Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Places I'm Visiting: San Francisco Maritime Museum (February 17, 2014)

I made a brief stop at San Francisco's Maritime Museum recently, where Polk St. meets the Bay, in the city's Aquatic Park Historic District, part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, which includes the park area, the Maritime Museum, a visitor's center in the Argonaut Hotel building, a library and research facility, and a number of historic ships moored nearby. It had been years since I'd been to the museum, which I remembered mostly for some extraordinary ship models long housed there. I arrived only about 20 minutes before closing, having been in the area on other business, but it was enough time to get a taste of the rather startlingly beautiful murals on the interior walls of the museum building, designed by William Mooser Jr. and William Mooser III, and originally built as a bathhouse in the Art Deco style. The bathhouse and its museum were shut down for several years for renovation, but the building appears to have re-opened recently. The murals have been cleaned. They glow with color.

The bathhouse was begun in 1936 and completed in 1939. The fanciful aquatic murals inside are by Hilaire Hiler (1898-1966), known as an artist, but also as a psychologist, a color theorist, and a jazz musician. He was an author as well. His 1942 book Color Harmony and Pigments cast problems of color in art in psychological terms rather than in terms of physics and the physiology of perception. He lived in Paris before WWII and again in his later years. He died there in 1966.

The decorations, the bathhouse, and the park were WPA projects. I can't imagine how I missed the murals in the past, but they appear to have been covered with a layer of grime and the old displays in the museum obscured them.

Today it's possible to enjoy their bright colors and flowing lines again. I spent my short time in the main room photographing details. There is a picture everywhere you look. It's projects like this one that I think of when I hear people complain about too much government, about excessive government spending, about government intruding into spheres of activity best left to private enterprise. The WPA put people to work who needed work, and many of the WPA's projects created art of enduring beauty, facilities of lasting appeal. Generations of San Franciscans and visitors to the city have enjoyed the park and the museum for nearly 80 years now. Although the museum building itself appears to have had something of a checkered history (having been used as a casino and an army facility, among other things), ultimately it has proved a worthwhile spending of taxpayer money. I, for one, am delighted it's there. Seeing the murals was thrilling. Some forms of government intrusion, if this is intrusion, seem greatly to be celebrated.

I hope to make another visit soon to explore the rest of the building. Hiler's "Prismatarium," a color wheel illustrating his color theories and conceived of on the pattern of a planetarium, is on the ceiling of one of the other rooms in the building. In its coherent design and decorations, there is something about the bathhouse that put me in mind of Gaudi's Casa Batllo, in Barcelona. There's much to be seen in the rest of the museum, on the historic ships, and in the visitor's center, but it was worth the trip just to get a brief view of the murals before closing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails