By Ryan Kelly
In honor of Woman’s History Month, we’re highlighting a building located at the San Francisco Zoo that honors the greatest women in the world—our mothers!
The Mother’s Building was built in 1925 on land donated by brothers Herbert and Mortimer Fleishhacker to honor their mother Delia’s memory. The building was intended to serve as a lounge for mothers with small children where they could change, nurse and relax during a day at Fleishhaker Playfield and Pool. Amenities included distilled water, milk and refreshments along with medical advice for its guests. In the west, it was the only structure at the time that was “designed to enhance comfort of mothers and young children spending the entire day in recreation,” according to a National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
The building was designed in Italian Renaissance style by noted architect George W. Kelham who worked on other prominent buildings in the Bay Area such as the San Francisco Public Library (now the Asian Art Museum) and the Federal Reserve Bank. The building is noted for its artwork, which includes egg tempera murals by Helen K. Forbes and Dorothy W. Pucinelli that depict the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. These are the largest egg tempera murals in the West. The mosaics on the loggia walls were done by Helen, Margaret, and Ester Bruton. Both of these features were installed between the years of 1933-1938 and are some of the best examples of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) art in San Francisco during the New Deal era. It is also a very unique feature for the time that all of the art in this building was done solely by female artists.
The Mother’s Building remained open after the Fleishhacker wading pool and playfield closed in the 1940s and would stay that way until the late 1960s when the building itself was closed. The main reason for its closure was that the matrons who had aided the mothers and small children retired. The closure would foreshadow the main pool closing in the 1970s.
The building would be reopened as a visitor center for the Zoo before becoming a gift shop in 1978. It closed again in 2002 for good and has been out of usage since. The Mother’s Building is one of the few remaining buildings from the original Fleishhacker Playfield and Pool and is a symbol the critical expansion and improvement of the City park system during the 1920s and 1930s. The original development of that land currently located at the intersection of Sloat Boulevard and the Great Highway is an example of the evolving duties and responsibilities of city government with recreational activities during that time period.
The Mother’s Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, but has not been designated a city landmark. Richard Rothman, a District 1 representative for the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC), whose passion for the building derives from its beautiful murals, has led the charge to preserve this site, working with many organizations to support a study that assessed its current state. On Thursday March 17th, the Rec and Park Commission reviewed and discussed the Architectural Resource Group’s Conditions Report that found the building to be at a “critical point in time” where the building needs to be stabilized to protect the WPA murals and mosaics.
A renovated and repurposed Mother’s Building seems to be a real possibility in the near future.