by Woody LaBounty
In the southwestern corner of the city, tucked in a corner of the San Francisco Zoo, stands a building imbued with women’s history and artistic achievement. The Delia Fleishhacker Memorial Building, commonly known as the Mothers Building, has been shuttered for 20 years, unused, mostly neglected, its tan stucco reliefs wearing away under an assault of salt air and ocean fogs.
On Tuesday, March 15, 2022—appropriately timed for Women’s History Month—Supervisor Myrna Melgar plans to initiate city landmark proceedings at the Board of Supervisors for the Mothers Building. Concurrent with this long-overdue recognition there is renewed hope in the air for a restoration and revitalization plan for the historic building.
Opened in 1925, the Mothers Building was a gift to the city from Herbert and Mortimer Fleishhacker in memory of their mother. San Francisco created a sprawling public recreation complex south of Sloat Boulevard on former Spring Valley Water Company land in the mid 1920s, which included a playground, an enormous open-air swimming pool (named after the Fleishhackers), and the beginnings of the zoo. In the middle, the Mothers Building provided a place of rest and refreshment for mothers and their children. Matrons doled out milk, sandwiches, bandages for minor injuries, and even parenting advice.
George W. Kelham, architect of the Shell Building, the Russ Building, and the San Francisco Main Library building (now the Asian Art Museum), chose an Italian Renaissance style for the Mothers Building. The rectangular structure is steel-framed, a little over 100 feet by 40 feet, with a hipped roof of red tile and an exterior decorated with pilasters, recessed apses, and friezes of children at play.
Despite the Corinthian columns and the broad entry steps, the overall visual impression of the building isn’t monumental grandeur, but a place of leisure and welcome. The 1979 National Register of Historic Places nomination noted that, as designed to enhance the comfort of mothers and young children spending the entire day in recreation, the Mothers Building was “probably the only structure of this type in the West.”
Adding to its uniqueness, the Federal Works Progress Administration commissioned women artists to elaborate the inside and outside the building in the 1930s. Only a small percentage of artists granted WPA projects nationwide were women, but five were employed at the Mothers Building. Helen Forbes and Dorothy W. Pucinelli painted a series of Noah’s-Ark-themed egg-tempera murals on the upper walls of the lofty main room, while sisters Margaret, Helen, and Esther Bruton made mosaics for each end of the building’s recessed entry loggia. The Bruton mosaics feature St. Francis and children living in a peaceable kingdom of animals and nature.
When I was a child visiting the zoo in the 1970s, the Mothers Building served as a welcome/information center and gift shop, ideally situated just inside the main entrance gate below Sloat Boulevard and 45th Avenue. In the early 2000s, the zoo relocated its main entrance to the beach side, facing a paid parking lot laid over the former Fleishhacker Pool. The Mothers Building, deemed seismically unsafe, was closed to the public in 2002.
Community members, especially the indefatigable Richard Rothman, have pushed for conservation, maintenance, and a plan for reuse of the building for over a decade. Former District 4 supervisor Katy Tang secured $400,000 to assist with immediate repairs to shore up and protect the building, but a conditions assessment of the building by Architectural Resources Group (ARG) estimated long-term repairs and upgrades would cost over $10 million. That estimate is already now five years old.
Other San Francisco public buildings with WPA murals such as Coit Tower and the Beach Chalet have been restored and celebrated. The Mothers Building, without a defined purpose, trapped behind the paid gates of the zoo, and in what one writer has called a “geographically marginalized location” has meanwhile languished. Every five years or so, hope is raised that something will be done, mostly thanks to Richard’s polite nudging of the issue at commission meetings, to the media, and in his almost weekly visits to city departments and supervisors’ offices.
On February 25, 2022, a tour of the inside of the Mothers Building was hosted by the Recreation and Parks Department. The guest list included two parks commissioners, Supervisor Melgar, in whose district the zoo property lies, and Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose district abuts the zoo. Representatives of interested groups, including San Francisco Heritage, joined the small party to view the state of the building and its artwork.
While the murals on the west wall were damaged from previous water infiltration, the rest of the Noah’s Ark scenes are intact and, in total, the four murals cover 1,200 square feet. Everyone on the tour took their own moment to bring out the phone and photograph the softly rendered menagerie of llamas, raccoons, lions, and baboons above.
While the plaster and decorative precast concrete is cracked and spalling outside, the interior wood paneling, decorative light fixtures, and the Bruton mosaics in the entryway seem in overall good condition. Sketched-out proposals to activate the large room as a learning center, meeting hall, and perhaps a return to its original use as a place of relaxation, were all discussed during the tour. Supervisor Melgar acknowledged the architectural beauty, the inspiring woman-created art, and the importance of the building as a relevant historical space associated with mothers and all women.
San Francisco now plans a “managed retreat” from the ever-eroding Great Highway at Ocean Beach. The idea of an adapted reopening of Sloat Boulevard as the main entrance of the zoo has city agencies working more closely together. And as the February tour and Supervisor Melgar’s landmark initiation shows, there is revitalized interest in the Mothers Building being a part of that plan.
The will to finally get something done is a seed of hope, but sunshine and water are still required. Millions of dollars need to be found or raised before mothers and their children can once more take refuge under the animals of the ark.