Bernard Zakheim was a Polish immigrant who came to San Francisco and studied under Mexican muralist and revolutionary Diego Rivera. He painted a series of intricate frescoes detailing the history of medical innovation in California. Painted as a commission for the federal Works Progress Administration, the murals were installed in 1938 in Toland Hall, a building on the Parnussus Heights campus of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).
Over eighty years later, the campus has determined Toland Hall is too seismically vulnerable to be worth renovating, and the building is slated for demolition in the campus’s expansion plans–plans which are not popular among the campus’s neighbors, as it would add 1,200 housing units and multiple hospital facilities to an already congested part of San Francisco.
In June 2020, the university informed the descendants of Bernard Zakheim that they had 90 days to figure out a plan to claim and remove the frescoes at their own expense, which the letter estimated would cost in the vicinity of $8 million. If they couldn’t do this, the letter continued, the murals would be photographed for posterity and then destroyed in the demolition.
The letter provoked a wave of local outrage, and the city’s Board of Supervisors quickly designated the artworks a historic landmark. UCSF rolled back the deadline and contracted a historic preservation company to restore and preserve the murals at $1.8 million, instead of their previous estimate of $8 million. A new location is being sought.
In the meantime, however, a lawsuit was filed against the removal of the murals by neighborhood group San Franciscans for Balanced and Livable Communities, which opposes the campus’s expansion plans. On Thursday, August 27, a judge ruled with the group, putting a restraining order in place to prevent the removal of the murals until at least September 16th, when the court will rule further on the larger expansion project.