After returning from the holidays in California, I am duty-bound to post a testimonial squib on behalf of a marvelous attraction for history buffs in the San Francisco Bay area. That is Coit Tower, standing atop Telegraph Hill. The tower was erected in 1933, thanks to a bequest by the eccentric Lillie Hitchcock Coit. As a girl Lillie lost two playmates in a fire and as a teenager developed close connections with the fire fighters in Knickerbocker’s Engine Company No. 5. Over the years she not only joined in their street parades as a mascot but often dressed in men’s clothes and smoked cigars when she went out with the boys for an evening of poker or other games of chance at the hangouts along North Beach. Eventually she married a wealthy businessman, Howard Coit, and when she died, left a third of her fortune to the city of San Francisco to augment its beauty in some appropriate manner. Coit Tower is the result.
The tower itself provides a magnificent view of the city, reached by elevator; but the real attractions, for my money, are the numerous murals on the tower’s interior walls. They were created by over two dozen artists during the Great Depression, through a project sponsored by the federal Public Works of Art (PWA). The murals are frescoes evoking scenes of California life: busy ferry scenes, lush orchards, canneries and construction sites, cable cars, farmworkers, lawyers, business leaders, architects, librarians, pickpockets, athletes, FDR and Eleanor, boys with ice cream cones and much more. A wonderful book displays the artists' handiwork, Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art, by Masha Zakheim Jewett, the daughter of one of the artists.
My wife and I have visited the tower several times, but on this occasion we were delighted to discover that the delicate frescoes had been recently cleaned. Most are visible on the first floor. We had also learned from the Coit Tower website that small groups could arrange for a tour of the spiral staircase, not generally open to the public, where additional murals are located. We had tried without success to contact the tower in advance in order to arrange a tour; but when we arrived, someone kindly agreed to show our party of six or seven the murals alongside the stairs. San Francisco, of course, is famous for its steep hills and cable cars; and fittingly, the primarily mural on the stairs was of Powell Street, one of those steep thoroughfares and also, as it happened, exactly where we were staying for our time in the city. Our guide pointed out various details of the mural with a flashlight in the dimly lit passageway. (The tight quarters are why the stairs are not used by the public now: too great a danger of brushing up against the frescoes and degrading them.)
The top of the stairway had an additional set of paintings, Home Life, by Jane Berlandina, which were quite different in style. Most of the artists were students of Diego Rivera, the influential Mexican painter of murals. But Berlandina had been taught by Raoul Dufy, a French Post-Impressionist. Her creations are more schematic and limited in their color palette to reds and browns, their figures outlined in white. A stunning contrast to the other works.
Take plenty of time to seek out the details. The artists loved in-jokes, used each other and their wives, husbands and friends as models. Squint at the books in the law library and you’ll see ironic copies of Das Kapital painted in next to volumes such as Law of Bankruptcy; tongue-in-cheek headlines in newspapers, including ART COMMISSION AWAKENS FROM ITS DEEP SLEEP; copies of The Daily Worker and The Masses on the newsstand next to the more staid Time magazine; or a banner exhorting, “Demonstrate on May 1st against Hunger War Fascism.” On your way to the tower, enjoy the hike up Telegraph Hill along walkways and paths that lead past pleasant residential gardens. A great spot to spend several hours!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors