Art History Lab

Exploring the Iconic Coit Tower: A Glimpse into San Francisco’s History and Artistry

Coit Tower is a well-known landmark situated on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California. The tower was constructed in 1933, thanks to the generous donation of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who bequeathed a substantial amount of money to the city of San Francisco.

The slender white tower, finished with an art deco crown, provides unobstructed views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and the city’s skyline. The Coit Tower has a rich history and symbolism, making it a significant attraction for both locals and visitors.

This article aims to educate readers on the history and significance of the Coit Tower, starting with a brief overview of the tower’s location and description.

Description and Location of the Coit Tower

Coit Tower is located in Pioneer Park on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California. The tower stands at 210 feet tall, and its base diameter is 33 feet.

It was designed by Arthur Brown Jr., who was also responsible for designing San Francisco’s City Hall. The tower is constructed from reinforced concrete and is adorned with a number of murals that depict different aspects of California’s history.

The murals were painted by a number of artists who were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. These murals are of significant artistic value and are considered a time capsule of the social and political climate of the era.

Donation and Construction of the Coit Tower

Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a wealthy socialite who had a passion for firefighters. She witnessed the first volunteer fire brigade in San Francisco in 1854 when she was just 15 years old, and became an ardent supporter of the brigade.

When she died in 1929, she bequeathed one-third of her wealth to the city for the purpose of beautifying San Francisco. The city used the money to construct the Coit Tower, which was named in honour of Mrs Coit.

Construction of the Coit Tower began in 1932 and was completed the following year. It was designed to withstand earthquakes and has proven its resilience by surviving earthquakes such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The construction of the tower provides employment opportunities for many people during the Great Depression.

Architect and Completion of the Coit Tower

Arthur Brown Jr. was a prominent San Francisco architect who designed many notable structures in the city. He was also responsible for designing the Coit Tower, which was completed in 1933.

The reinforced concrete construction of the tower provides stability and durability in the face of harsh weather conditions, and its height ensures that visitors get a breathtaking view of the city and its surrounding areas.

Significance and Symbolism of the Coit Tower

The Coit Tower is significant for a variety of reasons. It stands as a symbol of San Francisco’s firefighting history and honours the contributions of the city’s volunteer firefighters.

It also serves as a memorial for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was an important figure in the city’s social life. The Coit Tower is adorned with a relief of a phoenix rising from the flames, which represents the rebuilding of San Francisco and its resilience in the face of challenges.

The tower also has a telegraph machine and a replica of a telegraph pole, which is a nod to Telegraph Hill’s history as a site for the city’s first telegraph lines.


In summary, the Coit Tower is an iconic symbol of San Francisco and its rich history. Its construction was made possible by the generous donation of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, and its durability and resilience make it enduring to this day.

The murals inside the tower are considered a precious piece of history, and the views from the top are unbeatable. Even after almost 90 years since its construction, the Coit Tower remains a significant attraction and serves as a reminder of San Francisco’s past and present.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s Donation and Relationship with Firemen

Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a rich aristocrat born in 1843. As a child, she developed a relationship with firemen in San Francisco.

Coit’s father was friends with the Knickerbocker Engine Company, a volunteer fire brigade, and often visited their station. At the age of 15, Coit became a volunteer firefighter, donned a red shirt, and attended calls with the Knickerbocker engine.

As an adult, Coit remained passionate about firefighting and the firefighters in San Francisco. In the 1870s, she became the mascot of Engine Company No. 5, a team of firefighters, and began attending their calls and participating in their parades.

Coit’s relationship with the firefighters continued until her death in 1929. In her will, Coit left one-third of her wealth to the city of San Francisco for beautification purposes.

She requested that the funds be used to create a monument that would honour the volunteer firefighters who fought hard to keep San Francisco safe. The Coit Tower was built with her donation and became a symbol of the city’s firefighting history.

Monuments and Suggestions for Use of Fund

Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s gift to the city of San Francisco was earmarked to be used for beautification purposes. As per her will, a monument had to be erected in honour of the volunteer firefighters.

Coit’s bequest of $118,000 in 1929 was the largest sum ever given for artistic purposes in San Francisco at that time. Several suggestions were made for the use of the funds, ranging from establishing public parks to building monuments.

One suggestion was to erect a statue of three firemen in front of each of San Francisco’s 23 firehouses as a tribute to the volunteer firefighters who had died in the line of duty. Some suggested that the money could be used to fund public developments, like parks and libraries.

Others believed that the funds should go to establish cultural institutions or erect monuments of historical significance around the city. Ultimately, Coit’s gift was used to construct the Coit Tower, which is now a popular tourist attraction.

Description of the Coit Tower’s Structure and Design

The Coit Tower is an architectural wonder, featuring three nested concrete cylinders that narrow as they rise to an observation platform at the top, offering a panoramic view of San Francisco. The tower is 210 feet tall, with a 33-foot diameter base.

The structure was designed by Arthur Brown Jr., a prominent San Francisco architect, and consists of 17 layers of reinforcing steel bars interspersed with layers of concrete. Visitors to the Coit Tower can choose to take the elevator or climb the stairs to the observation platform.

The tower has a total of 400 steps. At the top of the tower, visitors can step outside and enjoy a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge.

Features and Functionality of the Coit Tower

The Coit Tower has several unique features that make it a must-see attraction in San Francisco. The tower has an open skylight that allows natural light to stream in and an arcade that encircles the inside walls of the tower.

At the ground level, the Coit Tower features a rotunda that houses an art exhibition, including murals by Diego Rivera, Ralph Stackpole, Bernard Zakheim, and other artists of the Great Depression era. The tower also has a gift shop where visitors can buy souvenirs and a gravity system that powers the elevator.

