COIT TOWER

San Franciso’s Coit Tower is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. The 210-foot high, Art Deco tower sits majestically atop Telegraph Hill in the city’s North Beach neighborhood and offers sweeping views of San Francisco Bay as well as Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, and other area attractions.

Coit tower was built in 1933 at the bequeath of wealthy San Francisco heiress, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left one-third of her sizeable fortune to the city of San Francisco. The structure, designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard, is made of unpainted reinforced concrete. Contrary to urban legend, the building was not made to resemble a fire hose in tribute to the firefighters of the 1906 earthquake, although Mrs. Coit was a ardent fan and supporter of the city’s fightmen.

The tower was not designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, despite Coit’s affinity with the San Francisco firefighters of the day, in particular with Knickerbocker Engine Company Number 5.

Coit Tower is a monument to the firefighters of San Francisco. Paid for by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy socialite who loved to chase fires in the early days of the city’s history, the tower took five years to construct. Before December 1866, there was no real fire department, and fires in the city, which broke out regularly due to the nature of the wooden buildings, were extinguished by several volunteer fire companies.

Lillie Coit was one of the more eccentric characters in the history of North Beach and Telegraph Hill, smoking cigars and wearing trousers long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so. She was an avid gambler and often dressed like a man in order to gamble in the males-only establishments that dotted North Beach. Coit was reputed to have shaved her head so her wigs would fit better.

Lillie’s fortunes funded the monument four years following her death in 1929, as she had requested. She had a special relationship with the city’s firefighters. At the age of fifteen she witnessed the Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 in response to a fire call up on Telegraph Hill when they were shorthanded, and threw her school books to the ground and pitched in to help, calling out to other bystanders to help get the engine up the hill to the fire, to get the first water onto the blaze. After that Lillie became the Engine Co. mascot and could barely be constrained by her parents from jumping into action at the sound of every fire bell. After this she was frequently riding with the Knickerbocker Engine Co. 5, especially so in street parades and celebrations in which the Engine Co. participated. Through her youth and adulthood Lillie was recognized as an honorary firefighter.

Her will read that she wished for one third of her fortune “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.” Two memorials were built in her name. One was Coit Tower, and the other was a sculpture depicting three firemen, one of them carrying a woman in his arms. Lillie is today the matron saint of San Francisco firefighters.

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~ by ferry1984 on July 13, 2011.

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