By John Schneider, W9FGH


Copyright 2018 -
John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC

 [Return to Home Page]

 (Click on photos to enlarge)

Architect's concept drawing of building
An architect’s rendering of the NBC studio building, showing the preliminary image of a different mural, 1940

Original mural sketch
Fitzgerald's original concept sketch
of his NBC mural

Fitzgerald and oil painting

Fitzgerald is seen working on his oil painting rendition of the mural, matching each individual color to the glazed tile samples laid out on the table in front of him

Fitzgerald and oil painting

Another view of Fitzgerald working on his oil painting.

Painting the tiles
Painting the tiles at
Gladding, McBean & Co. in Glendale.

Fitzgerald speaking at the dedication ceremony

Fitzgerald is seen speaking at the dedication ceremony of the Radio City mural, on
January 17, 1942

Unveiling of Fitzgerald's mural

The grand unveiling of the mural on
January 17, 1942.

Completed mural, 1942

Fitzgerald’s completed mural, 1942.

Mural in full color

The finished mural, in full color, as seen today.

Fitzgerald's signature
Fitzgerald's signature on the NBC mural

Differences between concept and final work
Two differences between the concept drawing and final work:  Details of the dynamo are changed, and a microphone is added (top); and a Hawaiian hula dancer is replaced with the image of a young boy (bottom).

Fitzgerald's murals on Paramount Theatre
Fitzgerald's 1930s murals on the Paramount Theatre Building, Oakland.



There is a fascinating story associated with the ceramic tile mural that graces the façade of the NBC Radio City Building in San Francisco (now known as the 420 Taylor Building).  The author was fortunate to acquire the files of the mural’s designer, architect Gerald F. Fitzgerald, which revealed a number of heretofore little-known details.

In 1941, when the building was first being designed and constructed, it was decided that an important feature of the façade would be an imposing mural set into the 80 foot pylon that was to rise above the entrance marquee.  But the subject of the mural was yet to be decided.  Early architectural drawings of the building depict the large figure of a standing woman with nondescript figures scattered around her.  In reality, this was just a conceptual drawing to the fill the space, and the true nature of the mural was yet unknown.

As construction progressed, a committee was formed to decide on the artwork and implementation of the mural.  It consisted of Albert Roller, the building’s chief architect;  Roller’s architural designer, Gerald. F. Fitzgerald;  Al Nelson, NBC assistant vice president in charge of San Francisco operations; O. B. Hanson, NBC’s vice president of engineering;  William A. Clark, the manager of NBC Technical Services; and Curtis Peck, chief engineer of NBC’s San Francisco operations.  Scores of ideas were discussed by the committee, but they could not come to an agreement.  Outside artists and sculptors were invited to submit suggestions, and yet weeks passed without a decision.  Finally, Fitzgerald proposed a mural that would portray radio broadcasting serving all the peoples of the world.  He submitted a rough sketch, and it won unanimous approval by the design committee.  Fitzgerald was then put in charge of the design and execution of the mural project.



His design depicts the story of radio broadcasting as a means of mass communication reaching all the peoples of the earth.  The mechanics of broadcasting are represented at the bottom of the work, with condensers, a dynamo, stop watch, insulators, transmitter tubes, a thermometer, wiring symbols, and an RCA microphone.  Immediately above that, a large human hand adjusts a radio dial creating radio waves that extend upwards towards the very top of the mural.  On each side of the wave, more than 50 characters are depicted.  They represent populations from the South Seas to the Arctic, from the Orient to the West, and from the tropics to the poles. The Oriental peoples are seen on the right, and western populations are at left;  the people of the tropics are at the bottom, and the Arctic regions are represented at top.  Individual characters portrayed include Africans with a lion, Asians with a Chinese mandarin, and the peoples of Spain, Mexico and South America.  There are an American cowboy and Indian, a Canadian Mountie, and an English riding gentleman.  Balkans, Scandinavians, a Cossack are represented;  an Eskimo is seen with a polar bear, penguins, a totem pole and an igloo. Also depicted are a bullfighter, a head hunter, an artist, reindeer, dancing girls and a Scottish piper. 

The committee then turned to the details of the physical construction of the mural .  It would be 16 feet wide and 40 feet high.  The façade of the concrete wall that would surround the mural would be textured with horizontal fluting; the shadows caused by the fluting were designed to darken the surface to the eye, thus creating a darker grey background for the mural.

