Monthly Archives: March 2012

La Cattedrale d’Italia Ovest

AKA: Saints Peter and Paul Church, North Beach. Joe DiMaggio, who learned to play ball in North Beach, posed here for wedding photos with his new bride, Marilyn Monroe, in 1954.

Coit Tower: Part I

Early San Francisco was defined by its fires.  Although the 1906 earthquake and resulting inferno that destroyed the city is its most famous conflagration, San Francisco burned six times between Christmas Eve of 1849 and May 3, 1851.  We’ve been called a “city of fire freaks” (1), and the flag of the City of San Francisco depicts a phoenix rising from flames.

San Francisco Flag. Image by Makaristos, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Early stories of firefighting and fires in San Francisco take on the tinge of tall tales.  One 19th century firefighting group successfully married SF’s pyromania with its reputation for being the “Wettest of the West:” a  city that had one licensed bar for every 96 citizens in 1890, plus another 2,000 speakeasies operating under the radar (2).  The Social Company, as it was known, would carry cases of champagne to a blaze and chug the bubbly while aiming fire hoses (1).  One of my favorite accounts of firefighting efforts in SF comes from a New Deal-era Federal Writers Project guidebook to the city, which might be more than a little tinged with ethnic stereotyping:

When the fire of 1906 began to creep up the slopes of [Telegraph Hill], it was the Italians who saved it.  From their cellars they rolled out barrels of red wine and, forming a bucket brigade, protected their houses against the flames with blankets soaked in the wine.  The [North Beach] district has been theirs ever since… (3).

Truth or fiction, it’s an attractive visual, and one that is firmly within the San Franciscan fire-alcohol leitmotif.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of SF’s most famous landmarks, Coit Tower, is a memorial to firefighters and was financed by one of our weirdest local eccentrics.  Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a socialite who married young to a much older man (4), was “literally, the patroness of all the firemen of her city,” as SF Fire Department Battalion Chief Frederick J. Bowlen remembered in 1939.  “Pretty and impulsive,” she won her way into the hearts of firefighters throughout the city when, at age fifteen, she helped pull the engine of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 up Telegraph Hill to combat a blaze.  Bowlen called it “the story of Jeanne d’Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Saragossa and Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again.”  Made an honorary member of Knickerbocker in 1863, she wore her No. 5 badge with pride for the rest of her life (5).

Lillie Hitchcock Coit

Lillie Hitchcock Coit in 1862. Author unknown, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Coit reportedly monogrammed her underclothes with a “5,” signed her name “Lillie Hitchcock Coit 5,” and liked to take firemen out to dinners after they’d finished putting out the flames.  A well-loved member of high society (2), Coit would frequently dress as a man, gamble in North Beach, and smoke cigars (6).  When she died in 1929, she left a third of her estate to San Francisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved” (5).  The top of Telegraph Hill was selected for a monument.


Lillie Hitchcock Coit's signature, c. 1890. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Before it became the site of Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill played an important role in the development of San Francisco.  It was a place to look out for incoming ships and housed a semaphore station, which used flags and wooden arms angled in different positions to signal the type of ship entering the port.  With the advent of the telegraph and the installation of a station in 1853, the hill earned its current name.  Wealthy citizens purchased the top of the hill and donated it to the city for the American Centennial in 1876, naming it Pioneer Park for the “first” settlers of the city (4).

Under pressure to develop the area, city officials (including John McLaren, who was the superintendent of Golden Gate Park for more than 50 years and had an immense influence on its development) allocated $118,000 from Lillie Coit’s benefaction to build a tower, which eventually cost $127,000 (4).  Designed by Arthur Brown Jr., the Art Deco-style Coit Tower is 210 feet tall (7) and consists of 3 nested concrete cylinders.  It was built in 1932-33 (8).  Although legend suggests that the tower was designed to look like the nozzle of a fire hose, several sources insist that this is untrue.

