Built in 1933 with funds bequeathed by Lillian Hitchcock Coit, in honor of all the volunteer firefighters of San Francisco, the 210-foot tall Coit Tower resembles an enormous Roman column. The art deco tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, was designed by architects Arthur Brown Jr., (also designed: San Francisco’s City Hall, War Memorial Opera House), and Henry Howard. Although an apocryphal story claims that the tower was designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle due to Lillian Hitchcock Coit’s affinity with San Francisco’s volunteer firefighter community
Fresco Murals adorn the lobby of Coit Tower, murals painted in 1934 depict the discontent and hope many felt during the Great Depression. Today, the vividly colored murals are considered the finest examples of Depression-era public art in California. The tower may be entered for free; however, there is a fee to take the elevator to the top.
Telegraph Hill & Coit Tower
Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill. At 295-feet tall, Telegraph Hill is not the tallest, but certainly one of the most distinctive hills in San Francisco. San Franciscans have always looked to Telegraph Hill, originally for the signal on its peak, which announced the arrival of ships.
Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, ships carrying mail, cargo, and loved ones were San Francisco’s primary link to the rest of the U.S. In 1846 a signal pole was place atop Telegraph Hill to alert the town when ships approached. Telegraph Hill received its name in 1850 when a semaphore, also called a marine telegraph, was erected to replace the signal pole. The semaphore consisted of a tall mast with movable arms that were positioned in various configurations depending on the type of ship. During the Gold Rush eager residents, alerted by the semaphore, scrambled up the hill to watch paddle wheeled steamers and clipper ships sail into the bay.
We get a great aerial view of Pioneer Park, crowning the top of Telegraph Hill. The park was established in 1876, celebrating the United States Centennial. The main feature of the park is Coit Tower. Anachronistic as it might seem, the bronze statue of Christopher Columbus was placed in Pioneer Park in 1957, donated by the city’s Italian-American community.
Lillian Hitchcock Coit
Lillian Hitchcock Coit, for whom the tower is named, was a well-known patroness of San Francisco’s volunteer firefighters. At the sounding of the firewagon bell, she would chase the firewagons and assist anyway she could.
Before 1866, there was no city fire department, and fires in the city, which broke out, were extinguished by several volunteer fire companies. At the age of fifteen she witnessed the Knickerbocker Engine Company Number Five responding to a fire atop Telegraph Hill. Seeing that the Knickerbocker Company was shorthanded, she through her schoolbooks to the ground and helped, calling out to bystanders to help get the engine up the hill. After that Lillian became the Knickerbocker Engine Companies mascot.
Lillian Hitchock Coit, was an avid gambler and cigar smoker. I the 1860’s and 1870’s, she often dressed in male drag so she could infiltrate the male-only establishments that dotted North Beach.
When the Knickerbocker Engine Company Number Five made Lillian an honorary member, she took to signing her name Lillie Hitchcock Coit Knickerbocker. She died in 1929, at the age of eighty-six, leaving a $118,000 bequest to build a tower in honor of her firefighting friends.