It seems to be a silly truth that the landmarks that are close to one’s home are ignored or avoided. I grew up 16 miles from Coit Tower but never visited the site during my California residency. it took bringing Mrs Bear to the city of my childhood to actually walk up Telegraph Hill and visit Coit Tower. In fact, the walk from Union Square took us through Chinatown and North Beach, before walking up the steep steps to the top of Telegraph Hill.
Telegraph Hill got its name from the erection of a windmill-like structure in 1849 that alerted SFO’s citizens to the cargo of merchant ships entering the bay. In today’s City, Coit Tower is believed to sit atop the hill with the best panoramic views of the entire city and bay. While one can drive to the Tower, we walked up the street seen above to the gardens surrounding the vista.
This is the view from the Tower base, looking southwest to the Bay Bridge. I’m sure y’all can imagine how great the view is from the top of the Tower.
A bit of history … Lillie Coit, born in 1843, was quite a character. in the San Francisco of her youth, there was no city fire department. Instead, locals financed and ran their own firefighting wagons and chased fires as they ignited. They had a lot of work since almost all the buildings were built with wood. One day, Lillie was walking to school when a local fire company rode by. She dropped her books and leant a hand, reportedly chastizing passersby who did not get involved. So began a lifelong relationship between Lillie and the firefighters of the City.
Lillie was way ahead of her time. She smoked cigars, wore pants instead of dresses, and dressed in disguises to sneak into local poker games. And she truly loved San Francisco. Her will stipulated that one-third of her fortune should fund a project that would add to the beauty of the City. These funds were used to erect Coit Tower in 1933. It is said that the unpainted concrete that was used for the tower resembles the nozzle of a fire fighter’s hose.
Lillie’s gift to San Francisco was completed in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression. 26 local artists were invited to paint fresco murals of the interior walls of the Tower. These were funded by a Depression Works program … The paintings depicted scenes of Labor and Working Life during the Depression.
A few of the murals were considered controversial as critics believed they contained ” Communist themes.” At least one mural was replaced during this debate. On my first walk-by, I had no idea of this history, and I felt that many of the frescos displayed images of California life that have held up well over time.
Our walk up to Coit Tower reminded me not to take local landmarks for granted … That, no matter how many times I visit my home city, there will always be discoveries to be found and questions to be asked about why it took so long to find them.