Coit Tower Murals
Coit Tower in Pioneer Park on Telegraph hill in San Francisco, one of the city’s most recognized landmarks, has provided visitors and locals with impressive views of The City since its completion in 1933.
Coit Tower History
Lillie Hitchcock Coit, philanthropist and admirer of the fire fighters at the 1906 earthquake and fire, left funds to The City for beautification of San Francisco.
Those funds were used for the construction of the 210-foot tall unpainted, reinforced concrete, art deco Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill. Lillie was a life long admirer of fire fighters—additional funds were used to design and build a statue in Washington Square Park at the foot of Telegraph Hill.
The Golden Gate Bridge is another San Francisco landmark with an art deco design. A statue of Christopher Columbus overlooking Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay stands in front of the tower. The tower’s design is reminiscent of a fire hose nozzle—though architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard always denied that it was their intent—and was quite controversial.
The Hitchcocks, Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s family, purchased 1000 acres in the upper Napa Valley between St. Helena and Calistoga in 1883. Lillie set up a home site nearby and named it “Larkmead.” Pioneer Park, one of the first dedicated parks in San Francisco, existed at the top of Telegraph Hill almost 60 years before Coit Tower was built. A marine telegraph stood at the top of Telegraph Hill from 1850 until about 1853 when an electric telegraph at Point Lobos made it redundant. The marine telegraph provided early notification of arriving ships—and a name for Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and many other locations around the world. Also know as a semaphore telegraph, it consisted of a mast and two wooden arms.
Significant events in the history of Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower include attempts to level the hill, and efforts by many individuals and organizations to save and beautify the hill. Residents of Telegraph Hill were able to divert the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, sparing their homes from destruction.
Coit Tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historical Resources in 2008, the year of its 75th anniversary.
The landmark is visible from many areas of the City and provides one of the best views of the crooked section of Lombard Street on Russian Hill (World’s Crookedest Street).
Coit Tower Murals
Public Works Art Project (PWAP, part of the New Deal during the Great Depression) murals, now protected as a historical treasure, can be viewed daily inside the first floor of Coit Tower.
These Diego Rivera-inspired murals, many depicting the struggles of working class Americans, were completed in 1933-34. Rivera had recently completed two frescos in San Francisco—one, Making a Fresco, at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) and another at the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Several of the Coit Tower artists had worked with or assisted Rivera. Another Rivera Mural, Pan American Unity a 22 by 74-foot masterpiece produced on Treasure Island for the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, is on display at City College of San Francisco.
The Coit Tower murals were painted during a particularly disruptive period in U.S. History. Depression related economic challenges led to much discussion about alternate forms of government. A four day general strike (Bloody Thursday) accompanied by widespread rioting in San Francisco triggered an eighty-three day 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike.
Coit Tower muralists protested and picketed at the tower when Rivera’s mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center in New York City was destroyed after he refused to change an image of Lenin in the painting.
The opening of Coit Tower and the display of its murals was delayed several months because of the controversial content of some of the paintings. Clifford Wight’s mural, which contained a hammer and sickle as one of a series of medallions illustrating the range of political philosophies existing in America, was removed before the opening.
Leaders of California Life, four separate panels produced by Wight, survive. Each contains a single figure representing a surveyor, cowboy, farmer and steelworker.
Library, a public library interior mural at Coit Tower was painted by Bernard Zakheim a Polish Jew who sought political asylum in San Francisco after World War I. Zakheim helped organize the Coit Tower mural project along with Ralph Stackpole. An experienced muralist, Zakheim’s scene includes portraits of fellow artists, assistants and his daughter.
One of the figures, John Langley Howard, reaches for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital while crumpling a newspaper in his other hand. The titles of books on the shelves include ‘Rexroth,’ (the poet, essayist and social critic Kenneth Rexroth is reaching for a book on the top shelf) ‘Hitler’ and ‘Oscar Wilde’ (controversial because he was suspected of being homosexual). Newspaper headlines cover the artists protest of the Rivera fresco destruction (which Stackpole is reading) and other topical subjects. Jewish literature and traditions are also included in the painting.
City Life, one of the largest murals at Coit Tower was painted by Victor Mikhail Arnautoff who had worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera in Mexico and taught at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Arnautoff later taught at Stanford University returning to Russia after the death of his wife.
The controversial mural includes a traffic accident, armed robbery and leftist newspapers. In addition a fire engine (Knickerbocker Engine Company No.5—a tribute to Lilly Hitchcock-Coit) and the San Francisco Stock Exchange (with sculptures by fellow muralist Ralph Stackpole) are depicted.