Most murals of the early 20th century were painted on indoor walls, allowing the portrayal of extremely fine details.  But outdoor murals typically were constructed of small single-colored colored tiles that were assembled to create an image.  This technique would not display the level of finer detail of the individual characters that were depicted in Fitzgerald’s drawing.  In a search for a method to display such detail in an outdoor work, the committee’s attention was drawn to the artistry of the ceramics manufacturer Gladding, McBean & Co., in Glendale, California, and it soon met with Leon G. Levy, the company’s vice president.  Levy offered a concept that had never been attempted before – the mural could be built from individual six-inch-square glazed tiles, and each tile would be hand colored with small segments of the total image.  The square tiles would be set end-to-end, with no mortar separating them, to form a continuous, detailed image.  Unlike other methods, the brilliant colors of these glazed tiles would never fade with time. 

The committee accepted the proposal, and Fitzgerald set to work turning his conceptual drawing a  reality. First he spent weeks immersed in books at the library, studying the costumes, environment and customs of the fifty different population that he would represent in his mural.  Then he spent several days at the Gladding McBean facility, selecting the 114 colors of the manufacturer’s glazing that he would use in his image.  Once back at home, he labored for weeks on an oil painting of the mural, using only the colors he had selected in Glendale.  Finally, he made a line tracing of this oil painting, which was divided into sections and enlarged to full mural scale by projecting light through the tracings. These full-sized drawings were annotated with their individual color numbers, and the drawings were sent to Gladding McBean in Glendale.


At the ceramics shop, work began on making the 2,560 individual six-inch tiles that would be used for the project.  The materials for each tile were mixed from a finely-ground combination of talc, silica, rock and clay.  They were pre-cut to their precise size, with an allowance for shrinkage during firing, so that each finished tile would be accurate in size within 1/13,000th of an inch.  The tiles were fired as they moved for 2-1/2 hours through a 108-foot-long kiln tunnel heated to 2,150 degrees F.  After firing, graphic artist Marcello Maruffo drew the lines of each image segment onto the raw tiles, and then a crew of female artisan workers flowed the metallic oxide colors onto each tile from syringes.  Once the tiles dried, the glaze was applied and they then made a second trip through the kiln tunnel – this time for 16 hours at 2,000 degrees F.

When sections of the mural were first assembled, the Gladding McBean crew was excited to note that the colors were even more brilliant than Fitzgerald’s oil painting.  Even so, no one could see the complete mural in its final form until after it was set into place at the NBC building, because there was no space large enough to assemble it.   

Back in San Francisco, the tiles were set in place on the Radio City Façade by the Sunset Tile Company, working behind a canvas tarp to hide the project from the public eye.  Only two mistakes had been made during the entire process:  one tile broken during setting, and a missed eyebrow on one of the characters, and these defects were promptly corrected.  



Finally, a grand unveiling ceremony was held on January 17, 1942.  The one-hour event took place in front of a live audience on a temporary outdoor stage constructed at the front of the NBC building.  The second half of the event was broadcast live over NBC’s station KPO.  The dedicatory program consisted of dignitary speeches, music by the NBC orchestra and the Symphonic Seven jazz band, songs by several local vocalists, and an original tone poem by Forrest Barnes.  Finally, Fitzgerald himself was introduced to make a short statement:

Thank you John Galbraith.  It is a new experience for me as an architect to be called an artist.  In accepting this very high honor which you bestow on me, I should like to acknowledge the enthusiastic support given me by Mr. Albert Roller and the friendly criticism of Mr. Nelson Poole, the skillful workmanship of the Gladding, McBean Company in Glendale where these tiles were manufactured, and the Sunset Tile Company of San Francisco who set them in place.   In creating this mural, I have attempted to portray the unlimited scope of radio broadcasting, and its service to all the peoples of the world.  Thank you.

The grand finale to the program was the dropping of the canvas covering, and the creator and audience alike were treated to its first view of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece mural, which continues to grace the streets of San Francisco to this day.



Very little is known about the artist, Gerald J. Fitzgerald.  It was reported at the time that he had studied architecture at the University of California in Berkeley, and then worked for the architectural firm Miller & Pflueger during the design of stately the Paramount Theatre building in Oakland.  According to David Boysel, curator of the Paramount Theatre, Fitzgerald designed the two large gilded murals that still grace the front of that imposing structure, and was also responsible for the designs of the grand lobby and auditorium ceiling.  Apparently, he also served as an architectural consultant during the construction of the Bay Bridge.  Fitzgerald left the employment of Miller & Pflueger sometime in the late 1930s, and was working for Albert Roller at the time of the NBC building project.  However, nothing is known about Fitzgerald’s work or his life after he completed the NBC mural.  His legacy survives in the form of the two great building murals he designed, which fortunately still survive today.  If one looks closely at the Radio City mural, they can see Fitzgerald’s signature in the tiles at the lower right-hand corner.



John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
Copyright, 2018