clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

85 fascinating facts about Coit Tower for its 85th birthday

Telegraph Hill tower gets extra honorarium for its big day

Photo by Matt Boyle/Shutterstock

The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department announced last week that, in honor of Coit Tower’s 85th birthday, the Art Deco concrete tower of note has been singled out as a “nationally significant historic place on the National Register of Historic Places.”

To learn more about the tower and its significance, here are 85 facts about Coit for its 85th birthday.

  1. Coit Tower is named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an early San Francisco philanthropist and adorer of local firefighters.
  2. In addition to her love of San Francisco and firefighting, Coit was noted for sometimes dressing like a man and pursuing what were considered masculine pastimes—like gambling and sharpshooting.
  3. Coit spent some time abroad after her cousin Alexander Garrett attempted to shoot her in the Palace Hotel in 1903. Even Lillie wasn’t going to stick around San Francisco after that.
  4. When Coit died in 1929, she left a third of her fortune—about $125,000, almost $2 million after inflation—to the city with instructions that it was “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.” Classy.
  5. The architectural firm behind San Francisco City Hall—belonging to Arthur J. Brown,— designed Coit Tower.
  6. Despite some common confusion, the architect was not Brown himself but instead Henry Howard.
  7. Of course, some sources credit both men; in fact, the conflation of Howard and Brown seems to be something of an enduring leitmotif with tower history.
  8. According to SF Recreation and Parks, “Howard’s simple, vertical design was selected because it best created a monumental statement within the small site and small budget.”
  9. The city also felt that the tower design “complimented the proportions of the hill.”
  10. Note that the tower came in within budget at the time, an elusive goal in modern-day San Francisco.
  11. The tower’s signature fluted appearance was designed “to avoid looking top-heavy.”
  12. The difference in diameter at the top of the tower compared to the bottom is just 18 inches.
  13. To achieve that effect, the wooden forms used to pour the concrete for the top section were shaved down.
  14. Before construction, Telegraph Hill neighbors tried to block the tower, and the SF Arts Commission complained as well. Some things never change.
  15. Artist Robert B. Howard created the phoenix sculpture above the tower entrance.
  16. The phoenix imagery is meant to represent San Francisco’s resiliency in the face of many disasters, particularly the 1906 earthquake, which was still fresh in many people’s minds nearly three decades later.
  17. Most of the Coit money went into the tower, but the city also used a portion to create the firefighters monument in Washington Square. The history site Guardians of the City notes, “This monument is one of the few pre-9/11 monuments in the United States that honored firefighters.”
  18. Despite popular myth, the interior murals are not Diego Rivera works, though they were created with his style in mind.
  19. Note that one one of the artists, Berhard Zakheim, had worked with Rivera in the past.
  20. According to Anthony W. Lee’s book Painting on the Left, it was Zakheim who suggested the frescoes’ topical themes, saying, “We should deal with an overall idea on the economy [...] not so much historical as actual, what is happening right now in the United States.”
  21. Those circa 1934 murals were a Public Works of Art Project—similar to the WPA.
  22. They were considered incendiary at the time for their flagrant socialist overtones, but also for daring to depict people of color alongside white workers.
  23. During the 1934 longshoremen’s strike, the city painted over some of the mural elements for fear that the art would stir up too much sympathy for workers.
  24. The city also locked the public out of the tower to keep the murals from public exhibition for a while, meaning most people didn’t get a look at them until fall of 1934.
  25. The most provocative of the frescoes was Clifford Wight’s “Surveyor and Steelworker,” from which the city removed some of its “Communist symbols.”
  26. A critic’s description of the censored elements: “Over the central window stretched a bride, at the center of which is a circle containing the Blue Eagle of the NRA [National Recovery Act]. Over the right hand window he stretched a segment of chain; in the circle in this case appears the legend, ‘In God We Trust’- symbolizing the American dollar, or I presume, Capitalism. Over the left hand window [...] a section of woven cable and a circle framing a hammer, a sickle, and the legend ‘United Workers of the World.’”
  27. Note that several of the extant murals depict Californians reading the works of Karl Marx, so the city evidently did not want to remove all allusions to Communism.
  28. For the record, Park Commission’s Secretar B.P. Lamb said at the time that the censorship was on account of “architecturally inharmonious” elements rather than political ones.
  29. If you look closely, Mallette Dean’s scene of a scientist in a lab is used to help conceal a real light switch on the wall.
  30. The man staring into the bay in Gordon Langdon’s “California Industrial Scenes” fresco is probably modeled on another artist, John Howard.
  31. In the Railroad and Shipping fresco, the derelict state of the railroads and waterfront is meant to be a commentary on the Great Depression.
  32. Jose Moya del Pino’s Bay Scene depicts the Marin hills and indeed faces them, simulating a window.
  33. Amazing though it seems today, the rails and signs warning people not to touch the murals didn’t go up until the 1990s. Consequently, a lot of people put their grubby hands on the murals.
  34. For a long time, the public wasn’t allowed near the art at all; during the 1970s the tower was locked up again and visitors could view the scenes only through the windows.
  35. As the tower approached its 80th birthday, water damage and peeling surfaces mired much of the art.
  36. A big money restoration in 2014 restored the frescoes to fighting shape.
  37. Among the work done in 2014: removing old lead-based paint. Yikes.
  38. There are 27 murals in total, created by 26 artists.
  39. Actually, there seems to be some disagreement about the number of artists, with figures like 25 and 27 often cited instead. But SF Recreation and Parks says it was 26. [Correction: Jon Gollinger of Protect Coit Tower says that the 26 figure is an error on Rec & Park’s part and that the correct figure is 25. Some older records say 26, according to Golinger, because one artist was contracted but ended up not contributing.]