Coit Tower is an outstanding visual landmark in a city with few notable tall buildings (as friends have said while contemplating the cityscape, what would downtown SF be without Coit and the Transamerica Building?).  It’s an inescapable part of the city and has been immortalized in fiction, art, film, and pop culture.  In his 1958 poem “Dog,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti described the city from a dog’s perspective as he passed Coit Tower and then a Congressman from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  The dog found Coit Tower more frightening than the Congressman, “although what he hears is very discouraging / very depressing / very absurd / to a sad young dog like himself” (9).  In 2005, Bill O’Reilly infamously spotlit Coit Tower during a rant about an SF ballot measure that “urged” high schools and colleges to prohibit military campus recruiting in 2005. He said:

And if Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead (10).

Coit Tower is also unavoidably phallic.  The Federal Writers Project description is one of the tamer ones: “And from the summit of the hill, banked in greenery, soars the gleaming white fluted shaft of Coit Tower” (3).  The Freudian imagery was not lost on Lucien Labaudt (he painted the gorgeous Powell Street murals in the Coit Tower stairway), who included a less-than-subtle depiction of Coit Tower architect Arthur Brown Jr. in his New-Deal-funded Beach Chalet murals at Golden Gate Park. While Labaudt’s sophomoric frescoes did not cause public outcry in the city, the earnest depictions of Depression-era California in the interior of Coit Tower did.  But more on that in an upcoming post.

Arthur Brown Jr. holds his plans for Coit Tower, with City Hall in the background. Portrait by Lucien Labaudt, from the Beach Chalet murals. Photo: Chris Carlsson, courtesy of Found SF. CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

In a city viewed by much of America, or perhaps just radio talk show hosts, as the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah and chock-full of unrepentant weirdos, I find it fitting that a defining piece of the cityscape brings the anatomical to mind.  It’s also more than a little germane that the tower could not have been built without the generosity of one of San Francisco’s greatest kooks, a woman embraced for her innumerable quirks by the city she loved.  Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill are reminders of the city’s strangeness, its dedication to public art and open space, and the difficult history that has shaped modern San Francisco.  Coit Tower is our Polaris, the point by which we measure our place and affix our eyes when caught in the back alleys of the city.


The next post on Coit Tower will discuss the murals in the interior of the building, which have a daunting history of their own.

With many thanks to tour guide Peter O’Driscoll and the incredible (and free!) San Francisco City Guides tours.  The Coit Tower Murals tour provides fascinating details about Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower, and the murals that adorn its interior.  The tour also gives you access to the murals in the stairwell and on the second floor, which are otherwise closed to the public.  Go check it out–Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11AM at the main entrance to Coit Tower.  The Hitchcock Walking Tour is also awesome.

(1) Dr. Weirde. “Lillie Coit’s Tribute to Pyromania.”  Via Found SF.  Web.  22 March 2012.’s_Tribute_to_Pyromania.

(2) Montanarelli, Lisa and Ann Harrison.  Strange But True San Francisco.  Guilford, CT: Insider’s Guide, 2005. Print.  Citations come from:  “The Wettest of the West” (page 112), “Gin-Soaked City” (page 41), and “Lillie Hitchcock Coit 5 and her Fire Fighting Fetish” (pages 149-151).

(3) Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration.  “Latin Quarter: Telegraph Hill and North Beach.”  San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.  Print.  Citations from pages 238, 242.  The original guide was published in 1940.

(4) O’Driscoll, Peter.  “Coit Tower Murals.”  San Francisco City Guides.  Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA.  21 March 2012.  Walking tour.

(5) Bowlen, Frederick J.  “Elizabeth Wyche “Lillie” Hitchcock Coit.”  San Francisco Chronicle, 30 May 1939.  Via the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.  Web.  22 March 2012.  Although I assume most readers will be familiar with Joan of Arc/Jeanne d’Arc (if not: to Wikipedia with you!), I had to look up the other two women Bowlen mentioned.  The Maid of Saragossa was Agustina de Aragon, a Spanish resistance fighter who shot cannons and guns at the French during the Napoleonic siege of Zaragoza in 1808.  Molly Pitcher may have been Mary Ludwig Hays, who followed her husband onto the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, carrying water to the soldiers and taking over her husband’s cannon firing duties when he collapsed at the Battle of Monmouth.

