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View, California, San Francisco, Telegraph Hill Observatory, Antique Print, 1883


The Telegraph Hill Observatory, San Francisco, California
Britton & Rey, San Francisco: 1883
Tinted lithograph
16.25 x 25.25 inches, ruled border
20.25 x 27.75 inches, overall
Provenance: Christian de Guigne IV Estate

A rare bird’s-eye view of San Francisco, featuring the former Telegraph Hill Observatory, located in Pioneer Park and what is now considered San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. The castle-like building, with its crenelated towers and conical turrets, is depicted in detail with pedestrians and horse drawn carriages on the road and grounds. Clipper ships and boats sail on San Francisco Bay in the background. This print was issued with the Christmas 1883 edition of the San Francisco News Letter.

Product description continues below.


The Telegraph Hill Observatory was in essence California’s first amusement park. Built in the style of a German baronial castle by Frederick O. Layman as a tourist attraction, it took advantage of the site’s panoramic view of San Francisco and the entire bay. The Observatory opened on July 4th, 1882, and within two years, a new cable car line conveyed visitors to enjoy the view, eat at its bars and restaurants, and watch concerts, theatrical performances and an assortment of sporting events from broadsword contests on horseback held in front of the castle to wrestling matches on the indoor stage. Not everyone was enamored; some San Franciscans considered it a monstrosity and dubbed it “Layman’s Folly.” After a disastrous fire, the castle was demolished in 1903. The site where it once stood is now the north parking lot of Coit Tower, constructed in 1933. The tower has proved a more durable addition to the city skyline and its observation deck is a popular attraction.

The printing firm of Britton & Rey was undoubtedly the largest producer of lithographs in California. The two men were the Currier & Ives of the West, resembling that famous combination not only in the volume of their production but in their personal relationship as well. The firm was  a partnership between Joseph Britton (1825-1901) and Jacques Joseph Rey (born 1820). Britton was born in England and immigrated to New York with his family as a child. There he was trained in lithography. He joined the California Gold Rush in 1849. After three years of prospecting, he went to San Francisco and returned to the printing trade, opening the firm with Rey, who had been born in France, where he had studied art and lithography. Rey married Britton’s sister, and the two men were close. Britton and Rey operated solely as a lithography business from 1852 to 1858, when they apparently switched focus and operated the plumbing and gas-fitting firm of Britton, Rey & O’Brien for a couple of years. However, they remained associated in lithography for about 30 years. They published a number of notable lithographs of California during the Gold Rush period, chronicling an era from which there are few other firsthand pictorial records.

Condition: Generally very good, recently professionally cleaned and restored with minor remaining toning and wear. Minor pale small brown discoloration patches in middle left of the Bay area, unobstrusive. Professionally backed on Japanese tissue to flatten central vertical and horizontal folds (as issued), and to restore minor short tears and chips in the blank margins, especially near the folds.


Groce, George C. and Wallace, David H. The New-York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America 1564-1860. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969. pp. 82 and 533.

Marinelli, Nickolas. “The Castles of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.” L’Italo-Americano. 14 December 2012. (2 August 2019).

Peters, Harry T. America on Stone. U.S.: Doubleday, Doran, 1931. pp. 110-112.

Additional information


19th Century