Coit Tower is an essential San Francisco landmark rising high above Telegraph Hill. Visitors can travel to the top of the 212-foot-high tower and marvel at 360° views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, and much more. But do you know the history of this iconic landmark?
Read on to learn more about its namesake, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, and the Depression-era murals within its walls.
History of the tower
This simple white tower has embellished San Francisco’s iconic skyline since its construction in 1933. It was named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who left a bequest upon her death in 1929 “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.” The bequest also went towards a monument in Washington Square featuring 3 firefighters, as Coit was an enthusiastic patron of San Francisco’s volunteer fire department.
Architect Henry Howard designed the tower while working for the architecture firm of Arthur Brown, Jr., the same firm responsible for designing both SF City Hall and the SF Opera House. According to urban legend, the tower was designed to look like a fire hose nozzle, although SF Rec & Parks says otherwise. Howard’s simple fluted Art Deco design was chosen because it fit the project’s small $125,000 budget. The tower is ever so slightly tapered, measuring 18 inches narrower at the top than at the bottom.
Art and sculpture
In addition to the gorgeous views, the tower contains 26 colorful frescoes painted inside the base by local artists in 1934. The murals represent the first major project commissioned by the U.S. Government’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), part of the Depression’s New Deal program meant to employ artists and beautify public spaces.
The murals depict the Great Depression and were considered controversial for the time given their Social Realist style and explicit social criticism — in fact, the controversy delayed the tower’s opening by 5 months. Despite the project offering only $38 per week for the artists, it still turned out some big names of the time including Ray Bertrand, John Langley Howard, and Frederick Olmsted. All of the murals are applied using a traditional fresco technique, and the collection constitutes the largest display of PWAP art in the nation.
Visitors may view the murals for free or join guided tours of up to 6 people for $10. You can also refer to SF Rec & Park’s excellent brochure for detailed descriptions of each mural.
Some other features of note include a cast-concrete phoenix plaque by sculptor Robert B. Howard above the entrance, as well as a twelve-foot statue of Christopher Columbus by sculptor Vitorio di Colvertaldo in the parking plaza. San Francisco’s Italian community gifted the Columbus sculpture to the city in 1957.
Visiting the tower
You can reach the tower’s sky-high observation deck via elevator to enjoy 360° views of the East Bay, Treasure Island, Angel Island, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, and Lombard Street, to name a few.
Visitors may buy tickets to Coit Tower on site, which cost $7 for SF residents and $10 for non-residents. Reduced prices are available for seniors, youth and children. The tower is open from 10am to 6pm daily, including the cafe and gift shop.
Find Coit Tower at 1 Telegraph Hill Boulevard in San Francisco. It’s open from 10am-5pm daily.