It’s Really Old, Really: Evidence Proves Historic Provenance of Threatened Coca-Cola Mural

Vintage Coke Sign
So the deadline is fast approaching in the matter of Anonymous NIMBY vs. Historic Coke Mural Beloved by The Neighbors of Bernalwood.

As you may recall, after a whinging NIMBY complained to the City about the presence of the vintage Coca-Cola mural at the corner of Tompkins and Banks, the City gave the property owner a February 24 deadline to present evidence that the artwork at 601 Tompkns pre-dates San Francisco’s 1965 sign ordinances.

In our quest to acquire said evidence, we got some big help from the sleuths at Burrito Justice, who proved conclusively that the property at 601 Tompkins was a corner store called Tiptons Grocery until roughly the late 1960s. But today — three days before our City-imposed deadline — we are happy to report that Bernalwood obtained conclusive proof that the sign is, in fact, way old.

Over the weekend, Bernalwood established contact with the homeowner, Mr. Richard Modolo. Mr. Modolo was away on vacation last week, but now he’s tanned, rested, and ready for a bureaucratic tussle. Even better, he’s got the historic goods. Let’s establish the facts:

FACT: Mr. Modolo has lived in Bernal Heights since 1954. He attended Paul Revere School, right across the street from the disputed Coca-Cola artwork, and he has vivid memories of Tipton’s Grocery store from when it was still in operation. Actually, “Mrs. Tips” (as the kids caller her) made his lunch every day. As we chatted in the very space that Tipton’s Grocery once occupied, Mr. Modolo gestured toward the spot where Mrs. Tips used to stand behind the counter, and told this story:

FACT: The vintage Coca-Cola artwork is, properly speaking, a “ghost sign.” Mr. Modolo explained that the mural re-appeared in 1991, when he removed the asbestos siding that had long covered the building. A thick layer of tar paper preserved the handpainted artwork through the decades, so it looked almost-new when it finally saw the light of day again.

Here’s how the building looked when the asbestos siding was still in place:

And (… drumroll…) here’s how the Coke artwork looked in 1991, immediately after the siding was removed:

At the time, Mr. Modolo added, he simply planned to paint over the ghost sign. But neighbors intervened, begging him to keep it in place. And so he has, repainting it three times during the last 20 years.

FACT: The ghost sign pre-dates the City’s 1965 regulations by at least a decade, and almost certainly more. How do we know this? Simple: The asbestos siding at 601 Tompkins was installed in 1949 and 1956, which means the sign was in place before it was covered over. And how do we know those dates? That’s simple too: Mr. Modolo has the permit history from the City’s Department of Building Inspection:

FACT: The design of the mural suggests it dates from the mid-1940s. Burrito Justice has stayed on the case, and he’s been Tweeting with an archivist from the Coca-Cola company, who says “The “silhouette girl” logo was used as early as 1939.”

UPDATE: While following up on the Coca-Cola history angle, Burrito Justice received this great reply from the company’s archivist:

The girl in the image is referred to in “Coke Lore” as Silhouette Girl. She was used from 1939 until around 1950 when she fell out of use. She is significant in dating items as she was one of the few characters that was used during the time we transitioned our “Trademark Registered” statement from the tale of the C in “Coca” to being placed under the words “Coca-Cola.” This transition occurred between 1941 and 1942.

The first thing I noticed with the sign was the mark was under the words so it had to be later than 1942.

So, game, set, match, right?

Not quite. Bernalwood has been in touch with Mr. Dan Sider from the Planning Department’s General Advertising Sign Program. This situation regarding our Coca-Cola is “entirely novel” and without precedent, he says. “Our staff has processed nearly 1,800 general advertising signs in the City,” Mr. Sider says. “Not once have neighbors wanted to preserve a sign, much less have they taken the initiative to repaint and restore a sign on their own accord.” Hey, what can we say, other than Welcome to Bernalwood.

Much now hinges on how the City decides to classify the artwork. Is it a “general advertising sign” or a “business sign?” Neither approach is ideal, as each comes with significant legal downsides. So perhaps Bernalwood can suggest an easy solution? Maybe it’s not a sign at all! And maybe it stopped being advertising sometime during the Truman Administration. Perhaps it’s really a “historic commercial mural!”Or something like that.

FACT: Homeowner Richard Modolo wants to keep the vintage Coca-Cola mural in place, as is, and if the dozens of comments Bernalwood has received are any indication, a nontrivial number of his neighbors do as well. Mr. Modolo says, “For better or worse, this building was once a grocery store, and this is part of the history of this neighborhood.” That’s now a confirmed fact too.

