San Francisco's Coit Tower Turns 80

Lillie Hitchcock Coit would’ve been proud. Eighty years after the dedication of the iconic tower bearing her name, fans of Coit Tower gathered on its front steps to mark its 80th birthday.

“Coit Tower is something you can see from almost anywhere in San Francisco,” said Jon Golinger of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. “When you look, it’s always there.

That longevity seems even more of an accomplishment as a slew of construction cranes continue to etch away at the city’s ever-changing skyline.

Lillie Coit herself never personally envisioned the cylinder shaped tower topping Telegraph Hill — she merely left behind $118,000 in her will to build a monument honoring the city’s fire department. Coit famously loved fire trucks.

“I think she was one of the first, if you will, feminists,” said Susie Coit Williams, a distant cousin of Lillie Coit. “Jumping on the fire trucks, doing what she did, smoking and playing poker.”

At a birthday party on the tower’s front steps Tuesday morning, fans of the landmark blew out eight candles on a birthday cake with an image of the tower in frosting. Among the party goers, were several descendants of the original artists who filled the tower's lobby with 27 W.P.A. murals depicting scenes of Depression-era California in the early 1930s.

“You go anywhere in the world and you see a photograph or a drawing of Coit Tower,” said Ruth Gottstein, “people immediately know that’s San Francisco.”

Gottstein’s father Bernard Zakheim painted the lobby’s library scene, and included an image of his then-12-year-old daughter wearing a blue dress. Gottstein remembered accompanying her father to work, watching as he and other artists ascended scaffolding, covering the walls in wet plaster as part of the age-old art of frescoing.

“They were paid pennies,” said Gottstein. “It was probably the cheapest investment in art that’s ever taken place.”

Last year, supporters of the murals waged a successful ballot measure to force the city to list the preservation and restoration of the tower and murals as an official city priority. Critics had accused the city’s parks department of neglecting the building.

The city's park's department and art commission are set to kick-off a $1.5 million dollar project to restore the building and the murals.

Somewhere, beneath her fire hat, Lillie Coit is smiling.

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