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Coit Tower National Historic Site

Historical Essay

by Art Peterson

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Coit Tower soon after its construction in the mid-1930s.

Photo: The Semaphore

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Coit Tower 1930s.

Photo: Joseph Marty

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Coit Tower Gets an Overdue Honor

Photo: Chris Carlsson

On January 29, 2008, Coit Tower was designated a National Historic Site. That means the structure joins the the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. While no plans to demolish Coit Tower seem imminent, Stephen Worsley, the mover and shaker behind the application for this historic status, wasn’t taking any chances. For 18 years, Worsely and Coit Depression Preservationists, his small but hearty organization, have proselytized against commercialism at Coit Tower. Worsely’s love of the site and tower comes through in his writing: “For 75 years Coit Tower has offered us, as Herb Caen once said, ‘a bit of breathing room’ in an ever crowded environment.” Pioneer Park was, Worsely says, “itself a gift from our privileged philanthropists to protect this vantage point from commercialization.” The “Coit Experience” Worsely says, “should not be denigrated with another commercialized tourist-oriented concession.”

What does Worsely want? “Our tasteful rich”—as Worsely calls them—“should once again unite to save Pioneer Park and convince the mayor and supervisors that the city should designate the rotunda as a Depression-era heritage site with informative docents in costumes teaching a vital lesson, not unlike the wonderful effort we made at the Hyde Street Pier. The tower’s greatest historical significance is that it houses a treasured New Deal time capsule of American Scene Art which should always be used to teach generations to come about the trauma of the Great Depression and how those years of confusion coursed through the fabric of our nation.”

However, when Worsely presented the nuts and bolts of his proposal to the Recreation and Park Commission, it was rejected as not viable. Instead the commission is considering the application of Coit Partners LLC. Worsely has a website: SaveCoit.org.

Here are some facts from Worsely’s application for National Historic Site status that may be new to readers.

1. There are at least five “official” names for Coit Tower.

2. The tower is constructed of three concrete cylinders one inside the other.

3. The tower was constructed between 1932 and 1933, as a memorial to the volunteer firemen who died in the five major fires in San Francisco history. But, as we locals know, the fluted tower was not constructed to resemble a fire hose.

4. The present gift shop at the tower served for years as a broom closet

5. In planning for the rotunda murals, space was allotted to the 26 participating San Francisco artists on the basis of their reputations. The most well know artists worked on 10’ x 36’ sections and lesser known artists received 10’ x 4’ sections.

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Photos: Chris Carlsson

6. There are murals on the presently inaccessible second floor of the tower. These murals were executed by the so called “Ivory Tower Group” whose work tended toward the sentimental and nationalistic. This work contrasted sharply with the social realism of the rotunda artists whose work called attention to effects of the prolonged Great Depression and offered a radical response.

7. Because the tower’s stairwell has been off limits for many years, visitors are not able enjoy the frescoes of Lucien Labaudt which depict scenes of Powell Street in 1934 using all familiar faces. Labaudt’s work may be enjoyed today at The Beach Chalet on the Great Highway.

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A juxtaposition of photos from the same spot, taken in 1917 and 1994, at Montgomery Street and Green Street... as you can see the exact spot where the photo was taken in 1917 no longer exists and is now air space!

1917 Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco; 1994 photo: David Green

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Same view southward on Montgomery from the stairs above Green Street, 2013.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Different angle of same view down Montgomery southward from Telegraph Hill, May 23, 1953.

Charles Cushman Collection: Indiana University Archives (P06722)

8. The road, esplanade, terrace balustrade and parking lot at the top of Telegraph Hill were improvements constructed in 1923, a decade before the conception of Coit Tower.

9. Many visitors to the tower are under the impression that the murals are executed by one person. One reason for this perception may be that the pigments for all the frescoes were ground by one person, artist-assistant, Farwell Taylor.

10. The tower was closed for a while in 1934, when the San Francisco Art Commission objected to what were described as Communist symbols in Clifford Wight’s Surveyor and Steelworker. The Artists’ and Writers’ Union picketed to protect the murals from being destroyed, but during the time the local newspaper headlines were devoted to the settlement of the longshoremen’s strike of 1934, the symbols were quietly removed and the tower reopened on October 20, 1934.

--originally published The Semaphore #182, Winter 2008

slide show of views from Coit Tower, 2007

Photos: Chris Carlsson


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Westerly towards Golden Gate

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Northerly, Pier 39, Angel Island and Alcatraz

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Easterly, Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island, and Bay Bridge

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Southeast, site of old Produce Market, Golden Gateway Apts., financial district

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Heart of Downtown San Francisco

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View towards southwest across Nob Hill with Twin Peaks and Mt. Sutro in distance

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Westward with Washington Square Park in foreground, Russian Hill directly across


Coit Tower loop

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