Sargent Johnson and the City College Gym Reliefs

When the old gymnasiums at the City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus were torn down in 2008, as the new Wellness Center was built, three pieces of artwork by Sargent Johnson attached to the structures had to come down too. Fortunately they were preserved, though their destiny remains undetermined.

Mounted over the entrances of the old gyms were three bas-reliefs Johnson created when it was built in 1940. Architect Timothy Pflueger commissioned the works, just as he commissioned art for almost every building he designed, even something as modest as a gym.

The gyms (one for women, one for men) were two of the first three buildings designed by Pflueger and constructed for the campus, the third being Science Hall. That building’s colorful murals are much better known as public art, and still stand. Johnson’s works were removed before the gyms were demolished, and have been in storage since then.

The Sports Figures

The three reliefs depict sports-related subjects: a group of female ball players; a female tennis player; and a group of male athletes. They are made of cast concrete.

On the South Gymnasium (women’s) there were two figures. First, a set of three women playing medicine ball. (See the end of this article for an explanation of medicine ball.)

Sargent Johnson, medicine ball players, cast concrete relief, 7’4” x 9’, 1940. City College of San Francisco. Photo: Will Maynez.
Sargent Johnson, medicine ball players, cast concrete relief, 7’4” x 9’, 1940. City College of San Francisco. Photo: Will Maynez.

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The Whales: Yet to be Saved

OpenSFHistory.org

For the Golden Gate International Exposition, sculptor Robert Boardman Howard created a magnificent fountain called The Whales. Later it was installed at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, where it was a familiar sight to visitors for half a century. Then it languished in storage outdoors at City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus. Restoration has yet to happen, and now it is tucked away at an SF Arts Commission storage facility awaiting funding and badly needed attention.

The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in 1960. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in 1960. OpenSFHistory.org

Curious Sunnysiders walking through nearby City College may have noticed the sculpture stored there over the last several years. It was a sad site–noble and elegant killer whales peeking forlornly out from under tarpaulins and straps. In real life, some communities of this species are endangered; these massive animals rendered in stone looked equally condemned to extinction.

The Whales by Robert Howard, at CCSF Ocean Campus in July 2015. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The Whales by Robert Howard, at CCSF Ocean Campus in July 2015. Photo: Amy O’Hair

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Ocean and Frida Kahlo Way: 1980 and Today

Shot from the pedestrian overpass in 1980, this view of Ocean Avenue and Frida Kahlo Way (then Phelan Ave) shows the same transit-dense area as today, but with a few changes. Grand Auto Supply is gone, replaced with housing and retail at 1100-1250 Ocean (2011-2014). City College Station (aka Phelan Loop) was repositioned in 2013. Overhead utility lines were undergrounded in the late 1970s. The Ocean Ave Vet Hospital is still there, on left, 40 years on. The growth of a large tree next to the overpass made a precise match to the original impossible (therefore no slider). View more comparison photos here.

1980. View west from pedestrian overpass, Ocena Ave and Frida Kahlo Way. Photo: William J Madden OpenSFHistory.org
1980. View west from pedestrian overpass, Ocean Ave and Frida Kahlo Way. Photo: William J Madden OpenSFHistory.org View larger 
2019. View west from pedestrian overpass, Ocean Ave and Frida Kahlo Way. Photo: Amy O'Hair SunnysideHistory.org
2019. View west from pedestrian overpass, Ocean Ave and Frida Kahlo Way. Photo: Amy O’Hair SunnysideHistory.org View larger