|Photo by John Curley, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
Architectural Record's recent news of plans to restore San Francisco's Coit Tower made me ponder the value a unique landmark tower, monument or skyscraper has traditionally brought to a city, in terms of iconic familiarity, historical reference, cultural identity, wayfinding value, or picture-postcard appeal.
Big Ben chimes out, "This is London." The Eiffel Tower announces, "This is Paris." The Empire State Building proclaims, "This is New York." Not to mention Philadelphia's Independence Hall... Chicago's Willis (formerly Sears) Tower... Seattle's Space Needle... St. Louis' Gateway Arch... Toronto's CN Tower... Boston's John Hancock Tower... D.C.'s Washington Monument... San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid...
|Photo by Chen Si-Yuan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
Wait — not so fast. Before Transamerica's pointed poignancy pierced through San Francisco's low-scale landscape and crowned itself the city's signature spire and fortress of familiarity in 1972, the Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill was San Fran's icon of identity, symbol of civic pride, and especially...
Labor of love
|Photo by Chad1616, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
|Photo by Kkmd, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
The observation deck, overlooking the city like a firewatch tower, aptly symbolizes Lillie Coit's eagle eye on the neighborhood, ever watchful for fires, especially when lit up at night before a fiery sunset (above).
The tower's architecture exemplifies the neoclassical-Art Deco combo of many of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration building projects, expressing the folk patriotism of the hard labor that built them as the WPA put more Americans back to work.
|Photo by Leonard G., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
|Photo by Wesman83, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
Filbert Street, the main route to the Coit Tower and — unfortunately for its pilgrims — one of the city's steepest streets, at a maximum gradient of 31.5%, or 17.5º, with no cable-car to ease the elevation.
Once it reaches Telegraph Hill, Filbert Street gets sooooo steep it transforms into a...
Stairway to heaven
|Photo by Christopher Beland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
as we pound the planks
on our painstaking pilgrimage to our
Mecca on the mount...
Look up... way up
|Photo by Little Mountain 5, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
|Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons|
But before we blast off, let's mull over the murals in the monolith's base rotunda...
Murals of the masses
|"City Life" by Victor Arnautoff. Note The New Masses and The Daily Worker at the newsstand, |
the cop with his back to the robber the foreground, and the car accident in the background.
the character of the commonfolk, their struggles to survive the slump, and their vivid visions of bolting the breadlines and walking to work. Here a postman, there a news dealer, here a cop, there a robber...
|"Industries of California" by Ralph Stackpole, depicting the vitality of urban and rural |
industry to rejuvenating the California economy in the throes of the Great Depression.
|"Library" by Bernard Zakheim shows Coit muralists John Langley Howard |
snatching Karl Marx's Das Kapital and Ralph Stackpole reading a paper.
This mural depicts Stackpole himself reading a newspaper headline announcing the 1934 destruction of Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads mural in Rockefeller Center, New York, for its depiction of then Soviet leader Lenin.
Coit muralist John Langley Howard responds accordingly in "Library" by grabbing a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital off a shelf while crumpling a newspaper in his other hand, as a power-to-the-people gesture of the prevalence of workers' movements over the political putdowns of such kingpins as Nelson Rockefeller, the lead opponent of Man at the Crossroads in his namesake's center.
Monument to the masses
|Photo by Kyle Harmon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
|Lord Hill's Column, 1814-1816, Edward Haycock.|
Photo by Keith Havercroft, Wikimedia Commons.
|Nelson's Column, 1840-1843, William Railton.|
Photo by David Castor, Wikimedia Common
|Photo by Goodshoped35110s, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
Unlike Lords Hill and Nelson, on Coit Tower the people are the statue, in the populist spirit of the murals.
Which makes the tower a true monument to democracy, a symbol of a collective effort to elevate the everyman to a higher level of dignity through hard labor, high hopes.
Unlike the beacon of bureaucracy below...
|Transamerica Pyramid, 1972, William Pereira. Photo by Daniel Schwen, Wikipedia.|
Built just so to withstand earthquakes, it was reviled during its development, and was made the butt of jokes on a TV comedy special on architecture I watched in 1976 — especially in a Saturday Night Live-style "commercial" for a board game where the object was to build a scale model of Transamerica: "Hey, kids! How would you like to erect the tallest building in the city? You can, when you play 'BUILD 'EM HIGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!'"
(READERS: If you remember the title of that program, kindly let me know in the comments box below. Thank you.)
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!