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.
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).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. 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.
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. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=Lillie_Coit’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. http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist1/h-coit.html. 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. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/17/BAVC1NM7A9.DTL.
(8) Peterson, Art. “An Overdue Honor for Coit Tower.” The Semaphore [San Francisco] Winter 2008: Issue 182. Web PDF. 22 March 2012. Page 14. http://www.thd.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Winter-2008-Semaphore-Issue-182.pdf.
(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. http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200511100008.