  40. Only four of those artists were women: Maxine Albro, Suzanne Scheuer, Edith Hamlin, and Jane Berlandina.
  41. The artists made $1.00 per hour for their work—about $19 in today’s currency. The schedule came out to $38 per week.
  42. The murals comprise 3,961 square feet in all.
  43. Coit Tower is the largest collection of Public Works Art Project art in the country.
  44. Dr. Walter Heil, director of the Legion of Honor, suggested the mural project to begin with, perceiving the blank tower walls as a potential canvas.
  45. Mural work began in December of 1933, when the tower was still brand new, and lasted through June of the following year.
  46. Total cost of the mural project: $26,022, or some $497,000 today. Note that this was also on-budget.
  47. The largest fresco, Maxine Albro’s California Agriculture, measures 10 feet by 42.
  48. The smallest mural, painted by Frederick Olmsted, titled simply Power, is just two feet by three.
  49. San Francisco artist Lucien Labaudt painted the stairwell scenes, modeling the figures in the downtown SF tableau on real San Franciscans.
  50. An artist assistant by the name of Farwell Taylor ground all of the pigments used in the frescoes on-site. The consistency of the pigments ties the images together.
  51. For a period in the 1930s, an on-site watchman, William J. Brady, actually lived in a tower apartment and kept constant vigil over the art.
  52. According to a San Francisco Chronicle story from 1935, Brady was so vigorous in his defense of the murals that he wished he could flog would-be vandals.
  53. Note that that zeal wasn’t wasted: Vandals really did accost the art, often with political motivation.
  54. Many San Franciscans knows that Coit Tower is not, in fact, meant to imitate the shape of a firehose nozzle, but the myth still persists.
  55. The best source on that: Arthur Brown, who many times denied the resemblance. Some sources credit actual architect Howard with the denial instead.
  56. According to SF Recreation and Parks, the tower is 212 feet from bottom to top.
  57. However, almost without exception, the figure is usually cited as 210 feet in print.
  58. Even the plaque affixed to the tower for its 50th birthday uses the 210 foot measurement. It seems that a touch of ambiguity about fine points is part of the tower’s historic legacy.
  59. There are 90,000 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, but only 2,500 are designated National Historic Landmarks, including Coit Tower.
  60. Pioneer Park, where the tower sits, was gifted to the city by a philanthropic citizen committee in 1876.
  61. The base the tower sits on originally belonged to a restaurant and observatory. “The venture failed when attempts to bring customers to the top proved too costly and too dangerous,” according to city historians.
  62. Note that the city’s docent-led tour is the only way the public can see the tower’s second floor and the art inside.
  63. According to Recreation and Parks this is because “the small spaces and proximity to these artworks require more stringent protective measures.”
  64. This is a relatively recent opportunity, by the way; for decades, the second floor was simply off limits to the public—many San Franciscans didn’t even realize there was anything in there.
  65. Second-floor images are noted for being less provocative, depicting Californians in more leisurely settings.
  66. By the way, if you want a tour of only the second floor, it’s $5—i.e., $3 off the regular price.
  67. Of course, if you prefer to forego capitalist transactions at all in the spirit of the artwork, free tours start at 11 a.m. every Wednesday.
  68. Tours are limited to eight people, but you need a group of at least four.
  69. Shortly after the tower opened, the owner of a Union Street cafe went up to the roof to fire a rifle at it, complaining that it invaded the sanctity of her Telegraph Hill Bohemia.” She was reportedly drunk at the time and missed.
  70. The tower wasn’t named a San Francisco landmark until 1984.
  71. The tower made it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
  72. In 2008, Coit Tower was designed a “National Historic Site.” The latter two accolades are indeed separate, though often confused.
  73. According to zealous Coit Tower preservationist Stephen Worsley, “There are at least five ‘official’ names for Coit Tower,”
  74. Among them: “Coit Tower,” “Coit Memorial Tower,” “Lillian Coit Memorial Tower.”
  75. The Coit Tower gift shop today occupies a space that was originally a broom closet, according to Worsley.
  76. In 2012, SF voters passed Proposition B, directing the city to “strictly [limit] commercial activities and private events at Coit Tower and by prioritizing the funds received by the City from any concession operations at Coit Tower for preserving the Coit Tower murals.”
  77. That vote was closer than you might expect though, clearing just over 53 percent.
  78. The Proposition B fight hinged on the suggestion that the city might start making Coit Tower a site for high-profile private parties as a moneymaking tool. The Chamber of Commerce opposed the proposition as “NIMBYism.”
  79. These days the tower is open 362 days a year, closing only for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
  80. Like City Hall, Coit Tower’s exterior lighting scheme is sometimes color coded to certain events. In the old days this meant putting colored gels over each of the lights manually.
  81. But in 2014 the city switched the lights over to an LED design that can be changed remotely.
  82. In September of this year, the San Francisco Chronicle realized that many of its historic photos of the tower had vanished from its archive. Editors are still working to replace the mysteriously missing photos.
  83. In 2005, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was so incensed by San Francisco politics that he invited terrorists to “blow up Coit Tower,” an interesting choice rather than targeting the bridges or taller buildings.
  84. There’s been at least one prominent suicide at the tower, Henry Geck, who hid in the structure until after it closed and then threw himself from a window, apparently in response to his recent divorce.
  85. IMDB lists Coit Tower as a location for 17 movies, ranging from Streets of San Francisco to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, but of course it pops up in B-roll footage of countless other films.
Photo by Bjorn Bakstad/Shutterstock