Milk bust finds City Hall home
by Matthew S. Bajko
A bronze bust of the late Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay politician, has finally found a home inside City Hall. When it is revealed to the public this May 22, what would have been Milk's 78th birthday, it will be placed in the ceremonial rotunda atop the grand staircase of the Beaux-Arts style building.
There, in front of the archway on the right, Milk's smiling visage will watch over the hundreds of weddings and domestic partnership ceremonies that take place under the rotunda's skylight.
It will also be mere feet away from the doors to the Board of Supervisors' chambers where Milk served for 11 months in 1978 before disgruntled former board colleague Dan White assassinated Milk in his office down the hall the morning of November 27.
The decision caps a months-long fight over where the memorial to the history-making lawmaker should be placed inside City Hall that sounds like a microcosm of the political haggling the landmark has long played home to since it opened in 1915. The actors this time included everyone from Milk's friends, members of several obscure city committees, the artists commissioned to create the bust, a granddaughter of a former mayor, and ultimately intervention by Mayor Gavin Newsom.
"This bust has been traveling around City Hall like you wouldn't believe," quipped Joey Cain, co-chair of the Harvey Milk City Hall Memorial Committee.
Cain said the committee wanted the bust to be in the rotunda. During Milk's time in office, noted Cain, Milk never rode the elevator to the second floor. Instead, he walked up the grand staircase every time.
"Harvey has a quote â€“ I don't know the exact wording of â€“ in which he said when gay people walk into City Hall, they should walk right up those stairs to let people know they are here," said Cain. "Putting it outside the entrance to the Board of Supervisors' chamber in this rotunda has great symbolic significance."
Yet several months ago it was looking as if the bust would instead be placed in the middle of what is known as the north mezzanine near a window overlooking the top of the building's north light court. The artists creating the bust favored that position for its good light quality.
Cain, however, said the placement would be inappropriate and began raising objections.
"No one walked through here. It is semi-Siberia in City Hall," said Cain, as he showed a reporter the various options city officials weighed as they debated where to put Milk's bust. "People would always have to ask where Harvey is."
From the second floor walkway the bust moved downstairs to near the building's Van Ness entrance. In the right side alcove stands a bust of Michael O'Shaughnessy, the city's engineer between 1912 and 1932 who helped oversee construction of the Hetch Hetchy water and power system.
But the location does not have ample room for people wanting to see the bust and was too close to the security lines visitors need to pass through in order to enter City Hall. Nearby, further inside the building on the right, is an alcove that houses the bust of Angelo J. Rossi, San Francisco's mayor from 1931 until 1943.
The location has ample viewing space, and the artists were pleased with the lighting there. Both the San Francisco Arts Commission's Visual Arts Committee and the City Hall Preservation Advisory Committee earlier this year had signed off on switching out the Rossi bust and replacing it with Milk's.
Shortly thereafter, however, a granddaughter of Rossi's raised objections to seeing her relative's memorial moved. With the public unveiling mere months away, and Milk's bust still without a home inside City Hall, the mayor stepped in and ordered the bust to be placed under the rotunda.
"The mayor intervened and said, 'Oh, put it in the rotunda where they wanted it to begin with," said Cain.
Newsom's staff did not return messages seeking comment.
At its meeting Monday, March 31 the members of the arts commission's visual arts committee rescinded their initial motion and passed a new one ordering the Milk bust to be placed in the rotunda. The City Hall Preservation Advisory Committee is expected to follow suit at its meeting today (Thursday, April 3).
"Well we learned a lot. It's been very instructive," noted Jeannene Przyblyski, a member of the arts committee. "This has been a really interesting question for me as a historian. This is living history, which is why so much diplomacy needs to be exerted in finding a place for it in City Hall."