SF celebrates Coit Tower anniversary

October 24, 2008 7:47:16 PM PDT
Coit Tower rises 210 feet into the air, high atop San Francisco's Telegraph Hill.

The tower opened in 1933 and is named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit; a wealthy, often eccentric society lady who became a legend in her own time.

Lillie's husband, Howard was Michael Coit's great great-uncle. The family link was discovered by Michael's father when he came to San Francisco on shore leave from the Navy during World War II.

Having the Coit name gives Michael and his mother a sense of pride.

"I don't really stick my chest out and say, 'I'm a Coit,' it's just something we quietly maintain Michael said.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit was one of the most colorful San Francisco figures of her time. Photographs of her can be seen at the San Francisco Public Library History Center.

Once when she was a girl, Lillie was on her way to school when she came upon volunteer firemen having problems pulling their engine up a hill to a fire. Lillie went over, dropped her books and helped and encouraged the men, Ken Maley said. Maley is a Coit Tower neighbor, aficionado and member of the Coit Comemorative Committee.

"She's known to have hung out with the firemen, smoke cigars and play cards," Maley said.

When she died in 1929 at the age of 86, Lillie left one-third of her fortune to the city. The money was used to build the landmark, a monument to Lillie and the firefighters she loved.

Some think the top of the tower mimics the nozzle of a fire hose, but the fluted columns simply reflect the neoclassical, Art Deco style of the day, experts said.

Coit Tower attracts 2.3 million tourists each year. Most come to take the elevator to the top for the spectacular city and bay views, but the murals that line the walls inside the tower are considered historical treasures.

The murals were painted as part of the federal government's program to hire unemployed artists during the Great Depression. Several of the paintings have political themes, some so controversial that the dedication of the tower was delayed a year.

The murals are relative Barbara Coit's favorite part of the tower because she grew up in the 1930s.

"These walls mean a lot to mean because this is all history, very much history," Barbara said.

The Coits will be back on Saturday for the tower's diamond anniversary commemoration.


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