From Panorama, the newsletter of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society,
January-March, 2013 Vol . 25, No. 1:
Building 1216 is one of many white Mission-Revival style buildings at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio National Park, but what is inside is anything but ordinary. On the first floor of the Natural Resources Building are the offices for the staff and interns of the Presidio Park Stewards.
In the attic space on the third level, behind locked doors, is an historical treasure, a series of murals from the 1950s that depict army life in the Presidio and beyond.
In a 1956 issue of The Star Presidian, the official newspaper of the Sixth United States Army, the building was identified as the 21st Engineer Company barracks of the 30th Engineer Group. In a room measuring approximately 120 feet by 60 feet, a transformation was taking place.
Company Commander Captain Milton Sanders wanted a more stimulating room for his training lectures, so he had a discussion with Specialist Third Class Perrin Gerber, a freelance artist from Chicago. The result: a colorful series of murals depicting many phases of army life - training, fighting, working and playing. The murals are meticulously accurate in depiction of uniforms, weapons, insignia and decorations.
There were at least three artists involved in the project, each signing his artwork : Gerber, ‘56; R. Cook, ‘57; and J. Hough, ‘56 and ‘57. Not much is known about Hough and Cook. But Perrin Gerber, who studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, has relatives living in the Bay Area. Before joining the army, he had been an illustrator of technical publications and even comic books and magazine cartoons.
Gerber first sketched out his murals in pencil drawings and then charcoal. For the actual painting of the murals, the artists used whatever paint was available, army issue, presumably. In a conversation several years ago with Barbara Janis, librarian for the Presidio Trust, Gerber recalled the paints came from cans, not tubes. At the time, little thought was probably given to preserving them for the future, but preserved they should be.
There are two rooms with murals: the color murals in the large room deal mainly with men at war: pictures of medics treating wounded in the field; soldiers doing mundane tasks such as darning socks and polishing shoes; a mural of a baseball game at Fort Scott with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background; civilians in Europe scooping up leaflets falling from the sky; an officer at a blackboard pointing out reasons for “re-upping” in the service; a whimsical mural of soldiers on KP duty, as well as soldiers marching in formation.
In an smaller adjacent room, murals were sketched in charcoal except for a colorful map of the United States with painted landmarks for each state—California had the Golden Gate Bridge and a Los Angeles film studio—and hundreds of enlisted men affixed their signatures on their home states.
Other murals in the room depict non-military life: a farm scene, people dancing, a cartoonist at work (perhaps a self-portrait of Gerber as he drew cartoon illustrations prior to joining the army); a family going to church.
Although the colors in the murals seem very intense — probably as true in color as when painted almost
60 years ago — the murals have suffered over the years. Many have splotches of plaster wall that has fallen away, leaving gaps in the murals. However, since the Presidio was turned over to the National Park Service in 1994, steps are being taken to preserve them.
According to Rob Thomson, deputy federal preservation officer for the Presidio Trust, his staff has been involved in a number of efforts to document and research the murals since 1994, and to ensure that their environment is well-suited toward their preservation.
“While we do not currently have a specific project or funding source set aside for the murals’ conservation, we have taken several steps to ensure that their condition does not deteriorate and that the building where they’re located is well-maintained,” says Thomson. “This has involved replacement of the roof of building 1216 so that the attic remains water tight, and controlling access to the murals so that they are not exposed to any undue harm. We are also currently working to complete a Historic Structure Report for the building and its murals and make recommendations for their preservation. This will serve as the building blocks for a more robust mural conservation plan, should one be needed in the future. Through these efforts, we are confident that the murals have been well-cared for and that we’ve taken appropriate steps to learn from them and prepare for their long-term care.”
As for Gerber, after the army he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York, then returned to Chicago to work for a commercial art company before starting his own. Later, he moved to Fresno and eventually settled in Grayson, Georgia, where he had a graphic arts studio. Among his credits: illustrations for the book, Nine Spoons by Marcia Skillerman, a story of people in a Nazi concentration camp who gathered spoons to make a menorah for Chanukah. He passed away in 2010. He has two nephews in San Francisco, Patrick Noakes and Jay Goodman.