Construction Demo Reveals Two 1930s Tags

1939 SF tag

Nearly century-old mural uncovered in S.F.’s Mission District

By Megan Fan Munce
Dec 06, 2023

Nate Halverson was up on his building’s roof taking in the sunrise last Wednesday when some early morning construction caught his eye. At a parking lot near the intersection of Valencia and Cesar Chavez streets, a worker in an excavator was taking down a vacant building to make way for new construction. Halverson watched as the debris peeled away, revealing behind it a 1930s Chevrolet dealership mural.

The mural itself isn’t dated, but a light bulb-shaped graffiti tag dated July 17, 1939, places the mural somewhere during or before the 1930s. Another tag, painted below the mural, is dated 1935.

Murals such as this one are often referred to as “ghost signs” — hand-painted advertisements from the 19th and 20th centuries before neon signs and modern printed billboards became popular. Other San Francisco ghost signs advertise Coca-Cola or Wrigley’s gum and were painted anywhere from 1915 to 1950.

This ghost sign invited customers to browse new and used Chevrolet vehicles at Mission Chevrolet Co., which also offered parts and repairs, according to the fading painted text on the side of the building.

Adjacent to the sign is another piece of local history: the former Sears building, which housed the department chain’s flagship San Francisco store until it shuttered in 1975. Residents of the since-converted lofts said the ghost sign was hidden behind another building that was recently torn down as developers get ready to turn the parking lot into a senior living complex.

It’s a fitting place to find an early 20th century piece of art, Halverson said — the former Sears building is filled with artists living and working in the lofts, while the senior living complex may soon house people who were born just as the mural was being painted.

A representative for Sequoia Living, the nonprofit developing the parking lot, did not respond to a request for comment about the mural. Halverson said he’s seen construction crews return to the site since last week to remove debris, but that the mural has remained untouched.

Jorge Molina, 80, was one of the first residents in the former Sears building after it opened to residents. Even before that, he’d been in the area working as a holiday hire for Sears in 1965. But Molina doesn’t remember seeing the mural, or a Chevrolet dealership.

Instead, he recalled it was once the site of an O’Reilly Auto Parts shop. Now it’s home to a Harley Davidson dealership.

Since the mural was discovered last week, Halverson said it’s become a “showstopper,” prompting passersby to stop and take a picture. Molina said it also inspired him and other residents to look into the history of the building and the area.

“It has made researchers out of us all,” Molina said. “Now we’re all exploring.”

Brooke Biggs was born in San Francisco and has unknowingly lived next to the mural for 22 years. Though it’s just one of many old ghost signs around the city, Biggs said, she hopes the developers will find a way to preserve the mural.

“San Francisco goes through changes so quickly. This is just kind of cool, to see something that’s almost 100 years old right outside my window,” Biggs said. “The fact that there’s graffiti on it that dates to the 1930s is just cool to me. It’s almost like you can feel the presence of the people who lived here before any of us were here.”