San Francisco Coit Tower
Welcome to the Coit Tower!
Towers have been used by mankind since prehistoric times. One of the earliest surviving examples of towers includes the Coit Tower!
Coit Tower, also known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, is a 210-foot (64 m) tower in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, California. It is a monument dedicated to the San Francisco Firemen. The tower, in the city’s Pioneer Park, was built in 1933 using Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s bequest to beautify the city of San Francisco; at her death in 1929 Coit left one-third of her estate to the city for civic beautification. The tower was proposed in 1931 as an appropriate use of Coit’s gift. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 29, 2008 and was listed as a San Francisco Designated Landmark in 1984. Although Coit Tower is not technically a California Historical Landmark yet, the state historical plaque for Telegraph Hill is located in the tower’s lobby, marking the site of the original signal station.
The art deco tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, was designed by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard, with fresco murals by 27 different on-site artists and their numerous assistants, plus two additional paintings installed after creation off-site. Although an apocryphal story claims that the tower was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle due to Coit’s affinity with the San Francisco firefighters of the day, the resemblance is coincidental.
Here comes the History of the Coit Tower. The Coit Tower was built in 1933 with funds left by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy socialite who loved to chase fires in the early days of the city’s history. Before December 1866, there was no city fire department, and fires in the city, which broke out regularly in the wooden buildings, were extinguished by several volunteer fire companies. Lillie Coit was one of the more eccentric characters in the history of North Beach and Telegraph Hill, smoking cigars and wearing trousers, long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so. She was an avid gambler and often dressed like a man in order to gamble in the males-only establishments that dotted North Beach.
Lillie’s fortunes funded the monument, four years following her death in 1929. She had a special relationship with the city’s firefighters. At the age of fifteen, she witnessed the Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 in response to a fire call up on Telegraph Hill when they were shorthanded, and threw her school books to the ground and pitched in to help, calling out to other bystanders to help get the engine up the hill to the fire, to get the first water onto the blaze. After that Lillie became the Engine Co. Mascot and could barely be constrained by her parents from jumping into action, at the sound of every fire bell. After this she was frequently riding with the Knickerbocker Engine Co. 5, especially so in street parades and celebrations in which the Engine Co. participated. Through her youth and adulthood Lillie was recognized as an honorary firefighter.
Lillie’s will read that she wished for one third of her fortune, amounting to $118,000, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.” Two memorials were built in her name. One was Coit Tower, and the other was a sculpture depicting three firemen, one of them carrying a woman in his arms. Lillie is today the matron saint of San Francisco firefighters.
The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors proposed that Coit’s bequest be used for a road at Lake Merced. This proposal brought disapproval from the estate’s executors, who expressed a desire that the county find “ways and means of expending this money on a memorial that in itself would be an entity and not a unit of public development.” Supervisor Herbert Fleishhacker suggested a memorial on Telegraph Hill, which was approved by the estate executors. An additional $7,000 in city funds was appropriated, and a design competition was initiated. The winner was architect Arthur Brown, Jr, whose design was completed and dedicated on October 8, 1933. The tower took five years to construct.
The architecture of Coit Tower seems fairly simple and is said to represent the nozzle of a fire hose, although the rumor that this was intentional has been denied. When you enter the building, however, you will see a beautiful set of murals that explore and explain the history of the area. These murals were part of the Public Works of Art project that provided jobs to artists after the Great Depression. Many examples of public artwork from this era can be seen throughout San Francisco, but the collection of murals at Coit Tower just might be the best sample of this work.
You can walk around the lower level of Coit Tower and view most of these murals at no charge. Looking at them, you will see many little slices of history. The many scenes throughout the building depict the lives of average people in the San Francisco Bay Area at this time. For example, you will see a poor family panning for gold while a richer family watches, a Labor March, farmers in fruit fields and every day tragedies like a car accident and a robbery. In addition to the murals that you can see as a daily visitor, there is a set of murals in the stairway of the tower that are generally not available to be seen by the public. Surrounding the tower is the Pioneer Park. It was bought in 1876 by some businessmen to protect the hill from development. They donated it to the city on the premise that the area would become a park.
Coit Tower might be the highlight of Telegraph Hill but while you’re there you won’t want to miss out on another great piece of the hill’s history. They’re the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. No one is quite sure how this flock of feral parrots ended up in the area, but they’ve been there for years and you can count on them being there most days that you might visit. They hang out in the trees near Coit Tower. They’ve been the subject of a book as well as a documentary and have come to have their role in the local legends of the area. They have also played a bit part in local politics after a 2007 ban prohibiting feeding them in public was found to be highly controversial. The loud voices of the beautiful birds and eccentric determination to thrive in a place where they don’t necessarily belong might even remind a person a little bit of Ms. Lillie Hitchcock Coit!
At the top of the Coit tower is an observation platform with spectacular 360° views over San Francisco. The tower offers fantastic views of San Francisco including the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (“Aquatic Park”), Alcatraz, Pier 39, Angel Island, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, Russian Hill, the Financial District, Lombard Street, and Nob Hill.
It serves as a directional marker for people lost in the mazes of city streets, but with its rich history and its excellent viewpoint, Coit Tower offers much more than just a way to find out where you are in the city. Upon leaving Coit Tower, one can walk down the eastern steps, which are covered in lush vegetation. The neighbors who live here have opted to create beautiful gardens in their backyards here for all to enjoy. On a quiet day, one can listen for the calls of those famous parrots. Therefore, Coit Tower is absolutely a fantastic destination.