The Coit Tower, all 210 feet of it, is one woman’s monument to her love of firemen and firehouses.
On Telegraph hill in San Francisco, the Coit Tower was built in 1933. Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a kooky socialite with a lot of dough who loved to chase fires in the early days of the city’s history. She left one-third of her fortune to the City, and the Coit Tower was part of the deal. Before 1866, there was no city fire department. Fires broke out regularly in the wooden buildings, and they were extinguished by volunteer fire companies. Little Lillie, it is said, chased the fire trucks when she was a kid, and the guys loved her.
The art deco tower is made of unpainted, reinforced concrete. It is beautiful. There are fresco murals by 27 artists, plus their assistants, that were created on site. And, there are two additional paintings that were installed after it was up, off-site.
Lillie is one of the more eccentric characters in the history of North Beach and Telegraph Hill, which is saying a lot. She smoked cigars and wore trousers. Lillie also loved to gamble, and often dressed like a man so she could gamble in the men-only parlors spread throughout North Beach. It is said that Coit shaved her head so her wigs would fit better.
In 1915, she saw a particularly bad fire, the men were short-handed, and Lillie tossed her schoolbooks on the ground. She gathered other people to help get the engine up the hill and turn water on the blaze. In street parades, Lillie participated with the firemen. She was recognized as an honorary firefighter throughout her life.
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. Today, Lillie is the matron saint of San Francisco firefighters.
We love you Lillie!