Other faculty and students at CSFA who participated as artists in the project were Maxine Albro, Ray Bertrand, Rinaldo Cuneo, Mallette Harold Dean, Clifford Wight, Edith Hamlin, George Harris, Robert B. Howard, Otis Oldfield, Suzanne Scheuer, Hebe Daum and Frede Vidar.
Industries of California, another large mural in Coit Tower, was painted by Ralph Stackpole. Stackpole carved the Agriculture and Industry grouped statues on the former San Francisco Stock Exchange Building (where Rivera created his first U.S. mural Allegory of California).
The Stackpole mural depicts chemical, steel mill, cannery, news gathering, packaging line and other workers as cogs in the machines of industry. As a tribute the mural is compositionally very similar to Rivera’s first sketch (all that Stackpole would have seen) for the recently destroyed Rockefeller Center mural.
California Industrial Scenes, by John Langley Howard who was known as a revolutionary regionalist painter, depicts striking miners of various ethnicity marching together in worker solidarity with one carrying a leftist paper.
The mural also includes a scene with depression era tent dwellers washing their clothes and panning for gold in the river below a new hydroelectric plant as chauffeur-driven rich people watch. Differences in attire, vehicles and even the dogs owned by the two groups are used to illustrate the contrast in their respective economic situations.
Howard’s older brother, Robert Howard, contributed the cement pheonix over the front entry of Coit Tower. It was not part of the PWAP project but was commissioned by the architect. California Agriculture, a mural by Maxine Albro depicts farming tasks associated with the four seasons. The NRA and eagle symbol on the crates workers are filling with oranges refers to the National Recovery Administration and the Blue Eagle Drive.
The Blue Eagle Drive was the name given to a moral propaganda campaign to convince business to “do their part” and adhere to self governmental codes to hasten recovery from the depression.
Apricot harvesting and air drying, and grape picking and wine making are illustrated on the right half of the large mural.
Most of the artists had to incorporate the structure—windows and doors—of the building into their murals. The first painting you are likely to see as you enter the building is Ray Boynton’s Animal Force and Machine Force (with Diego Rivera’s eyes) over a doorway. Boynton, like Stackpole, was a member of the faculty at CSFA and instrumental in Rivera’s first two San Francisco commissions.
The majority of the artists producing the Coit Tower murals agreed to work in a similar style (Rivera’s) and technique (fresco) which required them to be produced on site since the mural becomes part of the wall. One small room on the second floor is papered with a mural done in egg tempera (Home Life by Jane Berlandina, Robert Howard’s sister-in-law). Oil on canvas paintings in the elevator foyer are by Otis Oldfield, Moya del Pino and Rinaldo Cuneo.
Second floor murals, produced by less political artists, were non-controversial. Examples are Edward Terada’s mural Sports and Hunting in California by Edith Hamlin. These murals, and the mural in the spiral stairway to the second floor are in much smaller spaces than those on the first floor and cover more than one wall, filling a room or hallway and wrapping around corners. Public access to these murals is limited because of the potential for accidental damage.
The murals at Coit Tower are available for viewing by the general public for free, but access to the second floor murals is restricted to once a week tours.
Visiting Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
Coit Tower is not wheelchair accessible. I did not find the view from the top of the tower (there is fee charged—$8 in 2017 or $6 for residents) much of an improvement over the view from the base, particularly since you are looking through small plexiglas covered windows that are difficult to take good pictures through. Some people rave about the view from the top though. Parking on streets near the monument on weekends is limited to residents with parking permits. Visitors heading to the tower are encouraged to take the 39-Coit Muni bus (Muni bus #39) to the top of Telegraph Hill on weekends, but will still be able to street-park under the 30-minute time limit on weekdays. It is not unusual to have a 30–40 minute wait in line for a parking space The last couple of times I’ve visited Coit Tower I simply parked near Columbus Square, where there are one or two-hour parking meters, and made the 15–30 minute hike up the hill on Filbert Street.
The Filbert Steps
Take Filbert street which is steep, but has steps, from either side of Telegraph Hill. The views are worth the exercise, the last section in Pioneer Park is quite scenic.
Along the way you may encounter one or more of the famous Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill whose story has been made into both a book and a Documentary Film. If the flock is visiting Telegraph Hill you will hear them long before you see any. They are quite loud.
After visiting the tower you can return the way you came or descend the Greenwich Steps.
The Greenwich Steps
You can also climb the Greenwich Steps up the east side of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, although the climb is longer and steeper than the Filbert Steps on the other side. I prefer to take this route down. Begin at Sansome and Greenwich Streets near Levi Plaza. You’ll see the staircase rising up the steep hill at the end of Greenwich. Along the way you’ll go through some beautiful gardens, pass near Julius’ Castle Restaurant and enjoy views of San Francisco Bay and Treasure Island.