Glass-brick skylights set into the ground next to the bleachers bring San Francisco sunshine deep into the basement, where the underground lockers used to be and the underground offices will soon be.
On the terrace wall is a tile mural that was left unfinished after a workers’ strike. We want to fill in the narrative where the tile stops, imagining the workers taking a break and refusing to return. It’s that power of story that makes the Maritime Museum so compelling. Like the murals and the prismatorium, the stories and histories of the museum come together to make meaning, memory, and identity out of seniors playing Ping-Pong and a model-filled vitrine. The prisoners may be gone, but the parties still ring.