The frescoes at the entrance to the Roth Building in downtown Palo Alto display doctors, patients and the marvels of modern medicine in the early 1930s: a neurosurgeon with an Albee saw, a physician next to an X-ray machine.
The images, commissioned in 1932, are contrasted on the walls of the historic building with earlier remedies, including a black-and-white fresco in which a witch doctor is laying hands on a woman as an evil spirit, resembling as a horned bat, departs her body.
When Palo Alto's most celebrated doctor Russell V. Lee commissioned these paintings from painter Victor Arnautoff, the goal was to celebrate medical advances at the entrance to his new center, the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. But in displaying the journey of medicine through time, the paintings are also a suitable emblem of the building's long-awaited transformation into the home of the Palo Alto History Museum, a stalled project that received a boost this month from a pair of Santa Clara County grants that total more than $300,000.
The funding, which the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved on April 21, comes from the county's Historic Grant Program, which the county created in 2018 and which allocates about $1 million annually for projects in each of the county's five districts. This year's program allocated $200,000 to refurbish the red clay tile roof of the Roth Building, a former Palo Alto Medical Clinic facility that the city bought in 2000. The county also approved a $105,100 grant to preserve and restore the Arnautoff frescoes when the building gets its long-awaited renovation.
When will that be? That remains an open question. With Palo Alto's revenues plummeting during the stay-at-home shutdown, the city is facing a budget deficit estimated to be about $30 million in the coming fiscal year. As such, the City Council is preparing to cut services and reconsider its infrastructure priorities.
Even during better days, the renovation of the Roth Building hasn't been a particularly high priority for the council. While council members have talked for years about the need to fix up the aged but valuable city asset, they have delegated much of the fundraising task for these repairs to the Palo Alto History Museum, a nonprofit that has been raising money for the effort and that worked with the city on the grant proposal.
The council's hopes that the nonprofit would raise the funds needed to advance the project diminished last month, when an independent review commissioned by the city concluded that the Palo Alto History Museum needs to raise between $2.36 million and $2.85 million to fund the renovation. The council voted on March 2 to let other nonprofits and developers propose uses for the city-owned building, including ones that would require a zone change.
Council members also said on March 2 they would consider an arrangement in which the nonprofit shares the facility with another group, or with the city. Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Palo Alto History Museum, said the nonprofit's board of directors has recently formed a task force to evaluate possible alternatives for sharing space at the Roth Building.
"We're trying to be as flexible as possible in offering a shared-space option," Bajuk said.
The recent economic shutdown and Palo Alto's corresponding budget deficit appear to have slowed down the city's process for finding other uses for the Roth Building. While staff had required in March that staff come back with an update at the first meeting in May, the item is not on the council's agenda. Bajuk said the city has yet to issue a request for proposals for possible tenants.
The process of responding to such a request tends to be lengthy and expensive, she noted. Before the city selected the Palo Alto History Museum as a future tenant of the Roth Building, the nonprofit had spent about $15,000 to do a historical survey of the building and another $5,000 just to apply, Bajuk said.
While waiting for the formal request for proposals, the museum's board of directors has been looking at what portions of the two-story building would be essential to the museum and which could potentially be occupied by other entities, including the city. She noted that the museum already plans to provide space for one city program. Palo Alto's historical archives, which were once preserved at Rinconada Library and are now at Cubberley Community Center, are slated to occupy the second floor of the new museum.
"Technically, we're already in a shared-space arrangement because the archives are a city function," Bajuk said. "This is a perfect example of an entity with a use that's extremely compatible."
Despite its recent struggles to meet an ambitious fundraising goal, the county grants offer the nonprofit a bit of good news. While the two grants don't explicitly require the building to be occupied by the Palo Alto History Museum, Bajuk noted that the county program requires the projects being funded to be "open to the public and visible," a requirement that is perfectly aligned with the nonprofit's vision for the museum but that may not be as consistent with other potential uses for the Roth Building.
"The county wants to see that the money they give is benefiting the greatest number of people possible," Bajuk said.
The council is expected to consider the Roth Building renovation, as well as other infrastructure projects, in the next two months as it puts together the budget for fiscal year 2021. And while the project isn't as high on the council's priority list as the new police headquarters, a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 or streetscape upgrades along the Charleston-Arastradero corridor, the availability of about $400,000 in county funds (which includes $100,000 from the prior year) may provide a timely boost for the museum effort.
In addition to helping the city repair a roof on a historic building, the county funds would also allow the city to refurbish an important part of the city's art collection. Elise DeMarzo, director of the city's Public Art Program, said the 17 frescoes at the Roth Building represent Arnautoff's first major California commission. From here, he went on to manage other major art projects, including overseeing the painting of murals at San Francisco's Coit Tower.
"This is really the series that launched his career," DeMarzo said.
Arnautoff's work became the subject of nationwide debate last year when San Francisco considered painting over a series of 13 murals at George Washington High School that were collectively called "The Life of Washington" and that were criticized for their portrayal of slavery and Native Americans. After a loud and prolonged debate, the San Francisco Board of Education reversed its earlier decision to paint over the murals and voted 4-3 to instead preserve the pieces but block them off.
The Palo Alto murals also caused a bit of a stir when they were unveiled in 1932. A 2016 report from the city's staff notes that when the clinic opened in 1933, the frescoes "caused a minor scandal due to the depiction of patients in a state of partial undress." The scandal, as described in the report, in many ways foreshadowed the more recent Arnautoff scandal at Washington High.
"Palo Altans' intense reaction was covered in San Francisco newspapers," the report states. "Citizens reportedly drove slowly along Homer Avenue to view the murals, causing not only a traffic jam but also a threat from clinic surgeon Fritz Roth to whitewash the walls before he would move in. The murals stayed."