The Rich Coit Tower History in San Francisco

Built in 1933 with funds bequeathed by Lillian Hitchcock Coit, the 210-foot tall Coit Tower stands proudly atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. This architectural gem, resembling an enormous Roman column, holds a rich history and a unique connection to the city’s volunteer firefighters.

Coit Tower: The Iconic San Franciscan Landmark

Why was Coit Tower Built?

Coit Tower, built in 1933, was a testament to the philanthropy of Lillian Hitchcock Coit, a well-known patroness of San Francisco’s volunteer firefighters. Inspired by her admiration and support for the firefighting community, Lillian bequeathed funds for the tower’s construction in her will. Her connection with the Knickerbocker Engine Company Number Five, dating back to her teenage years, fueled her passion for the project. The tower stands as a lasting tribute to the valiant efforts of volunteer firefighters, embodying Lillian’s commitment to honoring their service.

What is Coit Tower?

Coit Tower is an iconic 210-foot tall structure located atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Designed by architects Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard, the art deco tower is constructed from unpainted reinforced concrete. Its distinctive resemblance to an enormous Roman column and the apocryphal tale of its design mirroring a fire hose nozzle add to its unique charm. The tower houses striking fresco murals depicting the struggles and aspirations of the Great Depression, considered some of the finest examples of Depression-era public art in California. Visitors can explore the lobby for free, with an option to take an elevator to the top for a fee, enjoying panoramic views of San Francisco. Coit Tower, funded by Lillian Hitchcock Coit’s bequest, stands not only as an architectural marvel but also as a testament to the city’s history and the legacy of volunteer firefighters.

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Design and Architecture:

The art deco tower, crafted from unpainted reinforced concrete, was designed by renowned architects Arthur Brown Jr. (also responsible for San Francisco’s City Hall and War Memorial Opera House) and Henry Howard. A fascinating tale, although apocryphal, suggests that the tower’s design mirrors a fire hose nozzle, paying homage to Lillian Hitchcock Coit’s affinity with the volunteer firefighter community.

Fresco Murals:

Step into the lobby of Coit Tower to witness fresco murals painted in 1934, depicting the discontent and hope felt during the Great Depression. Today, these vividly colored murals stand as California’s finest examples of Depression-era public art. While entry to the tower is free, a fee is charged for those eager to take the elevator to the top.

210-foot tall Coit Tower stands proudly atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco

Telegraph Hill & Coit Tower

Coit Tower’s lofty perch atop Telegraph Hill, a distinctive 295-foot elevation, provides a breathtaking view of San Francisco. Telegraph Hill, historically significant for signaling ship arrivals, played a crucial role before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. 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 placed 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.

Coit Tower's lofty perch atop Telegraph Hill

Pioneer Park

Crowning Telegraph Hill is Pioneer Park, established in 1876 to celebrate the United States Centennial. The park’s centerpiece is, of course, Coit Tower. Pioneer Park offers a panoramic aerial view and features an anachronistic bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, a gift from San Francisco’s Italian-American community in 1957.

the bronze statue of christopher columbus on telegraph hill

Lillian Hitchcock Coit

The tower’s namesake, Lillian Hitchcock Coit, was a remarkable and well-known patroness of San Francisco’s volunteer firefighters. Known for her eccentricities, such as dressing in male drag to infiltrate male-only establishments, Lillian Hitchcock Coit was an avid gambler and cigar smoker.

Before 1866, there was no city fire department, and the fires in the city that 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.

a black and white photo of lilian hitchcock coit, coit tower's namesake

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.

Discover the captivating Coit Tower history in San Francisco, where architectural brilliance, Depression-era art, and the spirit of volunteer firefighters converge. Plan your visit to this iconic landmark and delve into the stories that have shaped its legacy.

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