I discovered the work of Hilare Hiler and Sargent Johnson by pure serendipity.
I was in San Francisco with my husband. We decided to do the tourist thing and take a tour of Fisherman’s Wharf. Only I thought the tour started an hour later than it actually did. In a different spot. So we went to the wrong meeting point an hour after the tour left. This didn’t seem like a good beginning to our day at the time.
We wandered by San Francisco Maritime National Park and I saw a Park Ranger who told me was a tour starting soon. National Park tours are free so what did we have to lose? We got tickets and found we would be the only people on the tour.
Our Ranger guide was soft spoken, knowledgeable, and wore rain hat and two pairs of glasses. San Francisco eccentricity? She led us through a museum, a art gallery and by the shore while telling us about the indigenous people of the area, the early settlers and the history and geography of the waterfront. We learned that building materials were in short supply in the early days, so some sailors beached their ships and used the wood to build houses. As a matter of fact, the Maritime Museum located in the nearby Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building. housed the remains of a hull of a wooden ship what was almost 200 years old. Would we like to see it? Why not? We followed her into the building and our adventure began.
The National Park web site mentions that the building was built in 1939 as a WPA project, but it did not prepare us for what the colorful, surreal murals that covered the walls and ceiling of the cavernous lobby. We were not expecting to walk into an undersea dreamland. We gaped in astonishment. And that was only the beginning because for the next few hours we spent there, our guide and a fellow ranger for whom the murals were clearly a passion, engaged us in conversation about Hilaire Hiler’s murals and his Prismatarium in the next room and the tile installations by Sargent Johnson on the promenade deck.
My next posts will be about Hiler, Johnson and their work in the Bathhouse Building, which deserves much more attention than the US Park Service is giving it.
P.S. We forgot about the ship