Introducing the Matron Saint of SF’s Firefighters

Like most people who take for granted the tourist sites of their city, I too take San Francisco for granted. Mind you I’m still and always will be a tourist at heart, but life has its annoying manner of coming in the way of me taking pictures pretty things, pursuing boutiques, discovering regional delights, and (my favorite) — pestering locals with what it’s like for them to live in the Golden City.

(Golden Gate Bridge from Coit Tower)

For those who didn’t get the chance to read the little narcissistic blurb that every person who puts a website like this together — I’m from Bombay, India. (Yes, Bombay — not Mumbai. It’s local snobbery and if you want to know why, I recommend visiting.) I came to San Francisco for grad school but never in a million years did I ever imagine I would live here post. Maybe a year after school at the max, but now that I’m married and the third year is rolling around, it dawns on me that I have spent a greater part of my 20s in San Francisco rather than Bombay — the place I still consider home.

Some of you living away from where you grew up may have experienced this — the heart constantly in turmoil, pulled by memories of home as you struggle with the love that develops for the new place. That’s my relationship with San Francisco and Bombay. Every time I leave one and go to the other, it feels like an adolescent break-up — immense emotion, tears, and listening to Adele on repeat. Sounds a tad dramatic? I am very dramatic.

Poor San Francisco, she definitely gets the bigger bashing. After all one can sort of live without a fast Wi-Fi connection, but nothing and I mean nothing beats bugging my Mom in person. I also like hugging her a lot — so there’s that too.

So after one of the many times I came back from Bombay and was mopping around the apartment, spending long nights on Whattsapp texting friends on the other side of the world, only to spend my days like a zombie, Frank put his foot down. I think at this point Frank would like me to say that he has very big feet and a very large shoe collection. Yes, I’m very lucky — he often dresses pretty.

It’s decided that we’ll do something fun and chase the dream the Beach Boys planted. Taking Russian Hill, we go for a walk and are on the look out to do something we haven’t done before. As I point out to Frank the severe injustice that people who live on Nob Hill have to bear of being reputed as snobs — while Russian Hill with its artisan cheese shops, pink bougainvillea trellises, and people who only holiday in Aspen gets off the hook, Coit Tower peeks out through rows of ascending buildings.

A glorious beacon of beauty stretching to the sky.

(Coit Tower)

The 210-foot tower sits upon Telegraph Hill, visible from most places in the city. I think the best view of it is from Lombard Street — the most crooked street in the world. Built in 1933 and paid for by the $125,000 (nearly $2M today) gift from Lillie Hitchcock Coit.

(Lillie Hitchcock Coit)

Lillie Hitchcock Coit was known to have been a cigar smoking, pant wearing, card-shark at the center of 19thcentury San Francisco aristocracy. A spitfire who had a grand affinity for the Knickerbocker Engine Co. №5., considered the guardians of the city at a time where San Francisco didn’t have an official fire department.

(City Life by Victor Arnautoff)

There are a couple of stories floating about as to where her love for the men in red grew. The one I like most: One day on her way to school Lillie spotted the Knickerbockers Engine Company №5 answer a call to aid put out a fire on Telegraph Hill. Due to there being a lack of hands, the firemen struggled to pull the engine up hill. Dropping her books, Lillie found an empty spot on the rope and began to pull. Encouraging other passers to do the same, by calling out: “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!” Everyone did help out and the engine was the first one to get to the fire. Deeply inspired by the incident, but much to her parents’ and society’s chagrin this soon became a habit. She started to be on the look out for the call, and was often seen chasing the red fire engine about town. Eventually, she did give up the practice, but the company was so taken by her spirit that on October 3rd1863 they made her an honorary member..[1]

Lillie married Howard Coit, a caller at the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange, after which she traveled extensively to Europe and the East. A significant figure at the court of Napoleon III and amongst Indian Royalty, she was often given jewelry, art, and other priceless souvenirs. Nonetheless, her love for California was constant and she at length made it her permanent home.

Evidence of her love for the city was pressed even further, when upon her death on July 22, 1929 she bequeathed one-third of her fortune to the city of 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.”

And that is how Coit Tower came to be.

So off we went, thinking — Oh, it’s so close by; we’ll be there in no time. The walk, though not long, is mostly uphill. Stopping along the way for ice cream helped. The First Swensen’s Ice Cream Store on Hyde is our favorite, and the peppermint is a must. However, if you’re closer to North Beach than Nob Hill when your craving hits, Café Greco would be a close second, they only take cash though. If cake is your cup of tea — then it’s Stella’s Pastry & Cafe you want.

Passing the historical Cafe Zoetrope and Beat Museum, we trudged up Kearney Street. The views take your breath away and I’m not just talking about the panting. On a clear day the city looks red carpet ready, but sadly no iPhone or camera quite does her justice. Once almost at the top — there are Memory Steps worth taking a minute to check out, they bare the names of those who lived and loved this city over several decades.

Even without climbing to the top of the tower one gets spectacular views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Though I have been twice, I have yet to go to the top. There is always a long wait — an hour or more on the weekends. I suggest buying tickets online to save time. (They range from $6-$9)

On the first level of the tower, there are murals most of them painted fresco by faculty and students of the California School of Fine Arts in 1933, and supervised by Ralph Stackpole and Bernard Zakheim. Most of the murals depict life in San Francisco around the Great Depression; industrial scenes, city life, as well as rural living. There are also large undertones of Marxist and leftist political ideas expressed, noticeably evident in the mural titled Library by Bernard Zakheim.[2] It portrays fellow artist John Langley Howard crumpling a newspaper in his left hand as he reaches for a shelved copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital with his right. Stackpole is also painted reading a newspaper with a headline announcing the destruction of Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural at Rockefeller Center. The mural was destroyed by none other its patron Nelson Rockefeller because of Rivera’s incorporation of Lenin in one of its panels.The most controversial of the Tower’s murals were painted over and closed to the public for months..[3]

(Library by Bernard Zakheim)

Unable to go up the tower, Frank and I planted ourselves on one of the benches and watched San Francisco’ s harbor traffic. I can’t recall what we were talking about or if we were at all, but after a few minutes a young couple interrupted us. The girl handed me her phone. She had taken a picture of us. Some cynics who are reading this might find that creepy, but I think it was one of those frou-frou gestures the world gives you when you’re down and out.

Being homesick and depressed is hard to deal with, and is something that you need to be shaken out of. That picture did it for me that day. It’s definitely not the best picture of Frank and me, nor does it mean that I’m not going to get depressed again, but it holds true to why I’m here. Lillie’s city — my new home — has been good to me, it is where I found my husband, wonderful friends, who are my family away from family — and most of all it is where I found my belief that I can be a writer.


1. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco Elizabeth Wyche “Lillie” Hitchcock Coit By Frederick J. Bowlen Battalion Chief, San Francisco Fire Department

2. Public Art and Architecture Around the World Telegraph Hill — Coit Tower Murals

3. de Young Coit Tower Murals

Originally published at on August 5, 2016.