Coit Tower turns 85 this week, earns 'Nationally Significant' historic place designation

Though not the tallest in San Francisco, one of the city's most recognizable buildings, Coit Tower, is turning 85 this Monday, October 8.

And just in time for its birthday, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department announced an additional reason to celebrate: Coit Tower has been named a "nationally significant" historic place on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The National Register, which was established as part of the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966, is the U.S. government's official list of buildings, districts and historically significant objects deemed worthy of preservation. The listing is overseen by the National Park Service. 

"Coit Tower has been an emblem of San Francisco's skyline ... and its beautiful murals portray what life was like for San Franciscans trying to make a living during the Great Depression," said Rec and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg in a statement. "We are proud to support public works of art and give these historic murals and their artists the recognition they deserve at the national level."

View from atop. | Photo: Lauren Cunningham/Flickr

Coit Tower was erected at the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was known for her philanthropy and her love of the city's firefighters. She left one-third of her estate to San Francisco, "to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved." 

Completed in 1933, the tower boasts 360-degree views of the city and the bay on top of its observation deck. 

Interior frescos. | Photo: Ted Eytan/Flickr

The interior of the tower is just as notable, with a series of murals painted in 1934 by artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project, a precursor to the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The WPA was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and ultimately employed roughly 8.5 million Americans, including thousands of actors, musicians, writers and other artists, during some of the bleakest years of the Great Depression.

“Coit Tower and the 27 murals housed within are among San Francisco’s most glorious treasures,” said the San Francisco Arts Commission's director of cultural affairs, Tom DeCaigny. “As the prototype for the Works Progress Administration program and San Francisco’s own public art program, the Coit Tower murals were at the vanguard 85 years ago, and their imagery still resonates today."

Photo: Mark Hogan/Flickr

Though the tower has now received national recognition, there's an ongoing push to further elevate the building's status to the coveted designation of "National Historic Landmark."

The SFAC, the nonprofit Protect Coit Tower, and a coalition of artists and living relatives of the Coit Tower muralists have all been lobbying for landmark status.

According to Rec and Park, of more than 90,000 spots listed on the national list, only 2,500 are actually recognized as historical landmarks. The Bay Area as a whole boasts 48, including Alcatraz, Ghirardelli Square and Fort Mason.

To further commemorate the tower's birthday, North Beach's Canessa Gallery (708 Montgomery St.) is exhibiting a photography show entitled "Coit Tower Artists-in-Action" through the end of October. It aims to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the 25 artists who worked on the tower murals. 

"No matter how many times one visits the murals, there is always something new to discover and to learn about our city and about our humanity," DeCaigny said. "Thank you to Lillie Hitchcock Coit for the gift that keeps on giving.”

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