The association between Lillie Hitchcock Coit and the fire fighters of Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5. goes back to her early years when she was a young girl.
All sources agree that she had a close relationship with the fire department, particularly Knickerbocker Engine Co. number 5. The history becomes a little more subjective when details are examined. We'll give you the facts and you can decide how to interprate the details. Some publications say she was a volunteer firefighter and some say she was just an avid follower of the Knickerbocker fire fighters.
At age 15 (1858) Knickerbocker 5 adopted Lillie as their mascot and in every parade she was given the honor of riding atop the engine's wash box amid wreaths, garlands and bouquets of colorful flowers, like some ballroom belle.
On October 3, 1863 Lillie W. Hitchcock was voted and awarded an honorary membership of Kinckerbocker 5, and was given the following rules by the company.
She was expected to go to all fires that occurred during the day.
At night, if her light was not burning until her engine was housed she was fined.
With the esteemed position of honorary membership, she was allowed to wear the parade uniform of the company; a fireman's red shirt, a black skirt (instead of pants), a parade helmet with her initials, and a formal parade belt from the Veteran Firemen's Association of San Francisco. Lillie's helmet and her 1863 honorary membership certificate are now on display at the SFFD Museum.
On her own she helped pull the engine of her company to the fire as a young girl. She did help with the social events of her company. She did visit sick members of the company, even well after the company was disbanded. She did assist with a proper burial of the firemen of her company if their families could not afford it.
While Mrs. Coit was constantly doing things that no other woman of her time would have dared to, her escapades were always innocent and she was never touched by the breath of scandal - everything was always open and above board. In her unconventionality, her lack of concern as to what others would think of her, she was far in advance of her times.
A disputed fact is that Coit Tower was designed as a fire nozzle to honor Lillie Coit and the San Francisco firefighters. The 210 foot tower was designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. (1874-1957) an American architect based in San Francisco who had stated on many occasions that his tower was not designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle.
For several years after her death, there was question as to the most fitting interpretation of the "appropriate manner" in which to make the memorial. The executors of her will at last determined to erect a memorial tower in honor of this colorful woman and a second memorial tribute to San Francisco's firemen.
Both monuments were completed at the same time. The cylindrical tower which stands atop Telegraph Hill captured the individuality that made her as outstanding an example of contrast to her days as is this unusual form of memorial shaft.
The second memorial to her was unveiled in Washington Square(San Francisco), December 3, 1933. It is a sculptured block representing a life-sized group of three firemen, one of them carrying a woman in his arms. Below are the three statues at Washington square in north beach, a few blocks from Coit Tower.
It was considered an honor to be a fireman back in the 1930's. All firemen were volunteers those days.
The debate is that Lillie Hitchcock Coit was the first woman firefighter in the United States?
Here are the facts, you decide:
Back then all firefighters were volunteers.
Lillie Hitchcock Coit was made an honorary member of Kinckerbocker Company No. 5
As mascot of the fire department she had responsibilities as explained earlier.
There is no documentation that Lillie ever was allowed to participate in extinguishing a fire, but she was involved in all other aspects of “her company.”
she became the only woman member of a fire company.
There would have been no San Francisco without its famed volunteer fire companies - lawyers, doctors, bankers, merchants, all belonged to these fire companies, and she knew every one of them. Her home was just opposite Number 4, but it was to Knickerbocker Number 5 that she gave allegiance.
She always wore a little gold 5 pinned to her dress and signed herself Lillie H. Coit5. She asked that this 5 be left on her at the end. Everything she had, even her linen, was marked - L.H.C.5. Lacemakers even worked it into her monogram on her fans.
In December, 1866, the paid fire department of San Francisco was organized, and she became a veteran. Knickerbocker Number 5 always had an annual dinner on October 17th , or as she called it, “Numbers 5's birthday,” for October 17, 1850 was the date that the company was voted in the department. It was always her self-appointed duty to manage table decorations and flowers. Later in the evening she would appear at these dinners dressed in a black silk skirt, red fire shirt and black tie, and her veteran's belt - she usually carried her helmet. Of course a toast was drunk to her health at each dinner.
Now you can decide if she was the first woman firefighter or not?
