So, I started off yesterday on my first bucket list adventure: Item #3, Climb the Filbert Street and Greenwich Street steps to check out the view from Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. It turns out that I had so much to write about for this adventure, that I’m going to have to break it into two separate blog posts! So today I will focus on the Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower segments of this trip, and I will write about climbing the Filbert and Greenwich Street steps in my next post.
I am lucky enough to live in North Beach, just a stone’s throw away from many of my bucket list items, and just about 5 blocks away from Coit Tower. While the distance is short, the climb is fairly intense, and the last 3 blocks are quad-burning, sweat-inducing, why-am-I-doing-this-again blocks, so I don’t end up here as often as you might expect. My objective today was to walk from my house, up Filbert Street to the top of Telegraph Hill, ascend the Tower, walk down the Greenwich Street steps and back up the Filbert Street steps before returning home.
But the history that really interested me was that of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the quirky benefactress of Coit Tower. I had heard some story about a wealthy woman who lived on Telegraph Hill whose house had almost burned down but was saved at the last minute by the city’s firemen, prompting her to erect a monument shaped like a fire hose in their honor near the site of the fire. Good story, right? Turns out its complete fiction (I may have made it up myself, for all I know). But I actually think the real story is WAY more interesting.
So who was Lillie Coit? Well, for starters, she is probably the coolest woman I’ve ever heard of. She was born in the mid-19th century and moved to San Francisco as a child. She became a well-known socialite in San Francisco with an affinity for smoking cigars and wearing trousers, 50+ years before it became socially acceptable for women to do so. She was an avid gambler and often dressed like a man in order to gamble in the males-only establishments that dotted North Beach. She was reputed to have shaved her head so her wigs would fit better. See? Now you want to be her BFF too.
After that day, Lillie became the Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 mascot, and came running every time she heard the fire bell. She was elected an honorary member of the company in 1863, making her the only woman in the US to belong to a volunteer fire station. Later in life, Lillie would sit with ailing firemen during their last hours.
That was just the beginning of how amazing this woman was. Other stories about her include allegedly being engaged to 2 different men at the same time and alternating days she wore each man’s ring (she ultimately ended up marrying neither, preferring her eventual husband, Howard Coit); she sang, danced, and played guitar; she lived in Paris and became a notable figure at the court of Napolean III; and she befriended the Maharaj on a trip to India. After her husband died leaving her his estate, a jealous cousin broke into her room and tried to kill her, killing instead her male visitor who stepped in to save her. Um, did I mention that I am totally in awe of this woman?
When Lillie died in her mid-80s (which just goes to show how bad drinking, smoking, gambling, and galavanting around the world is for your health! Yessss.) she bequeathed to the city a third of her estate "be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved.” The city decided to build Coit Tower in her honor, as well as a statute of three firefighters carrying a woman in their arms, which resides in Washington Square Park at the base of Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower was completed in 1933.
Oh, and the fire-hose shape of the Tower? More fiction. The resemblance is merely coincidental, or perhaps invented to draw attention away from what most people really believe the Tower resembles… (cough). Lillie had nothing to do with the Tower’s design, and the architects who designed it have adamantly insisted a firehose was never their intention. Oh well. Back to thinking it looks like male genitalia.
Enough history; let’s turn back to the task at hand. With my husband's fancy camera in tow (I am not sure why he trusted me, this biggest klutz he knows, with that thing), I huffed and puffed my out-of-shape-just-got-back-from-my-Honeymoon behind up Filbert Street to Pioneer Square. Pioneer Square is essentially the name for the area at the base of Coit Tower, including the parking lot, stone benches, pay telescopes, and back lawn and lookout. Yesterday was just a beautiful day in San Francisco, so the tourists were swarming. Thankfully, I distinguished myself from the rest of the pack as a local San Franciscan with white tennis shoes, a shoulder bag, and an enormous camera.
Once up there, the 360-degree view really is amazing, as long as you don’t mind looking through plexi-glass. It was a crystal-clear day, so you could see the whole city, and across the bay to both Oakland and Marin, and it was easy to feel incredibly proud of our beautiful city. There were probably 25 or so tourists up there at the time vying for window space, especially the more coveted places like the ones overlooking the bay, which happened to feature a practice by two of the America’s Cup behemoths. You only really want to be up there for 5 or 10 minutes though, as there is nothing else to do but enjoy the view.
(Sources: Wikipedia; http://tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/lillian-coit-san-franciscos-knickerbocker-glory/)
To read Part 2 of this adventure, click here.