Grandson of Italian-born artist Ettore “Hector” Serbaroli says painting, which was created in advance of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, has a rich history that includes a dustup in the late 1970s over who should pay for its restoration.

Joe Serbaroli is keenly aware of his family’s history, and the vital need to pass it down to the next generation.

But although Serbaroli lives in Yonkers, N.Y. and traces his family roots back to Roma, Italy, that lineage has deep ties to the City of Mill Valley.

That’s because in 1914 – 100 years ago – Serbaroli’s grandfather, artist Ettore (pronounced Et-toh-ray) “Hector” Serbaroli, created the enormous landscape painting of Mount Tamalpais found on the back wall of the City Council Chambers at City Hall.

At five feet high and 20 feet long, the oil-on-canvas landscape of Mount Tam is one of six paintings completed by the Italian-born Serbaroli for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. It was lifted to its current location by a crane via one of the windows in the Council Chambers.

The painting took a circuitous route to get to City Hall.

When the Pan Pacific Exposition ended, the painting was mounted on a wall at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. A member of the Yost family, whose patriarch Nicholas Yost gave the original Mill Valley Lumber Company its moniker in 1910, bought the painting in 1928 and hung it on the wall of the Mill Valley Bank on Miller Avenue until 1947. From 1954 to 1974, the painting lived in the City Council Chambers, until it was temporarily removed to accommodate renovations at City Hall.

According to a memo from longtime Mill Valley resident Margaret  “Kett” Zegart to Mill Valley’s Art Commission in the 1970s, the painting was stored in a space at the Mill Valley Library that would later become the Lucretia Hanson Little History Room. Much of the available historical information about the painting comes – as does much of Mill Valley’s history – from the work of Little herself.

The years that followed the painting’s move to the library were laden with contentious debate about the painting’s future, Joe Serbaroli says, with city officials exploring possible alternate locations like Tamalpais High School, Oddfellows Hall and auditorium at The Redwoods. By October 1976, the Mill Valley Art Commission motioned “to wrap up in brown paper, to tie with a string and to store the Mt. Tamalpais Painting by E. Serbaroli in the Library.”

A dispute ensued about the painting’s future, and whether it was worth it to restore the painting – and who should pay for it if it was restored. Restoration estimates ranged from $2,500 to $4,000. 

“There seemed to be quite a lot of animosity at City Hall about the restoration and who should pay for it,” Joe Serbaroli says.

The debate was eventually quelled by a fundraising drive led by the late, famed puppeteer Lettie Schubert and her husband Gage. In reaching out to potential donors, the Schuberts wrote that the painting “presents a dramatic view of the mountain and its upland meadows as they were in 1914. The serene stateliness of this beloved southern Marin area is perfectly captured in the peaceful grandeur of Serbaroli’s composition.” 

Their “Serbaroli Restoration Committee” raised the more than $4,000 necessary to restore the painting, drawing financial support from the likes of William Kent III, Lucretia Little, Judith Serbaroli, then-Mill Valley Mayor Ivan Poutiatine, the Tamalpais Conservation Club, the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival Association and many more.

Joe Serbaroli, 60, says he always had a strong sense of his grandfather’s artistry, but not his legacy. When his own father was getting older in the early 2000s, he began peppering him with questions about his grandfather, who died in 1951 at the age of 70.

“I didn’t want that legacy to get lost,” he says.

Serbaroli, who was born in Rome in 1881, lived and worked in Mexico for seven years until 1913, when the revolution there forced him to flee. With the help of Congressman William Kent, who played a critical role in the creation of Muir Woods National Monument, Serbaroli moved to San Rafael.

His prominent work isn’t limited to the 94941. He’s credited with the 14 “Stations of the Cross” paintings at Saint Raphael Church in San Rafael that were recently restored. He painted the entire interior of the Church of Saints Peter in Paul in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, with the help of his daughter Judith.

And he worked for the architect Julia Morgan on the interior of William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon before he headed off to Hollywood, where her did portraits of actors at major motion picture studios like Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox until just before his death.

Three years ago, through a chance encounter downtown with Mill Valley Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael St. John on a day that City Hall was closed, Serbaroli was able to show off the painting to his 26-year-old daughter Elise.

“I just looked up at that painting and was amazed – here we were, the grandson and great granddaughter of the artist who painted it sitting there with Mike, looking back at history,” Serbaroli says.

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