The Funeral of Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a major event.
Mrs. Coit passed away July 22, 1929. The next morning at the funeral parlor(s) young firemen were standing guard at the door of the room where she lay.
Lillie Coit left one third of her estate ($225,000) to the Supervisors of San Francisco with the request that they should “expend the funds in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of San Francisco which I have always loved.”
There was money left over in Lillie's bequest after the building of Coit Tower. The remaining available funds were used for the three statues in Washington square shown before.
Basically the wall had themes considered contentious and unacceptable by certain groups.
On the center a blue eagle of the NRA, National Recovery Act. On the left a sickle symbolizing communism and over the right hand window appears the legend ‘In God We Trust’, symbolizing the dollar and Capitalism.
Emotions were so high, those murals were destroyed and the walls remain empty to this today!
NEW DEAL PAINTINGS
Coit Tower was built in 1933 with funds from Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She was a wealthy San Francisco socialite who lived from 1843 - 1929. Upon her death, her will stipulated that she would leave one third of her fortune to the city of San Francisco, in her words "to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved."
Final design of Coit Tower
LILLIE HITCHOCK COIT
Now with self guided Audio tour
devices on location
Some people felt the murals were subversive and depicted "Communist" themes, the authorities delayed the opening of Coit Tower for several months. Already outraged by the shooting deaths of two strikers during the Longshoremen's Strike of 1934, the working community was upset even further by this delay, adding to the general distrust of authority.
Below is the image of 3 fresco paintings above the windows. These murals were obliterated before opening of Coit Tower in 1934! The art was deemed too controversial.
These are the murals
that were destroyed.
The history of Coit Tower would be amiss without highlighting the murals painted at Coit Tower. These murals represent an era and character of Coit Tower history with bold visual clarity and energy.
Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a wealthy eccentric San Francisco socialite who left one third of her wealth to the construction of Coit Tower.
She was known to be a go-getter, rough-and-tumble type of woman who smoked cigars, gambled avidly and lived raucously.
The fact that she came from money and married into more of it helped make her behavior more acceptable to others.
What Lille Hitchcock Coit was best known for in her day, however, was not her wild antics. Instead, it was her obsession with firefighting .
Coit Tower history is filled with tales of why the tower looks like a fire nozzle and why Lilly Coit offered the donation.
We’ll only focus on facts and leave unverified stories to the internet.
In the 1930's when President Franklin Roosevelt decided to put out-of-work artists back to work, the recently dedicated tower was chosen as one of the sites in the country for murals. In less than a year, artists had turned the walls of the tower into a grand display of realistic art depicting life in California in the ’30s. There are city scenes of congestion and crime, views of tranquil country life, agriculture and leisure. Some panels portray a distinct political message: certainly leftist and pro worker. Others, completely non-political, show Californians at play, in collegiate sports and outdoor recreation.
HISTORY OF COIT TOWER
Coit Tower architecture has always been linked to the fire nozzle and hydrant used by firefighters. The concrete tower was constructed by Arthur Brown Jr., best known for his magnificent City Hall. He has denied the correlation of a fire hose to Coit Tower but debate rages on because the San Francisco supervisors who spent Coit's money had the fire department in mind. Some say, "it doesn't matter what the architect wanted or thought", the memorial had to reflect Lilly Hitchcock Coit's passion and why she loved San Francisco.
A little background info on Lillie Hitchcock Coit is necessary before examining the building further. As a child she was fascinated by fire fighters, fire trucks and the process of firefighting. When she was 15, she witnessed a short-handed fire fighting unit responding to a fire call up on Telegraph Hill, and she reportedly dropped her school books on the ground and ran over to help, yelling for others to help as well. As a result of her courage and enthusiasm, she became a mascot for the fire fighters, and was later elected an honorary member of the fire department.
So it is with these kind of stories of legend that the suggestion has been made that Coit Tower was designed to represent a fire hose nozzle, or even a fire hydrant.
It may not have been the architects intention to capture a fire hose or hydrant but the memory of Lillie Hitchcock Coit dictates that we honor the Fire department with this monument because she envisioned the monument to be something she enjoyed while beautifying the city she loved.