UPDATE: In today’s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner reports on Bernal’s Coca-Cola mural controversy. Can Fox News be far behind?

Photos: Top,  Todd Lappin. Historic photos courtesy of Richard Modolo

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47 thoughts on “It’s Really Old, Really: Evidence Proves Historic Provenance of Threatened Coca-Cola Mural

  1. Wow, that is some amazing detective work. Great post. With all that documentation I sure hope the sign can stay. An excellent detail is the alternating shade of green on the trim– Love it.

  2. This is terrific! I would argue that Snider is wrong about this being without precedent, however, as there are other former advertising signs around the city that have been renewed and preserved by local artists, etc, in the years since their original purpose passed. (For instance the “HASTA BE SHASTA!” mural on Potrero).

    Also, I ‘m not sure why this needs to be classified as an advertising sign at all. How is it not just a mural, at this point, seeing as how it is not funded/supported by the Coca Cola company (or, for that matter, any commercial interests at all). It’s just a mural whose subject happens to be Coke.

    • I just called Supervisor Campos’ office and the person I spoke with referred to it as the Coca Cola Mural, so maybe you’re on to something there!

  3. It’s a shame the 17 Reasons sign at 17th and Mission couldn’t have been preserved like this one. I guess the difference there is that the building owner wanted it gone so they could make money, even though the neighborhood wanted it to stay.

    • I thought I remembered something at the time that the conversion of the 17 Reasons sign to a billboard was actually illegal. Am I misremembering that?

      • I don’t know. According to a Chronicle article from 2003 there was going to be an appeal on the basis that the replacement sign was a new general advertising sign and therefore illegal under Proposition G, but I don’t know what ever came of that.

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  8. Todd,

    If you need someone to testify or provide information about the historical relevance and importance of ghost signage and the loss suffered by the constant destruction of these pieces of vintage Americana, I would urge you to drop a call to Tod Swormstedt, the founder of the American Sign Museum.

    I have worked with Tod and his encyclopedic knowledge of and love for old signage is unmatched. His family has run Signs of the Times (the sign industry trade magazine, not the religious publication) since the 1930’s and his grandfather founded the International Sign Association and the Screen Graphics Imaging Association. The guy is one of the top experts in the world on the topic of signs and their impact on society.

    Good luck in your efforts.

  9. Brilliant. The know-nothing NIMBYism has been repudiated with actual facts. High five to the team for scoring one for reason and justice. a big razzberry to the bureaucrats and do nothings at City Hall who hide behind arcane rules and don’t even bother to investigate a situation. And the handful of know-nothing NIMBYs? PWNED!

  10. You may know this already but the Assessors office has building cards of every parcel in the city that often contain original photos of the property that are very old. I have seen some that date back to the 1940’s (I can tell from the cool cars in the photos) However, these cards can only be viewed by the property owner an authorized agent.

  11. Awesome, work. Thanks for the phone number. I gave a call as well.

    We can see that sign from our living room window and it doesn’t bother us one bit. It’s delightful.

  12. Not sure if you are really intereted in an honest dialog, or just pushing your agenda, but for those interested in the counter-arguments: This is an advertisement. An ad for Coca-Cola. It was an advertisement from day one. Maybe it’s an old ad, but its the current logo, pushing a currently selling product. And there are specific reasons why the public chose to ban advertising in residential areas. It’s not much of an argument to say that the ad was there *before* the law was passed – can I play my stereo as loud as I want, just because “it’s a really old stereo”? Can my restaurant, because it is old, not comply with current health inspections? While these folks are upset about protecting ads from a billion dollar syrup water corporation, there are entire buildings several times older which are demolished to build cheap condos for short term profits. If truly interested in preservation of historic elements of society, perhaps some of these neighbors are be willing to re-think their priorities.

    • Well, except that as has been pointed out earlier, it is NOT an advertisement anymore, nor has it been an active advertisement for the better part of a century. The mural is not in any way paid for or otherwise funded by Coca-Cola. It is, quite simply, just not a billboard.

      The fact that it is a mural that features a product that you can still buy is immaterial.

      • It’s an ad. For Coca Cola. They paid for it. To promote Coca Cola. That’s what an ad is. It’s when a company pays to put their product in front of people, so that those people buy their product. I don’t think anyone can debate that fact. The question being debated is: “Should some ads be allowed to stay up under certain circumstances?” But it’s an ad. Grab a magazine from 1920. See that page that talks about a brand of soap? The one that the soap company paid for? That’s an ad. That’s what an ad is. If you still say that a big sign for Coca Cola – paid by the Coca Cola company – is somehow not an ad… I am not sure how to continue this discussion.

      • Susan, in the most narrow and limited way, your point is obvious.

