Weekend Special: The Food-Related Murals of San Francisco’s Coit Tower


Coit Tower was built by the City of San Francisco atop Telegraph Hill in 1933 in the Art Deco style. It was funded by a bequest from heiress Lillie Hitchcock Coit. The tower offers panoramic views of the entire city, from the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island on the north, to Twin Peaks in the West, to downtown’s skycrapers to the south, to Oakland and Bay Bridge on the East.

Accessible only via a rickety elevator, the top of the 210-foot tower is a tourist trap of major proportions, but visitors also queue up in the circular entrance lobby to see a fantastic series of murals, commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project of the federal government, the first of the New Deal art projects. The murals were supervised by Ralph Stackpole and Bernard Zakheim, and executed by the staff and students of the California School of Fine Arts. A majority of the murals involve food themes in one form or another, reflecting the importance of California as an agricultureal state, from scenes of farm workers picking grapes and oranges, to a lunch counter worked in around a narrow window, to a canning operation. Given the many-hands nature of the work, the consistency of style is incredible.

The view from the top of Coit Tower to the west. (Click to enlarge this picture and the murals that follow.)


A butchering operation, with only a soupcon of blood. Note the female butcher–those were progressive times.

No California agrarian landscape would be complete without orange picking, but this view also shows a flower farm and, in the background, cabbage fields, greenhouses, and haymows.

The menu at this combination soda fountain and lunch counter includes soup (5 cents), chili con carne (15 cents), tamales, spaghetti, roast beef, corned beef, sliced chicken, or a combination special for 25 cents.

This composite shows several types of food production facilities, including fruit canning and flour milling. Note the sinister figures of the overseers in the deep background. So Diego Rivera!

Cleverly fitted around a window casement, a wine store, prefiguring the importance of wine to the Nor Cal economy. Note the upscale shoppers on the right (the enemy!), and the presence of Italian chianti bottles at the bottom of the vignette–as if California wines were not quite enough.

Visitors file past the murals on the way to the top of Coit Tower.