C is for Coit Tower : Art Deco Fire Hose?


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O anti-verdurous phallic were it not for your pouring height looming in tears like a sick tree or your ever-gaudy-comfort jabbing your city’s much wrinkled sky you’d seem an absurd Babel squatting before millions.

~ George Corso ( Ode to Coit Tower)

Beat poet George Corso didn’t beat about the bush and immediately called Coit Tower a phallus but many people may think the same if they see the monument from 1933, when entering the City via the Bay Bridge from the East.

Coit Tower was named after one of San Francisco’s eccentric residents. Her name was Lillie Hitchcock Coit (1843-1929) and, as a child, she was inclined to run after fire trucks— the reason for this, or so the story goes, was that she had been rescued out of burning building when she was little.

Lillie would become the mascot of the SF Fire Department, and as an adult, she would sometimes dress up as a fireman at parties. Even as an adult, when she’d hear the sirens, she would run out as a some dog trained by Pavlov and where possible, she drove along. After her death, she donated a pile of cash to the city which it used to build the Art Deco tower on Telegraph Hill in 1933. It’s really coincidental that the monument, dedicated to the firemen of San Francisco, looks like part of a fire hose.

You can reach the tower by car but parking is always limited on top; during the weekend it may even look like LA traffic, so it’s better to use the street parking down below and mount the Filbert Steps from Sansome Street. It’s a leafy path and if you’re lucky you may see one of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. The parrots came from South America but no one seems to have a clue how they got there (yes, fly of course, but no one knows why they stayed: Watch the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill if you want to know more).

The views from the foot of the tower are scenic, and even better if you go all the way up.

imagesInside, there are murals in the style of Diego Rivera. They were painted in 1934 by 25 different painters who had been sponsored by Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, part of the New Deal program to get people to work during the Depression. If you visit the tower with your kids and they get bored, tell them to find the book of Karl Marx, Das Kapital, which one of the painters left on there, but probably wasn’t assigned to do so.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another Beat poet and owner of City Lights Bookstore (North Beach), once proposed to give the tower a little push, so it would lean à la the tower of Pisa, and thus make San Francisco even more picturesque than it is already. I don’t think San Fran needs that, for famed FOX news host, Bill O’Reilly, has given Coit Tower and our fair city enough publicity as is. In one of his rants against liberals and their objections to military recruiting at universities he said:

“Listen, citizens of San Francisco, if you vote against military recruiting, you’re not going to get another nickel in federal funds. Fine. You want to be your own country? Go right ahead. And if al-Qaida comes in here and blows you up, we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead.”

In response, a journalist from The San Francisco Chronicle climbed the steps of Coit Tower and asked visitors’ reactions to O’Reilly’s incendiary comments. A few of them said “Now, who is Bill O’Reilly again?”

images-1Once Bill O’Reilly is gone, no one will remember him, or his ridiculous comment. Coit Tower, on the other hand, will stand proudly, forever “jabbing the city’s wrinkled sky.”

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