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Cliff House and Sutro Baths

by Cyndy Ainsworth

Out at the westernmost edge of the city you'll find the Cliff House, Sutro Heights Park, and the ruins of Sutro Baths. In the 1890s all three were owned by Adolph Sutro, one of San Francisco's leading citizens and the city's mayor from 1895 to 1897. Sutro had made his fortune in the mining business and used his money to buy San Francisco real estate, including the sandy windswept property at the end of Geary Boulevard. At one point Sutro owned 2200 acres, or about 1/11th of the city.

On the bluff overlooking the ocean he built a home, a conservatory, and elaborate formal gardens. Replicas of ancient Greek and Roman statues adorned the grounds, and a stone parapet marked the western edge of the property. Sutro wanted to educate San Franciscans about European art and culture, and he opened the grounds of his home to the public as a park. He even built a streetcar line to make it easier for people to come and visit the area.

The property declined after Sutro's death in 1898, though it remained in the Sutro family until 1938, when it was donated to the city. The city removed the house and most of the statuary, and today only the stone lions at the front gate, a statue of Diana, and part of the old parapet survive. As you walk the grounds of the park, try to envision what it must have been like in Sutro's time. The view from the parapet is still spectacular, especially at sunset.

The cliff below Sutro Heights has been the site of four different structures called Cliff House, and if you look at their history, you'd think the site was jinxed. The first Cliff House, built in 1863, was damaged by a explosion in 1887 when a dynamite-laden schooner crashed on the rocks below. The surviving portion of the building was destroyed by fire on Christmas day seven years later. In 1895 Adolph Sutro built a new Cliff House, only to see it destroyed by fire that same year.

In 1896 Sutro tried again, building the elaborate French Chateau-style building that you often see in old photographs. That building survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, only to succumb to a separate fire in 1907. The current building was constructed in 1909 and has been extensively modified over the years; today it's an undistinguished structure notable more for longevity than character. While the restaurants and gift shops inside cater mostly to tourists, the views from Cliff House make it a great place for a drink.

The area around Cliff House offers excellent views of the Pacific Ocean and of Seal Rocks; down in the basement of the Cliff House building you'll find the MusČe Mechanique, with an extensive collection of antique coin-operated mechanical games and musical instruments. Don't miss the Camera Obscura on the terrace. The camera obscura was invented by Leonardo Da Vinci, and this one projects images of Seal Rocks and Ocean Beach onto a giant parabolic screen.

MusČe Mechanique
Open Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekend and holidays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Admission is free but amusements take coins
(415) 386-1170

Camera Obscura
Open daily 11 a.m. to sunset, weather permitting
Admission is $1
(415) 750-0415

There's a National Park Service Visitors Center on the terrace below Cliff House with information on the Sutro Heights, Sutro Baths, and Cliff House area as well as other portions of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). The three binders of photographs of Sutro Heights, Sutro Baths, and the Cliff House in the Visitor Center have interesting tidbits about the history of the area, and the MusČe Mechanique has a display of old photographs of the area, including some of Playland at the Beach, an old amusement park that was located just south of Cliff House.

Cliff House Visitor Center
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(415) 556-8642

The most grandiose of Sutro's constructions were the Sutro Baths. Built by Sutro in 1896, they sprawled across three acres of shoreline and resembled the elaborate baths of ancient Rome in style. There was one fresh water pool, five heated salt water pools, a huge ocean-temperature salt water pool, 500 dressing rooms, and three restaurants, plus promenades, spectator galleries, and even a theater, all under a huge glass dome. Guests who tired of bathing could entertain themselves with natural history exhibits and galleries with sculpture and paintings from around the world. You can see pictures of the bath at the height of their glory in the Visitors Center.

The baths were popular for many years, but by 1954 attendance had dwindled, and the cost of maintaining the baths led to their closure. A skating rink, constructed from one of the pools, remained open until 1966, when the land was sold to developers who planned to build high rise apartments on the site. As the old building was being demolished, it was destroyed by a fire. Fortunately the apartments were never built, and the baths became part of the GGNRA in 1980. Today all that remains are the crumbling foundations, a sad reminder of a once-glorious landmark.

Both the National Park Service and City Guides offer occasional free walking tours of the Sutro Heights/Sutro Baths area. Call the Cliff House Visitor Center for the Park Service tour schedule and (415) 557-4266 for the City Guides schedule.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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