        But in the broader context of history and culture, many would argue that you’ve missed the point. Your example of a magazine from the 1920s illustrates this perfectly. When we see ads in an old issue of, say, Life magazine, we of course recognize them as something that someone paid for as an advertisement. But decades later, they no longer *function* as advertisements. Instead, most people see them instead as historical artifacts that reveal a lot about the aesthetic and cultural values of the time — in the same way that a vintage photography, painting, or novel reveals something about the time when it was created. Which is why many in Bernal Heights now say it *was* an ad, but now it has transcended that original purpose to become something far more interesting — and worth preserving.

        If you don’t think that’s a discussion worth having, then by all means, please don’t have it.

      • Susan: Except that, again, it is NOT an active advertisement, specifically because it is NOT paid for by Coca-Cola. At least as far as any of us are aware… If you, on the other hand, are privy to some secret information relating to payments from Coca-Cola to the home-owner, then I’m sure we would be all ears.

        Lacking same, however, arguing that, just because something originally served one purpose, it must serve that same purpose in perpetuity, is just a bizarre assertion that is wholly unsupported by the facts.

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  14. Thanks for the GREAT reporting on this. I grew up 4 blocks from here and waited across the street from that house for the school bus every morning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember the day when the sign was revealed — very cool. Never made me want to drink Coke (not allowed in my hippie house anyway). Even as a 10 year-old, I saw it as a fascinating window into Bernal’s past, not an ad. Its retouching also represented one of the earliest moments in a time when the neighborhood was starting to experience a beautifying resurgence from the crack years. It made me curious about and conscious of Bernal’s past. The argument for keeping it because of its historic value is more than sentimental. (It could actually be educational — maybe someone at Paul Revere can organize a field trip across the street to talk about the history and the controversy.) Here’s to the facts defending this one against stupidity.

  15. As a third-generation native of San Francisco (my grandparents came here early in the 20th Century from Italy), and both I and my parents were born and raised in the Mission — I went to Le Conte, Buena Vista Annex, Horace Mann, and Galileo (and the Art Institute — the real one in North Beach), I say that the mural should stay. So much of San Francisco’s past of this type has been lost — and signs don’t make people fat. Bad parenting does.

    Susan states that old buildings are torn down to make way for cheap condos… which is not exactly true. Most of the buildings that I’m aware of were disused or dilapidated warehouses, former industrial buildings, or vacant lots. The historical and preservation societies in San Francisco do fight tooth and nail, look at the fight over the New Mission Theater or the Harding in the Western Edition (I’m never going to call that neighborhood “Nopa”). Still, some do fall through the cracks (such as the Pagoda Theater becoming the North Beach Museum or whatever, which is still half-completed), but nothing is perfect, right?

    Still, most of the people who complain about these things, and stir up non-controversy, are not natives of San Francisco, the Bay Area or even Northern California, but are generally carpetbaggers who came here to be “liberal” and end up being cultural fascists. They come here to because San Francisco’s beautiful, but when they settle in, they want everything to conform to their world-view, and then they leave! It’s akin to coming home to find a new roommate has moved all of your furniture, but all of their art up on the walls, got rid of all the stuff you liked, and then they leave after 90 days.

    We have to stop letting these people step all over us — we have enough trouble with our alien Supervisors who are torn between whether Pet Shops should sell mammals or not, while senior citizens are starving and being displaced, and people are dying in the streets. I’m sorry, these “concerned citizens” come off as spoiled, self-centered idiots, who are in extreme denial and can’t see the forrest for the trees. Wake up! We have much bigger fish to fry in the city of San Francisco, than to rally against an old sign that may cause someone to take the pause that refreshes. At the same time, the same asshat is probably growing pot in their garage.

    Bread and Circuses.

    P.S. I’m not a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or an Independent. I’m a Realist. We have to take care of our big problems first, before we can afford to waste time, energy, money and resources, on such a non-issue. Stopping Child Obesity starts in the home. I don’t want the State to tell me what I can and cannot see or do — effectively “White Washing” the City — that is the realm of parents and the individual. If you can’t control your children, or yourself, that says more about you, than it does some old mural.

  16. What a beautiful piece of advertising history, I say let it stay. My beef is with those anonymous person/people who say that it promotes obesity in children by advertising a sugary drink. What in God’s name is wrong with people today who cannot teach their own children the proper foods to consume in their life. Don’t they have the intelligence to teach their children right?
    San Francisco is a joke, and those people who want this sign white washed want to erase our history because they can’t control their own children, because their children control them.

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  21. Saw the story on Fox News. So yup, this is making the big time. This is a great piece here proving it’s a historical sign.

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