The tower has been equipped with a massive water supply, 16,000 gallons of water, for possible fire emergencies. This water was stored at the bottom of the tower, in its basement, until the early 90s when the city discovered that the weight was contributing to small cracks in the tower’s foundation.


The Coit Tower is a unique and amazing structure, standing tall as a testament to Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s legacy. Her donation has beautified San Francisco with this landmark structure, offering visitors a panoramic view of the city.

The tower houses many unique features, from its open-air skylight to its art exhibition, and the arcade that encircles the walls of the tower. San Francisco remains grateful to Lillie Hitchcock Coit and her exceptional legacy.

Artists and Creation of the Coit Tower Murals

The Coit Tower houses numerous murals that provide a depiction of California’s early history and everyday life during the Great Depression era. The murals were created by a team of artists, including Bernard Zakheim, Ralph Stackpole, and Jane Berlandina, who were part of the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA).

The artists were not given a specific theme for the murals, and they were allowed to create their art as they deemed fit. However, they were instructed to depict everyday life in California.

The artists were also given free artistic expression, and their paintings represent the Social Realism movement that flourished during the 1920s and 1930s.

Themes and Controversies of the Coit Tower Murals

The Coit Tower murals depict themes, such as racial equality, socio-political ideologies, and the history of California. Some of the murals depict the struggles of African Americans and other minorities during the early 20th century.

The murals also portray the harsh working conditions of farmers, agricultural laborers, and dockworkers. However, the murals were the subject of controversy due to their perceived communist symbolism.

The United States was in the grip of the Red Scare, a period of paranoia towards communism, and many people saw communist symbolism in the murals. Additionally, mainstream newspapers and government authorities were concerned about communist activities, particularly on the West Coast waterfront, where a strike took place in 1934.

Many of the Coit Tower murals were considered politically charged and controversial, and supporters of the muralists cause hailed them as an expression of First Amendment rights. Despite their controversy, the murals have remained a cherished part of the Coit Tower’s history and a symbol of San Francisco’s artistic culture.

Red Scare and Concerns About Communist Activity

The controversy surrounding the Coit Tower murals stemmed from perceptions of communist symbolism in the paintings, particularly as the US government was concerned about communist activities during the Red Scare. The West Coast waterfront strike, where some strikers waved red flags, added to the government’s concerns.

Some newspapers even went so far as to equate the strikers use of the flag to communism. Union leaders, intellectuals, and many artists, however, saw the murals as a way to represent the struggles of the working class and underrepresented groups.

Despite the uproar, the Coit Tower murals were seen as a testament to the artistic freedom of expression that many people valued. Examination, Criticism, and Removal of Controversial Elements

Several figures in San Francisco, including Herbert Fleishhacker, the President of the Recreation Commission responsible for the Coit Tower, wanted to remove the controversial elements from the murals.

Fleishhacker wrote an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1934 advocating for the removal of the sickle and hammer, a symbol of communism, from the murals. The editorial sparked a fierce debate, with many people supporting artistic freedom of expression and others decrying the communist symbolism in the murals.

Ultimately, sections of the murals were repainted, and some elements, including the sickle and hammer, were removed from the murals. Despite the removal of some of the controversial elements, the murals themes remain tied to the social and political history of California.

The Coit Tower Murals continue to be a cherished part of San Francisco’s history and the Social Realism movement that flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Original and Current Uses of the Coit Tower

The Coit Tower was originally designed with an observation platform at the top, providing visitors with a panoramic view of San Francisco and its surrounding areas. The tower’s main purpose was to allow people to enjoy the breathtaking vistas of the city and the San Francisco Bay.

Over the years, the Coit Tower has become an iconic tourist attraction, drawing thousands of visitors each year who are eager to take in the stunning views. In addition to the observation platform, the Coit Tower also houses an art exhibition on its ground floor.

This exhibition showcases a collection of murals painted by artists commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression era. The murals depict various aspects of California’s history, including scenes of rural life, agriculture, and social struggles.

It serves as a time capsule of the social and political climate of the time and is considered a significant artistic treasure. The murals, with their unique blend of artistic styles and commentary on the challenges faced by working-class Americans, have turned the Coit Tower into a small museum.

Visitors can explore the ground floor and appreciate the artistic value and historical significance of the murals.

Fee and Tours for Accessing the Coit Tower

To access the Coit Tower and its observation platform, visitors are required to pay a fee. The fee is generally reasonable and affordable, allowing individuals and families to enjoy the panoramic views offered by the tower.

The revenue generated from these fees helps to maintain and preserve the tower and its surrounding areas. In addition to paying the fee, visitors can also participate in guided tours that provide in-depth information about the Coit Tower and its murals.

These tours, led by knowledgeable guides, offer a deeper understanding of the artistic and historical aspects of the tower. The tours also provide an opportunity to learn about the controversies surrounding the murals and the significance of the Coit Tower in San Francisco’s cultural landscape.

The negotiation of fees and the organization of tours are carried out by the Recreation and Parks Department of San Francisco. This department plays a crucial role in ensuring that the Coit Tower remains accessible to all visitors, while also preserving its artistic integrity and historical value.

Through their efforts, the Coit Tower continues to be a popular destination for both locals and tourists who seek to experience the beauty and history of San Francisco.


In conclusion, the Coit Tower stands as a significant landmark in San Francisco, showcasing its rich history and artistic culture. The tower, funded by Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s generous donation, offers panoramic views of the city and houses a collection of murals that depict California’s history and the struggles of the working class.

Despite controversies and censorship surrounding the murals, the Coit Tower remains accessible to visitors through a fee-based system and guided tours. This architectural gem serves as a reminder of the city’s past and its commitment to preserving its cultural heritage.

The Coit Tower stands tall as an enduring symbol of San Francisco’s beauty, resilience, and the power of artistic expression.

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