History on an Eroding Beach

By Carlo Urmy, NRF-US/ICOMOS Graduate Fellow

Heritage in Resiliency Planning

In early October of 2017, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted unanimously to close a portion of the Great Highway, a multi-lane expressway running along Ocean Beach on the city’s Pacific coast. The section slated to be removed has been plagued by issues related to sea level rise and erosion, and in 2010 large portions of an adjacent parking lot collapsed onto the beach below. This prompted the development of the Ocean Beach Master Plan by SPUR, a private planning organization, working alongside the State Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the National Park Service. This master plan proposed a number of coastal defense and adaptation strategies, including closing part of the Great Highway. This plan, while admirable in many ways, also demonstrates the continuing lack of connection between the fields of climate change planning and historic preservation.

While it surveys the history of Ocean Beach, SPUR’s Master Plan does not deal explicitly with historic preservation or protecting cultural resources. This is unfortunate, since Ocean Beach is the site of several resources, many of which have deteriorated through neglect, and which are now threatened by climate change and sea level rise. While the beach is known for its natural beauty, it was for a long time dominated by carnivals and bathing facilities, San Francisco’s answer to Coney Island. In 1896, Adolph Sutro, the engineer and one-time mayor of San Francisco, built Sutro Baths at the northern end of Ocean Beach, at the time the world’s largest building dedicated to bathing. In the early 20th century, a cluster of rides and attractions gathered around Fulton Street at Ocean Beach, eventually becoming an amusement park called Playland-at-the-Beach.

In 1924, an enormous public pool was built by Herbert Fleishhaker on Sloat Boulevard, at the northern end of what is now the proposed highway removal project. The Fleishhacker Pool would serve generations of San Franciscans before closing in 1971. The pool was eventually filled in and replaced by a parking lot for the San Francisco zoo, while the adjacent pool house fell into decay and was abandoned. In May of 2012, the Ocean Beach Master Plan wrote that the “decrepit pool house offers a tempting opportunity for adaptive reuse.” Unfortunately, six months after the publication of the report, the building was destroyed in a fire.

While the main poolhouse has been lost, the adjacent Mother’s Building remains—at least for now. Not mentioned in SPUR’s Master Plan, this 1925 building is best known for its interior, which features WPA-era artwork by women artists, including mosaics by sisters Helen, Margaret, and Ester Bruton, as well as a set of egg tempera murals by Helen K. Forbes and Dorothy W. Puccinelli. Depicting the biblical story of Noah and the Ark, these are among the largest egg tempera murals in the world. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, but has been allowed to deteriorate badly since then. A 2016 conditions’ assessment by Architectural Resources Group found the building in a critical state and in need of immediate stabilization. The most pressing problems are related to the proximity of the Pacific Ocean, including water damage to the murals, particularly along the western side of the building. Rising sea levels and a shrinking beach may exacerbate these problems, while flooding from extreme weather could cause new damage.

Further north on Ocean Beach is the Beach Chalet, another National Register-listed building featuring WPA murals. Built in 1924, its famous frescos were added in the early 1930s by Lucien Labaudt, a French-born San Francisco artist. Like the Mother’s Building, the Beach Chalet building fell into disrepair following World War II, but beginning in 1987, efforts to restore it began. The building is now in excellent condition, but there are serious questions as to how it will respond to climate change. The Ocean Beach Master Plan projects a 55-inch sea level rise by 2100, which, combined with ongoing erosion, and additional storm surges, could easily bring seawater to the foot of the Beach Chalet. Furthermore, frescoes and murals are especially vulnerable to changes in climate: increased salinity, atmospheric moisture, and intruding groundwater can all damage previously stable artwork.

Recent ideas for the future of Ocean Beach illustrate the need for greater connection between the fields of preservation and climate resiliency. Neither the Ocean Beach Master Plan nor San Francisco’s Sea Level Rise Action Plan mention historic or landmarked structures—a grievous oversight. At the same time, addressing or responding to climate change is still rarely considered in preservation efforts, and preservationists often lack the tools or information necessary to plan for the specific challenges that their resources face. This gap between preservationists and climate planners is not just a problem on Ocean Beach: in 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named San Francisco’s Embarcadero as one of the 11 historic sites in the United States most threatened by climate change.

In cities like San Francisco, which are defined by their coastal and maritime history, we all need to more actively look for opportunities to bridge this divide, and bring cultural heritage into the broader conversation around climate change and resiliency. There are already some tools in place for this, such as FEMA’s 2005 guidelines on integrating historic resources into disaster planning, In San Francisco, which has historically dealt with fire, flooding, and earthquakes, adopting such guidelines should be a clear first step, even without the added threat of climate change. More broadly, preservationists will have to acknowledge that climate change is itself a preservation issue, and as city governments begin efforts to plan for climate change preservation organizations should reach out and ask to be included in decision-making. This won’t be easy; it will require learning a new vocabulary and developing unfamiliar skill sets. But this effort will be necessary if we are to protect our coastal heritage for future generations.

This post originally ran on US/ICOMOS’ Knowledge Community for Climate Change and Heritage: http://www.usicomos.org/knowledgeexchange/climate-change-and-heritage/