UCSF Hires Conservation Firm to Move Zakheim Murals from Seismically Vulnerable Building

University Will Seek New Home for Historic Frescoes Following their Safe Removal

By Nicholas Weiler

UC San Francisco has selected a historic preservation firm for the delicate task of relocating a series of 10 New Deal-era murals from a seismically vulnerable building on UCSF’s Parnassus Heights campus. 

The “History of Medicine in California” murals were painted in fresco style by Polish-born artist Bernard Zakheim in the late 1930s on the plaster walls of Toland Hall auditorium, which is located in a 103-year-old building that must soon be replaced with a new facility that meets state and University of California seismic codes. 

Safely moving the large, mostly curved murals, which are brittle and in some cases have suffered prior water damage, is expected to be a challenging task. Assuming the murals are moved successfully, the University will seek a permanent home for the collection where they will be available for public viewing.

“The History of Medicine in California” murals are mostly curved WPA-era frescoes housed in an aged building that no longer meets state seismic codes and needs to be replaced.

The University selected ARG Conservation Services (ARG/CS), a San Francisco-based general contracting conservation firm specializing in historic preservation, to conduct the work, in a formal bidding process. ARG/CS is affiliated with the Architectural Resources Group (ARG), which will serve as the architect of record for the project. 

The team brings together exceptional talent and experience in the preservation and transport of historic artworks, and will be led by project manager Jennifer Correia, an architectural conservator with 15 years of experience who previously managed the conservation and waterproofing of Coit Tower’s New Deal fresco murals, including other murals by Bernard Zakheim. Other leading members of the project team include local experts in conservation architecture and the safe transport of fine art who have been involved in mural restoration at Beach Chalet, the ongoing restoration of the San Francisco Ferry Building, and the upcoming move of a Diego Rivera mural from City College of San Francisco to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).  

“We are very pleased with ARG/CS’s meticulous proposal and the cohesive team of contractors, architects, art movers, and other experts they have assembled,” said Brian Newman, UCSF Senior Associate Vice Chancellor Real Estate. “Their extensive experience working with one another on projects involving conservation and transportation of murals and other delicate works of art gives us confidence in their ability to successfully execute this important project.” 
“ARG has done this kind of thing so many times, they would be my first choice for this kind of work,” concurred Armen Tajirian, P.E., PhD, principal at Applied Materials & Engineering, Inc. (AME) an independent Construction Materials Consulting, Inspection and Testing firm based in Oakland who has worked with ARG/CS frequently for decades. “They are singularly well qualified because they combine the roles of architect and general contractor, so they can not only specify the optimal design but also carry out the work themselves at a very high standard. They’re good people who know what they’re doing when it comes to historic architecture and historic buildings.”

Once the murals are safely moved, the University will evaluate the best location to reinstall them so they can be appreciated by scholars and the public for years to come. 

The murals include a panel that features Biddy Mason, a formerly enslaved woman who rose to become a pioneering midwife, entrepreneur and philanthropist in Los Angeles and is depicted in the murals as a medical authority.

“The family of Biddy Mason is elated that UCSF has hired a prestigious firm to preserve and move the historic murals featuring our grandmother,” said Cheryl Cox, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Biddy Mason, a formerly enslaved woman who rose to become a pioneering midwife, entrepreneur and philanthropist in Los Angeles and is depicted in the murals as a medical authority. Cox is president of the Biddy Mason Foundation™, which carries on Mason’s legacy through charitable works in the U.S. and abroad. 

“We wish the preservation project great success and that in the very near future our family will be able to view ‘The History of Medicine in California’ in a new location,” said Cox, who, with her sister Robynn Cox, PhD, recently participated in an interview with UCSF about their remarkable ancestor and her portrayal in the Zakheim murals.

In advance of moving the murals, the University has partnered with CyArk, a nonprofit company dedicated to preserving and sharing the world’s most important cultural heritage, to create high resolution 3D images of the murals in their original context in Toland Hall. The UCSF Archives is developing a virtual-reality experience about the murals and their history to be hosted online and in an interpretive exhibit on campus in order to make them accessible to the widest possible audience.

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.