(6) Snyder, John.  “Coit Memorial Tower.”  San Francisco Secrets.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.  Print.

(7) King, John.  “Coit Tower: Slender, Steep, and Still Turning Heads.”  SF Gate, 18 March 2012.  Web.  22 March 2012.

(8) Peterson, Art.  “An Overdue Honor for Coit Tower.”  The Semaphore [San Francisco] Winter 2008: Issue 182.  Web PDF.  22 March 2012.  Page 14.

(9) Ferlinghetti, Lawrence.  “Dog.”  San Francisco Poems.  San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.  Print.  Pages 37-40.

(10) MMTV.  “O’Reilly to San Francisco: ‘[I]f Al Qaeda comes in here and blows you up, we’re not going to do anything about it. … You want to blow up the Coit Tower?  Go ahead.”  Media Matters, 10 November 2005.  Web.  24 March 2012.

Domaine Carneros

The Brixton


One of the beauties of San Francisco is that you can always escape.  More car friendly than New York, though nowhere near as ensconced in driving culture as Los Angeles, SF will always offer up a friend or two with a vehicle.  This will be required for Ikea runs, flea marketing, and those times when you absolutely, immediately, must get out.  Apart from quick hops across the Golden Gate Bridge–Sausalito, Muir Woods, or Mt. Tamalpais–and a few other choice locales, San Francisco is close enough to the Sierra Nevada for a sustained trip away from whatever it is about urban living that has you down.  Yosemite and Tahoe are two of my favorites, especially with half-day-plus driving times from Southern California now shortened to a manageable jaunt for the weekend.

I’ve been reading The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and exploring Gary Snyder’s work over the past month, yearning, I think, for the wild.  One of the things that has most struck me was Kerouac’s struggle to remain a dedicated student of Buddhism while being a focal point of the Beat scene.  He describes sitting outside all night, meditating in nature, and then chugging wine, using drugs, and womanizing on the same page (1)*.  Throughout, he finds purity in nature and excitement in the city but is never able to commit to one or the other.  Reading the book today, it is an inescapable fact that Kerouac died of cirrhosis ten years after its publication.  For Kerouac, life was a search for balance that was anything but level.

I think most people who live in cities face a similar struggle: yearning for the calm that comes with a rural life but unable or unwilling to give up the things that make city living so spectacular.  3AM bacon wrapped hot dogs in the Mission.  Live music seven days a week.  Museums and their cultural ilk.  People everywhere, all the time, doing interesting things.  The solution?  Get out.  Just for a bit.  Just for a day.  I headed out to Truckee last weekend for just such a reason.  As well as a friend’s birthday.  Like Kerouac, I felt the pull between simplicity and decadence, slipping away for a walk in the snow or reading by the fire and then drinking beers all night, yelling and hooting.

Short historical detour: Truckee is near Donner Lake, the site of the infamous Donner Party tragedy.  This was one of my favorite stories as a child, as I was obsessed with the Oregon Trail, Western history and mythology, and anything even remotely morbid.  Setting out from Independence, Missouri, in April 1846, members of what would become the Donner Party made a fatal error when they decided to take a shortcut in Utah, called Hasting’s Cutoff, that actually added 125 miles to their route.  They lost two months, much of their livestock and supplies, and the cohesiveness of their group before reaching Truckee (now Donner) Lake on November 3, 1846 (2).

