San Francisco, CA — For decades San Franciscans believed that their iconic Coit Tower perched on the top of Telegraph Hill was built, in part, to commemorate the city’s brave firefighters whom the monument’s patron, the gambling, rambunctious socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit, adored. Historians would tell gullible tourists entering the tower that it looked like a fire hose nozzle because of this legend.
However, earlier this week, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a treasure trove of early 20th Century documents from City Hall that tell a very different story. According to several memos written by Ms. Coit before her death, she explicitly instructed both her trustees and the would-be architect, who would later be Arthur Brown, Jr., to create “a tower so high, that it would make her late husband’s ‘jelly-bag’ jealous with envy.”
Ms. Coit was fascinated by firefighters from a young age. At age 15, in 1858, she reportedly witnessed the Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 respond to a fire call on Telegraph Hill when they were shorthanded, and helped them get up the hill ahead of other competing engine companies. According to different sources from the time, Ms. Coit joined the team after rushing out of an area saloon.
She was after that treated as a “mascot” of the firefighters, and after her return from travel in Europe, in October 1863, she was made an honorary member of the engine company. She married Stock Exchange worker Howard Coit, not for his money, but rather for “his remarkable nicks-nacks,” she would recall in an undated diary entry. They separated in 1880, and he died in 1885 at age 47 in a freak shark attack while swimming in the San Francisco Bay. But she never forgot him, nor his penis.
Reaction to the startling news was mixed, with many locals seeming disinterested in the revelation.
“Yeah, so what,” question an annoyed Cow Hollow resident Barney “Slick” Ike who was emerging from Starbucks with a half-caff-soy latte. “I don’t see how it changes anything, you know? I don’t think anyone cares. I don’t care.”
According to Kaiser Family Foundation spokesperson Bethany Millbright, they had known about the memos for many years but were cautious about releasing them.
“San Francisco is proud of its heritage, even if its citizens don’t like to admit it,” said Ms. Millbright during a telephone interview. “They’ll tell you they don’t care either way about stuff like this – that they hate the Dirty Harry and Steve McQueen movies – but they’ve seen them all. And they’re the first people to take visiting relatives on tours, and things like that. Anyhow, it seemed like the time was right to let the truth out, so we did. Plus it’s hilarious reading Lillie talk about her husband’s special member. And she talks about it a lot.”
According to City Hall, they have no plans to replace the placards that surround Coit Tower with more accurate portrayals of the origins of the monument. At least one official said that it “wouldn’t be good for tourism.”