Back in the years of the Great Depression,the Works Progress Administration sought to develop communities through public works projects, repairing infrastructures, roads and bridges and creating new public buildings -- libraries, firehouses, schools, and more. Unemployed masons, carpenters, steelworkers, and artists -- painters and sculptors -- found work completing these projects. Art -- and artists -- were at the heart of these projects, many of which still serve us today. We are fortunate to also still have these many fine murals and sculptures, reminding us that it takes more to support a healthy society than steel girders or concrete pillars.
One of the more remarkable WPA-era projects still graces the ground floor of San Francisco's Beach Chalet, a lively restaurant overlooking the waves of Ocean Beach. I enjoy eating at the Beach Chalet -- there is nothing more wonderful than dining with the ocean at one's elbow -- I must say that it is art, more than the food, that convinces me to stop at the Beach Chalet. I return again and again to see the full color and sepia frescoes, tile mosaics, and beautifully carved wooden pillars and baulistrades that offer a clear view into the life and the imagination of San Francisco long ago.
Completed in 1936 under the direction of painter Lucien Labaudt, this project employed many talented artists who made use of every surface and every corner to create an engaging and playful environment for a serious public building. I am intrigued, of course, by Labaudt's expansive scenes (not pictured here) of San Franciscans enjoying life in the parks and on beaches, picnicking, playing music, resting on park benches, bicycling, but I especially enjoy the more quirky aspects of the project -- the corners, the pillars, the undersides of things. I love the mosaic archer, bracing himself against the geometry of an architectural detail mimicking both the two-dimensional faux molding of the outer hall wall and an imagined low 'wall' of a garden lush with semi-tropical sword-leaf plants. The archer shoots his arrow towards the bathrooms. Such signage beats the now more common generic stick-figure male/female, universally recognizable perhaps but insufferably boring.
The art at the Beach Chalet is never boring. It gently invites passage from room to room and with that invitation redefines interior space through images reminding both of the natural beauty beyond building walls and of the importance of human community. In this particular section of the larger mural, pictured at the left, the joy of the sea and the wind enlarges a narrow wall dividing the hall doorway from a window while the painted figure of two young girls and a kindly elderly man refocuses that expansiveness into gentle joy of human tenderness.
The two girls are nestled warmly into one another, faces turned each to the other, and the dignified man with one hand in his pocket holds a ball or an apple in the other. Behind, sailboats tack into the wind, moving out on a peaceful sea. This is an image of gift giving, from one generation to the next. The gift may be small, the space may be narrow, but what results is large. So much offered in such a small place. . . generosity cannot be confined. I love the girls' tiny pink hats.
Walking up the stair to the restaurant is pure pleasure. The carved balustrades supporting the smooth wood bannisters under my hand allow me to lean on the facility of the imagination and the liquidity of the sea. Two bulky yet graceful octopi anchor the base of the bannister, and as the stair rises toward the second floor, mermaids and mermen gracefully assume that weighty chore. I love the dance of this double-tailed mermaid mother (pictured below) who appears midway up the stair, her long seaweed hair winding gracefully from shoulder to tail as she plays tenderly with her fat-cheeked babe. I can feel the water . . . and the love.