You may only know Coit Tower as the phallic-shaped building featured in at least one frame of every opening montage of a TV show and movie set in San Francisco (or you may not know it at all), but did you also know that tower is in San Francisco because of a hard-drinking, heavy gambling, pants-wearing, fireman-loving lady named Lillie?
Yeah, we bet you didn’t.
This is the real hackstory of Coit Tower.
This Girl Is on Fire
Lillie Hitchcock Coit began her love affair with fighting fires at a young age.
While still in school, Coit came upon the Knickerbocker No. 5, an understaffed and struggling volunteer fire engine (there was no city fire department at the time) trying to maneuver the steep hills of San Francisco. Coit immediately tossed her school books aside and ran to the aid of the men pulling the engine.
What Coit’s 15-year-old arms couldn’t do, her voice could, as she yelled at more passersby to help instead of standing just standing around. Because of Coit’s pleas for help, the fire engine made it to its destination and succeeded in extinguishing the fire. From then on, Lillie Hitchcock Coit, or ‘Firebelle Lil’ Coit as she came to be known, was given the title of honorary firefighter. Firebelle Lil’ was even celebrated alongside the men of the Knickerbocker No. 5 in parades and floats throughout the city.1
Luck Be a Lillie Tonight
Not content just to fight fires with the boys, Coit, a woman with old money and new ambitions, wanted to enjoy all the manly pastimes her male companions enjoyed, too.
Coit was a voracious gambler, often the only woman in the game, and would sometimes even disguise herself as a man in order to get into some of the more elite “no dames allowed” underground games. Coit also was an avid hunter, shocking the men around her with her expert sharpshooting skills.
She once even witnessed a murder when a business associate stormed her Palace Hotel room with a gun after a failed deal. The would-be-murderer was shot by Coit’s associate, but we think that if Coit had been a bit younger (she was 60 years old at the time), she would have done the deed herself.2
A Towering Tribute
When Lillie Hitchcock Coit died in 1929, she left a whopping one-third of her fortune to the city of San Francisco, so the city could build a tribute fitting of her love and admiration for her beloved home.
After some consideration, it was decided that the money should be used to build both a tower on Telegraph Hill and statue in Washington Square Park. The statue features three firemen, one of whom is carrying a woman. A more fitting tribute might have been Lillie Hitchcock Coit carrying all three men herself, but we digress…
The other tribute became Coit Tower.
On October 8th, 1933, Coit Tower was completed. Designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., the 210-foot tower offers a 360-degree view of the beautiful city of San Francisco on a clear day and lets you know what it would look like to live inside a cloud on a foggy one. Thick and cylindrical, many believed the tower was modeled after the shape of a fire hose as a further tribute to Lady Coit but that is just a coincidence.
Throughout the tower are hand-painted murals by 27 different artists depicting somewhat radical views on politics, racial equality, and Marxist ideas. The murals were created as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Art Project.
Some of these frescos were so controversial that they were painted over after the 1934 longshoremen’s strike. Coit Tower was even locked up from the public, lest visitors get infected by messages in colors on a wall and go mad for equal pay, like at the end of the movie Pleasantville when the black and white people start seeing what apples look like.
Today, you can visit Coit Tower every day of the week, excluding major holidays, and tour its murals for a small fee. On your visit, be sure to pay tribute to the lady that made the tower possible, Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
A woman who made up for her lack of penis with the size of her balls.
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Notes & Gossip 📌
- San Francisco Fire Department Museum (2007-2017). Guardians of The City
- Bragman, B. (August 18th, 2016). SF Gate
Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟
- Bragman, B. (2016, August 18th). Coit Tower - tales of murder, drag, suicide, and a small round apartment. https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Lillie-Hitchcock-Coit-Tower-murder-drag-and-a-9134083.php
- San Francisco Fire Department Museum. 2007-2017). Guardians of The City, Lillie Hitchcock Coit. http://guardiansofthecity.org/sffd/people/coit.html