Donner Memorial, California

The Donner Memorial near Truckee. The pedestal is as high as the record snows of 1846-1847: 22 feet (see source #1). Photo by nicksarebi, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Winter snows thwarted the pioneers from crossing the high mountain passes, and they returned to a lone cabin at Donner Lake.  They settled in two groups, one next to the lake and the others a few miles away at Alder Creek, hoping their meager supplies would hold until the snow melted enough to make the climb.  This would not be the case.  As food dwindled, a group of fifteen on snowshoes calling themselves “Forlorn Hope” set out from the encampments on December 16 to try to reach help over the mountains (3).  Beset by snowstorms and low on food and clothes, they began “casting lots” to see who would give his or her life to sustain the others.  Men began dying before this was necessary–for a time (4).  After several pioneers died and were eaten, the two American Indian guides sent from Sacramento by John Sutter to help the group were most likely murdered for food.  On January 17, the seven Forlorn Hope survivors staggered into Johnson’s Ranch on the western side of the Sierra: five women and two men, all white.  They brought news of the trapped party in the mountains, galvanizing rescue efforts.  In all, it took four attempts to reach and rescue the members of the Donner Party.  With each foray into the mountains, rescue teams found the “grisly remains of cannibalism” at both sites near Donner Lake.  Only half of the 80-odd people who made it to Donner Lake survived the winter months in the Sierra (3).  The story of the Donner Party is one of the most famous of the pioneer period, and a horrifying account of what human beings can do to survive.  It is also the Truckee area’s claim to fame, and it seems that every other business or landmark is named for the hapless travelers.

Places like Truckee are imbued with their frontier past, which is as romanticized as you might expect.  Western-style false facades line the main street, with covered promenades that feel on the verge of a High Noon confrontation.  Nearby locales include Soda Springs and Lake of the Pines, names that feel pulled from a folk song or tall tale: the places where Paul Bunyan had an egg cream the size of a swimming pool and took a bath, using a whole conifer for a hairbrush.  Truckee is also stunningly beautiful, especially in several feet of fresh snow.  The wind really does sigh or sough through the trees.  Everything smells a bit like woodsmoke, with that clean, alpine sharpness that can’t be properly described.  There is nothing quite like starlight on snowy pines.  Although it is not rugged, Truckee is place to come find tranquility and a little equilibrium.

Which is why I retreated from group activities here and there: to take a moment and breathe.  On one such occasion, I took a walk out among the cabins and trees in our neighborhood.  Almost everyone was holed up or out skiing, and it was dead quiet, apart from a few children sledding, a chattering squirrel or two, and the creak of snow falling from the pines.  I kept hearing a rhythmic cry or rusty creak.  I wasn’t sure if it was an animal or some unknown snow or skiing machinery–maybe a lift.  After all, I’m fairly ignorant of what happens in places where snow falls.  On the way up, I nervously Googled how to drive in ice or snow, which was not on the driving test in Southern California.  Casting about, I finally found the source: vees of geese, migrating.  With the weather so warm this winter, it was unclear whether they were headed north or south.  It was one of the most beautiful and tranquil things I’ve ever seen.

Truckee Geese from Julia Robinson on Vimeo.



(1) Kerouac, Jack.  The Dharma Bums.  New York: Penguin Books, 1991. The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958. *As his accounts of “yabyum” allege, other Buddhist peers may have had a different opinion about what is or is not “pure” or acceptable in one’s practice.  At the same time, many religious leaders and scholars criticized Kerouac’s ignorance of Zen and other Buddhist tenets after the book was published–which should be a surprise to no one who has read The Dharma Bums.

(2) McCurdy, Stephen A.  “Epidemiology of Disaster: The Donner Party (1846-1847).”  Western Journal of Medicine, April 1994: Vol. 160, No. 4, 338-342. Web PDF.  9 March 2012.  This is a fascinating short article about the demographics of who survived (and died) in the Donner Party.  For example, women, who have lower daily calorie needs and higher fat stores, had a higher survival rate.  Obviously (which is not discussed in this article), not being of Caucasian descent carried the extra risk of dying from unnatural causes.

