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 Coit Tower

Telegraph Hill Vignettes

Like Rome, San Francisco is a city of hills -- some forty-two. Perhaps its most famous is Telegraph Hill, an outcropping on the northeastern shore of the San Francisco side of the Bay. Early Spanish inhabitants called this promontory Loma Alta (High Hill) when San Francisco was still a village named Yerba Buena in the 1830's.

In 1849, two years after San Francisco took its name from the patron St. Francis of Assisi, George Sweeny and Theodore Baugh, founders of the Merchants' Exchange, built a small, 18-by 25-foot two-story house as an observation and semaphore signalling station on the summit of the hill -- thereafter called Telegraph Hill -- to service the growing shipping industry. On top of this building they erected a "high black pole and attached to it, in such a manner as to be raised or lowered at pleasure,...two black arms."

By 1853 an electric telegraph system had supplanted the semaphore. But because the signal had been of such value to the young city, some shippers, merchants, and other public-minded citizens, wishing to insure the preservation of the telegraph station as a landmark, purchased the property on the summit of Telegraph Hill, named it Pioneer Park, and donated it to the City of San Francisco in 1876, to be kept an open space.
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Colorful Lillie Coit

 Lillie Coit Parallel with the establishing of Telegraph Hill was the dashing life of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who came to San Francisco in 1851 at the age of seven from Maryland with her Army surgeon father and her Southern plantation-belle mother. Not long after her arrival, young Lillie Hitchcock was involved in one of San Francisco's early disastrous fires when she and several playmates were in a vacant house which began to burn. Though she managed to escape, two others were not so fortunate.

In the 1850's firemen were a special breed in San Francisco. They were "the best men" in the city, grouping in volunteer companies usually made up of lawyers, doctors, bankers, and merchants. There were the usual benevolent societies of the nineteenth century in San Francisco as well, but nothing seemed as glamorous as the red-shirted firemen with shining black peaked caps and black trousers stuffed into high black boots. These handsome young men with their polished hand-drawn fire engines had a difficult time struggling up the unpaved city hills to put out fires in this city which endured six major conflagrations before the famous earthquake and fire of 1906.

Legend says that one afternoon on her way home from school, teen-aged Lillie Hitchcock came upon short-staffed Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 of the Volunteer Fire Department pulling its engines up Telegraph Hill to reach a fire. Remembering her childhood experience, Lillie threw down her schoolbooks and rallied some male bystanders to help as she herself began hauling on the tow rope shouting, "Come on, you men, pull!" No. 5 raced up the hill and was the first engine to douse the fire. After that, Lillie became the mascot of No. 5, wearing an honorary uniform, smoking cigars, and playing poker with the men all night. She proudly sported a gold diamond-studded fireman's badge reading "No. 5," awarded her in 1863. For the rest of her life, she signed her initials LHC5, and, even in death, at her cremation at age 86, Lillie wore the famous badge.

In 1863 Lillie Hitchcock married Howard Coit, a wealthy caller at the old San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board. After Coit died in 1885, at age 47 of heart trouble, Lillie Coit spent most of her life in France, becoming a favorite of the court of Napoleon III. Curiously, before she left for Europe she expressed a desire to buy the property on top of Telegraph Hill, her old neighborhood, as a gift to San Francisco; she must have been surprised to learn that the city already owned Pioneer Park.

She returned briefly after the turn of the century. But in 1904 an incident in which an insane distant relative killed a man in her apartment and then threatened her life caused Lillie Coit to once again leave San Francisco. This time she remained in Paris for twenty years. At last coming home to her "soul city" towards the end of her life, she died in the Dante Sanatorium in 1929. Childless, Lillie Hitchcock Coit left two-thirds of her fortune to the Universities of California and Maryland. And as tangible evidence of her affection for San Francisco, she bequeathed the remaining third to the City and County of 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."
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The Construction of Coit Tower

Various artists submitted schemes in a competition for the final form of the memorial itself. Among them were a "long, horizontal mass"--Patigian's plan for a huge sculpture; a monumental column with a figure on top by Renato Corte; and the winner, the proposal of a single elevated tower drawn by prominent architect Arthur Brown, Jr.

Henry Howard, son of famed architect John Galen Howard, assisted Arthur Brown, Jr. who undertook the major design tasks of Coit Tower. The designer had to meet the esthetic problems posed by an asymmetrically formed hill as the base of the tower, its scale, and the various viewpoints caused by that geographic asymmetry. Furthermore, he had to stay within the budget of $125,000 --not a great amount, even in 1932. The cheapest building material turned out to be reinforced concrete; even the wooden forms were resold later to another builder at a profit for the city.

The selection of the memorial tower was not a unanimous act of the newly formed Art Commission whose job it was to pass the final judgement. As late as 1946, Gertrude Atherton, herself a talented author, a spirited San Franciscan, and a good friend of Lillie Coit, wrote with some bitterness in My San Francisco: A Wayward Biography that Lillie Coit had intended that the money be expended in her name in a manner which would add to the beauty of San Francisco.The crowning irony seemed to be that although the site itself was quite appropriate, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, said Atherton, had an aversion to towers!

As the tower began to take shape, some outraged local artists appealed to the Art Commission to halt the construction, arguing on esthetic grounds that the finished monument would be two-thirds as tall as the hill itself. (The elevation of Telegraph Hill is 288 feet; as it stands today, the Tower rises 180 feet above a rectangular base 32 feet high.) The artists also claimed that the building was a mockery because they assumed (as do many today) that architects Brown and Howard had designed the monument in the shape of a fire hose nozzle in memory of Lillie Coit's fondness for the Fire Department, an intention that the architects consistently denied.

After the building company Young and Horstmeyer was successful in submitting the lowest bid for the construction of Coit Tower (theirs was $77,398 versus the highest bid of $95,000 by Anderson and Ringrose, among the fifteen offerred), it was natural that the Portland Cement Association, in which Herbert Fleishhacker (President of the Board of Park Commissioners) had a considerable financial interest, would supply the 5,000 barrels of cement and the 3,200 cubic yards of concrete needed for the fabrication of the monument.

Although Howard spoke of Coit Tower's having had no design precedent, architects of the day were quite interested in a twentieth century phenomenon flourishing in Europe: the esthetically designed power station. Fuel and power stations had been regarded as unavoidable nuisances in the urban scene. However, because these power plants were so large and conspicuous, prominent architects in such countries as Germany, Hungary, Holland and England took on the job of creating unobtrusive but pleasing energy-generating leviathans. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was in the process of doing just that in the early 1930's for London's south bank: the Battersea Power Station. His building took the shape of a veritable cathedral of brick, with "a sequence of articulated rectangular forms" as bases for four tall fluted chimneys which were "as pleasant to look at as many campaniles." Thus, Howard had at least a spiritual paradigm, if not a "direct prototype," in London. 

 The architects' original interior plans had called for a restaurant in the Tower. However, they later substituted for it a public place to be used for displaying pictures, paintings and exhibits of San Francisco's pioneer days, in keeping with the history of Pioneer Park. To the left of the entrance is a plaque by Haig Patigian commemorating Lillie Coit's bequest. Above two miniature fluted columns flanking the exterior entrance, sculptor Robert B. Howard cast a high relief plaque four feet in diameter of the phoenix bird with wings outspread. Bundled fasces on either side commemorate Lillie Coit's connection with the Fire Department. This adornment, which Brown commissioned during construction of the unpainted grey monument, was its only decoration when the Coit Memorial Tower was dedicated to the City of San Francisco on October 8, 1933.