The Coit Tower Murals: 1930s California, frozen in time

A distinct component of the San Francisco skyline, Coit Tower stands out from the crowd. North of the Financial District's highrises, the 210-foot art deco tower juts into the sky from the top of Telegraph Hill. For many, the highlight of visiting the tower is taking an elevator ride to the top for a wonderful panorama of the city, the bay, and its famous islands and bridges.

But the tower provides more than just views -- it also gives us a look into California history, frozen in time. Inside the tower, the social, cultural, and political landscapes of the 1930s are encapsulated in the murals that adorn its interior walls.

Unfortunately, these important historical murals are fading and deteriorating, and the state of decline of this treasured San Francisco landmark has been hot topic of discussion recently. A local election in early June included a measure to protect and preserve Coit Tower by devoting all of the revenue it creates to maintaining the murals and the rest of the grounds, rather than putting some of that money towards other parks. Ahead of the election, the city drummed up 1.7 million dollars to be used for renovating the murals and repairing the tower. Though the measure was controversial, and despite the sudden large sum of cash available to maintain Coit Tower, the measure passed ensuring increased protection of the almost 70-year-old murals.

On a bright June morning I take a trip up to Coit Tower to explore the murals and the stories they tell. As I walk up the steep steps of Telegraph Hill, I pause every so often to take in views of the buildings stacked on the hillsides which give San Francisco so much of its character. In the distance, the fog rolls back further and further, but still lingers over the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the front steps of Coit Tower, I join a free tour which starts with an overview of Telegraph Hill and how Coit Tower came to be. The story begins with one of San Francisco's original iconoclastic residents, a socialite named Lillie Hitchcock Coit who had a tendency to eschew the female norms of the time. She became an honorary firefighter in her teens, and in her adulthood she was known to smoke cigars and dress up like a man so she could gamble. She was also a world traveler who was a guest of royalty in places like India and France. Regardless of where she went, she always held on to her love of San Francisco. Upon her death, she left one third of her fortune to the city to be used for the purpose of beautifying it. Coit Tower was built as a memorial to her in 1933.

Shortly after the tower was erected, local artists banded together to paint murals inside it as part of the Public Works of Art Project, a New Deal program that helped create jobs for artists during the Great Depression. Twenty-five artists and ten assistants painted scenes at Coit Tower to fit the theme "Aspects of California Life."

As our tour group enters the tower, I immediately notice the cracked ceilings, peeling paint, and spots where water has seeped into the walls and discolored the murals. It's very apparent that they're in need of repair.

Another thing that's immediately clear upon viewing the murals is the influence of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Some of the artists had previously worked with Rivera and admired his style of painting and penchant for bringing politics into his murals. Rivera also inadvertently influenced the Coit Tower artists after a debacle over the Man at the Crossroads mural he was painting at Rockefeller Center in New York. One part of the mural included the face of Lenin. When he refused to change it, the mural was destroyed. Some of the Coit Tower muralists were infuriated and became even more determined to incorporate left-leaning themes and make references to Diego Rivera.

At each painting, our guide shows us where an element of one mural continues into the next, and points out historical references that could easily be missed. Each mural captures a distinct aspect of California life at the time -- agriculture, the meatpacking industry, the ups and downs of city life, the effects of the Gold Rush, and union strikes. Interspersed with the murals are large images of a banker, a steelworker, a surveyor, a farmer, and people of other professions that were considered to be iconic at the time.

We end our tour with a look at an area that's normally restricted. Behind a locked door are murals that are generally more lighthearted than the ones at the base. Winding up a spiral staircase is a mural that depicts Easter in the city, with the slant of the wall making for an accurate depiction of cable cars climbing up a steep hill. The final mural is entirely different from the rest. Painted by the wife of the tower's designer, her limited use of color and cheerful subject matter were influenced by Matisse.

Overall, the diverse assortment of murals at Coit Tower provide a rare and unfiltered look into the Depression Era through the eyes of the 25 artists who painted them. It's good to know that vistors will be able to visit them for many generations to come.

Located next to North Beach, Coit Tower is easily accessible from any of the three San Francisco hostels. It's well worth exploring the charming stairways of Telegraph Hill, but for those who want to avoid the walk up, the 39 MUNI bus goes all the way to the top. While it costs $7 for the elevator to the observation deck of Coit Tower, it's free to visit the murals at the base. For access to hidden murals and an in-depth look into the stories behind the murals, SF City Guides offers free tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m.

Ekua Impraim is our Marketing and Communications Intern. A California native, she’s an avid traveler who enjoys discovering her local surroundings just as much as exploring far-flung corners of the world.
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