After decades of neglect, the Fleishhacker pool building suffered from a major fire on Saturday, December 1, 2012. The city may be investigating the cause of the fire, deemed suspicious, but most believe that squatters, escaping the wrath of winter storms, likely caused it.
Fleishhacker Pool Building Fire
Now there’s a rush to eradicate the building’s remains. On December 5, 2012, the Department of Building Inspection issued an emergency order to “abate the public nuisance” by directing the Recreation and Park Department to file for permits for demolition. The latest I’ve heard is the bulldozers could move in as early as tomorrow.
The real tragedy probably isn’t last week’s fire, or even the interior destruction done by vandals, graffiti artists, and the homeless—damage which escalated significantly in the last five years or so. This fight to save the last piece of a unique urban recreational center was lost slowly over decades.
I have sympathy for the people working at the San Francisco Zoo and the Recreation and Park Department. Over the past ten years both agencies have had to tackle great public debates and debacles—tigers escaping, elephants ailing, coyotes in the parks, beach and road erosion, questions and scrutiny over native plants, sewage treatment plants, recycling center evictions, artificial turf soccer fields, rowdy concertgoers, and privatization of parkland—while wrestling over budgets and trying to sell bond ballot measures. But while over the years there may have been pitches to restaurateurs, gym owners, and even the people responsible for Burning Man to take over the pool building, the city failed to safeguard and adequately plan a future for a historic structure in its care.
So now, once again, we’re in a familiar place. Questions of preservation and our architectural heritage have to be wrestled over in crisis, when there are apparently no good options. Shoulders are shrugged, a once beautiful structure is deemed beyond repair as the wrecking ball arrives, and the public gaze again moves towards “revitalization” (building new complexes, museums, office towers, and LEED certified glass and steel boxes) rather than restoration.
As it seems too late for the Fleishhacker Pool House, we need to salvage what we can. Physically, that might mean what’s left of the decorative dolphin moldings over the doorway lintels, but more broadly, we now need to put the city’s feet to the fire on the other major historic building on zoo property—the Mother’s Building.
Mothers Building mosaic
Built in 1925, the Mothers Building is officially named the Delia Fleishhacker Memorial Building in honor of Herbert and Mortimer Fleishhacker’s mother. Designed by architect George W. Kelham, the building was intended as a place of respite for the mothers of children enjoying the Fleishhacker playfield and pool. For many years, the sandy-colored building stood welcome for zoo goers when the entrance wound down sloping paths from Sloat Boulevard. Beautiful WPA-commissioned Noah’s Ark themed murals by Helen Forbes and Dorothy Pucinelli decorate the interior while mosaics by Helen Bruton are set in the entry.
The building has needed restoration for decades and has been closed to the public since 2000. Unfortunately, a leaking roof, since repaired, damaged parts of the murals a few years ago.
Like the Fleishhacker pool building, the Mothers Building also finds itself a ward of several guardians: the San Francisco Zoo, the Recreation and Park Department, and the San Francisco Art Commission. At the very least, studies have to be conducted to determine the current state of the building and the repairs needed to make it again a vital part of the city’s cultural landscape, especially now as a new playground is planned nearby.
Let’s move this project up on the agenda now, while attention is temporarily focused on this part of town. E-mail Tanya Peterson, Executive Director and President of the Zoological Society (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Philip Ginsburg, Executive Director of Rec and Park (Philip.Ginsburg@sfgov.org) and tell them that the Mothers Building and its art work – murals and mosaics – need to be restored.