From baseball fields to museums, these do-gooders have swooped in to rescue beloved institutions—including an iconic artwork—that are part of Bay Area history.
By Paul Wilner
Our stretch of Northern California is always willing to lend a hand, especially when it comes to preserving the landmarks that make it unlike any other place.
Witness the two successful missions—both led by women—to keep San Francisco’s signature cable cars running.
In 1947, civic activist Friedel Klussman formed the Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cable Cars to fight Mayor Roger Lapham’s announced intention to “junk the cable cars.” She successfully led the campaign to introduce a ballot proposition to save the cars—and it passed overwhelmingly.
But the battle was not over. In 1982, the cars were pulled “in the dead of the night … to avoid the recurrence of a near-riot,” the New York Times reported at the time. The shutdown was part of a two-year renovation project, and afterward it would cost close to $60 million to get them back on their cables. Charlotte Shultz, the city’s longtime Chief of Protocol, worked closely with then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein to raise millions from private donors to supplement federal and state funding.
“I saw [former Chevron CEO] Ken [Derr] the other night and he reminded me that people who gave a million dollars got a real cable car bell,” Shultz tells the Gazette. “It was—double entendre intended—one of the heaviest jobs I ever had. But it was good for my biceps, and we delivered them!”
Fellow “saviors” spotlighted in this story have rescued the UC Berkeley baseball program from going under, kept a Maxfield Parrish painting in the Palace Hotel and breathed new life into the Mexican Museum. Each is proof that doing well by doing good is not an empty slogan but a rewarding path—with reverberations for the communities they serve.
After graduating from UC Berkeley with a law degree in the mid-1960s, Stuart M. Gordon carved out a tidy living as co-founder of Gordon & Rees, specializing in medical malpractice cases. But he never forgot his college days, when his career was cut short after a collision in which he tore the shoulder of his pitching arm. “I was running out a sacrifice bunt, and the ball and the first baseman and I got there at the same time,” he says, laughing.
So when the baseball program, which had been in existence since 1892, was on the chopping block for budget cuts, the savvy, LA-born attorney swung into action.
“In September 2010, then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced they were cutting five sports, including Cal baseball, as a cost-saving measure,” Gordon recalls. “I was part of a fundraising team that raised a grand total of $2.5 million, but Birgeneau said that was woefully insufficient. He also said the negativity that he was facing from fans as a result of cutting these programs was appalling, and he was reluctant to change his mind.”
Gordon promised to work with others to get the most vocal critics of the proposal to pipe down, but that was the easy part. Then Birgeneau said, “I need you to raise $10 million to ensure the program will last at least another eight years.” Gordon, who “sort of gulped,” took up the challenge. Birgeneau gave him a little over a month to collect the cash.
Reader, he did it.
“I knew from a prior conversation with Doug Goldman, who’s a big supporter of Cal athletics, that he’d contribute a million dollars,” he says. “Larry Baer was very helpful, and the Giants contributed along with Dick Blum and others who wanted to remain anonymous. I planned to contribute $500,000 and I knew others who would as well. By the end of the eight weeks, we’d raised $9.8 million, and myself and other donors raised their contributions 10 percent to make up the difference.”
On top of everything, the Cal baseball team had a Cinderella season, making it to College World Series in 2011 only to lose in the second round. But Gordon’s work wasn’t done.
“When I played at Evans Diamond, it was nice, but the scoreboard never operated well,” he says. “There were still no lights for night games. So I put together another campaign to raise money to get lights and a new video scoreboard. For day games we used to have maybe 300 people. Now we have night games, and they’re packed.”
Longtime San Franciscans were stunned when they woke up on March 22, 2013, and read the news, via veteran San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte, that Maxfield Parrish’s famed painting The Pied Piper, displayed over the bar of the Palace Hotel since 1909, had been summarily packed up and sent East to be sold at auction by Christie’s.
Few were more surprised than Mike Buhler, President and CEO of San Francisco Heritage, which has been fighting since 1971 to preserve local icons against the ravages of development and hasty decisions.