(3) Johnson, Kristin.  “Donner Party Chronology.”  New Light on the Donner Party, 2006.  Web.  9 March 2012.  Despite some much-publicized, sketchy scholarship in 2010 alleging that the Donner party did not engage in cannibalism, it seems pretty clear that it did happen.

(4) “Distressing News.”  The California Star, 13 February 1847.  Via the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.  9 March 2012.

Coit Tower


The Bold Italic published a piece this week debunking (or confirming) several well-known San Francisco stories.  For example, there’s no documentary evidence that Mark Twain actually said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  That doesn’t mean he didn’t say it, only that it can’t be proved.  There really are more dogs than children in the city, 120,000 to 108,000, as of 2010.  I’ve known this for a while, but Coit Tower, built with funds from Fire Department enthusiast Lillie Hitchcock Coit, was not meant to look like a fire hose nozzle.  In weirder Coit Tower mythology, my dad told me that he had thought for a long time that the tower was built to dry fire hoses (I guess you hang them out the upper windows?).  I’m not sure where he picked that one up.  Finally, my favorite so far, was that a woman was barred from boarding a bus because she had a live chicken, and animals are not allowed on Muni.  So she snapped the chicken’s neck and climbed on.  The author could not find any evidence to corroborate this urban legend, which may have spawned the “Dirty 30” moniker for the Muni line of that name (though, honestly, the 30 doesn’t need chicken killers to be termed dirty) and that the author called “rife with racist undertones” (the woman was Chinese).  Two commenters insisted that they were firsthand witnesses to the chicken killing.  Since we all know that Internet commenters are the most reliable of sources, this must be the truth.  I’ve seen some pretty messed up stuff on Muni, including a girl fight that resulted in hair extensions all over the floor.  My sister saw someone light a Muni seat on fire.  So in my own opinion, I would be in no way surprised if someone had killed a chicken to board the bus.  It’s actually pretty radass.

A college friend, Merrell, has been traveling the West Coast for the last couple of weeks and documenting her experiences here.  She has lovely photos of SF and around and discovered some cool things–like the fly fishing ponds at Golden Gate Park (who knew?) and the “casual house in Pacific Heights” that is almost directly across from my apartment (no, I do not live in a mansion).

We take our locavore foodstuffs pretty seriously around here.  In the (in)famous Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan details wandering through “acrid and trash-strewn wetlands” under the San Mateo Bridge to gather local, Bay Area salt for his hunted and gathered meal at the end of the book.  He came home with plastic soda bottles full of gray water from the salt ponds and attempted to harvest the salt on his own through boiling, which resulted in brown crystals “a bit greasy to the touch [that] tasted so metallic and so much like chemicals that it actually made me gag.”  What he acknowledges and what I learned this week is that salt harvesting is much more involved process, and it happens right here in the Bay.  The Kitchn took a trip out to see the Diamond Crystal Salt’s harvesting ponds, the only solar salt producer in the US.  It takes about five years for salt to go from sea water to the table, including removing all of the tag-along chemicals that Pollan found (rightly) nauseating.  Via Scoutmob.

Did you know that there’s a cabin in downtown San Francisco?  It’s hanging on the side of a building at 447 Bush Street and was built by Californian artists Jenny Chapman  and Mark A. Reigelman II (commissioned by Southern Exposure, which is also the name of a delicious drink at the Alembic).  SoEx calls it “both homage to the romantic spirit of the Western Myth and a commentary on the arrogance of Westward expansion.”  I wonder how long til some realtor is charging $2,000/month for a “charming, rustic studio in a prime downtown location.”  That’d be true SF-style Manifest Destiny.

This has been making the rounds for a while, but it makes me so proud to live in a city where the police department created an “It Gets Better” video.  There is so much hate in this country right now.  Thank you to the SFPD for their leadership in supporting universal equal rights and tolerance.



The header photo is of my friend Grace walking the labyrinth at Land’s End.  She blogs here sometimes.