A Radical Guide To The Coit Tower Murals

Coit Tower sits atop Telegraph Hill, looming over the North Beach district of San Francisco. The tower was constructed in 1933 with the funds of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy and eccentric woman who left a third of her fortune for the beautification of the city she loved. Lillie was quite different from most women of her time. Refusing to be limited by gender roles she openly smoked cigars, wore pants, gambled and helped put out fires with the volunteer fire department. It is likely that her unladylike behavior was tolerated due to her wealth.

After the tower was completed, twenty-six local artists, including Ralph Stackpole, Bernard Zakheim and Rinaldo Cuneo, were selected to create fresco paintings on interior walls. They were employed through the Works Progress Administration (WPA); the largest New Deal agency used to employ workers to create public works projects. The theme was "aspects of California life."

The artists found inspiration in the daily life of Californians, but also created controversy and censorship by including leftist imagery in their paintings. The artists believed they needed to comment on two recent events in the United States.

Firstly, when Nelson Rockefeller destroyed one of Diego Rivera's painting "Man at the Crossroads" due to the inclusion of Lenin's face in the painting, the artists at the Coit Tower formed a picket in protest. Many of these artists were friends and followers of Rivera and his inspiration can clearly be seen in the social realist scenes they painted. Some of them purposefully included socialist and communist imagery into their murals in protest of what Rockefeller did.

Secondly, the artists felt a need to show support to the San Francisco workers who took part in the recent general strike. One of the murals depicts a labor strike. Another shows a poor family mining for gold and washing their clothes while a rich family and their chauffeurs look on. Another painting included the hammer and sickle. Yet another paining included the Leftist slogan "workers of the world unite."

The capitalist media and reactionary individuals were appalled and put pressure on the WPA to whitewash the murals. The opening of the tower to the public was delayed for months as the controversy went on. In the end, the hammer and sickle and the "workers of the world unite" slogans were censored, but everything else, including Marxist book titles and radical newspapers were left alone.

Today, one can walk along the lower levels of Coit Tower and view most of these murals for free. Murals which exist in the stairway of the tower are only available for viewing with a free tour which is given on Saturdays at 11:00am and meets at the main entry of Coit Tower.

Telegraph Hill is also home to a feral flock of parrots and the walk down the Filbert Steps off of Telegraph Hill Blvd is fantastic. The steps are to your left when leaving Coit Tower.

Coit Tower has become a popular tourist destination, largely due to the splendid views of San Francisco and the surrounding areas available from the hill and the tower itself. For under $5 you can take an elevator to the top of the tower for a view of the city.

You can buy Coit Tower Mural prints online.