“Just before the painting was removed, SF Heritage had just decided to focus on historic legacy bars and restaurants and the unprecedented threat they were facing—just as we were emerging from the recession and dealing with the influx of tech companies,” Buhler says. “When the Chronicle called, I lamented that such an iconic part of the city that so many people loved was being removed without any public notice. We immediately put out an online petition for people to sign to protest the removal of the painting and advocate for its return. The petition took off like wildfire, with thousands of signatures over the first weekend.”
By the following week, in response to the backlash, the hotel declared it would restore the painting to its rightful spot. “We obviously were elated by the decision,” adds Buhler, with considerable understatement.
The Palace had previously supported SF Heritage’s efforts, hosting fundraising auctions there and supporting a civic ordinance, proposed by former Supervisor David Campos and signed by Mayor Ed Lee, to preserve historic businesses against rampant gentrification.
“It was truly wonderful to witness the community’s passion for The Pied Piper and the Palace Hotel,” says Jon Kimball, the hotel’s general manager. “We have a terrific partnership with San Francisco Heritage and value their commitment to upholding the city’s history. As an original element from the 1909 reopening, The Pied Piper is one of the many treasures that remain part of the hotel’s legacy.”
Somewhere, Parrish, who depicted himself as the Pied Piper in the work (his wife, mistress and two sons also made the cut), is nodding his approval.
The Mexican Museum is one of San Francisco’s most cherished—and historically troubled—
Founded in 1975 to fulfill the vision of the late Mexican-American artist Peter Rodriguez, the nonprofit museum—the largest institution solely devoted to Mexican and Latin-American art in the United States —was expected to move from Fort Mason to shiny new headquarters in Jessie Square until financial problems, among others, led to a temporary shutdown circa 2006.
It reopened in 2008, but funding issues persisted.
Now, the next generation, led by Bay Area businessman and Museum Chair Andrew Kluger, has stepped up to the plate with plans to unveil a $62 million facility in Yerba Buena Gardens in early 2020.
It’s being designed by Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos, with a metal façade by Dutch-born, Mexico-City-based artist Jan Hendrix that will wrap around the museum’s Jessie Square entrance. Hendrix’s work is a “topographic map, three stories high and a thousand meters long, that depicts the history of Mexican immigration to the United States,” Kluger says.
It was a steep mountain to climb, but Kluger and board members raised the needed $62 million in only five years.
Getting there took a combination of creativity and moxie.
“First, we sold the air rights over the property—we negotiated that with Millennium Partners, who are building luxury condos above the first four floors of what will be the new building,” says Kluger, a serial entrepreneur who was born in Mexico City but moved to San Francisco when he was 13, attending Marina Middle School and Lowell High before getting a law degree at the University of San Francisco.
The air rights transaction brought in $28 million. They also obtained $16 million from the city’s Redevelopment Agency and almost $15 million for the rights to the parking lot in the area—jointly shared by the Mexican Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and St. Patrick Church. Millennium Partners kicked in an additional $5 million.
Kluger and board members also wrangled sizeable contributions from Guadalupe Rivera Martin (daughter of Diego Rivera), Ann Rockefeller Roberts (Nelson Rockefeller’s daughter), and actor Edward James Olmos.
Additionally, in 2011 the museum was granted a prestigious Smithsonian Foundation affiliation, paving the way for further fundraising.
Kluger became museum treasurer in 2012, at the request of the Mexican government because he had served as one of five honorary U.S. co-chairs of the Mexican bicentennial celebrations in 2010. (In his spare time, he runs Early Bird Alert, a medical software company, and Bluegrass Assisted Living, among other ventures.)
“They initially asked me if I would help get [the museum] back on track,” he recalls. “I came on board, looked at the mess that existed, began doing audits and came up with a plan to get them back on track,” he says. “Then, in 2013, I was asked to become chairman of the board. I said, OK, I’ll give it a year. Four years later, I’m still here.”