Friday, July 19, 2013

Living It Up on the Edge

Cliff House in the 1890s

As the San Francisco Chronicle reminds us, it was 150 years ago this week that one of Northern California’s foremost landmarks--the Cliff House, a restaurant with spectacular views over the Pacific, located just north of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach--opened to the public. The present incarnation of that wind-whipped structure, though, is far from the first; and it’s certainly not the most palatial. I devoted a couple of spreads in my 2009 book San Francisco: Yesterday and Today (Publications International) to the Cliff House. Here’s what I wrote to accompany the photos:
Point Lobos, named by Spanish explorers for the sea lions (lobos marinos, or sea wolves) that languished and barked on the surrounding rocks, is the westernmost tip of San Francisco. It’s been a leisure destination ever since the mid-1850s. In 1863, a real-estate speculator named Charles Butler constructed the first, fairly modest Cliff House just south of that point. It initially attracted the chic and well-heeled set, who ventured out by carriage over a toll road (later Geary Boulevard) to dawdle and dine, to survey the marine life on adjacent Seal Rocks or thrill to the sight of daredevils treading tightropes above the crashing waves. However, as more common folk discovered this resort, and competitors for the coastal tourist trade appeared, Butler added card rooms and saloons to the Cliff House, both of which lent it an unsavory reputation.

In the early 1880s, Adolph Sutro purchased the Cliff House. A Prussian-born entrepreneur and resolute dreamer, he’d made a fortune in Nevada’s Comstock mining country, developing a chemical technique to extract residual wealth from already processed ore and then boring a tunnel deep into the heart of the mining district, to bleed off hazardous gases. After acquiring an idyllic cottage on the promontory above the Cliff House and Seal Rocks, which he enlarged and surrounded with gardens full of scandalously underdressed statuary, Sutro began restoring the respectability of Butler’s former oceanside resort. Although a chimney fire burned the Cliff House to the ground in 1894, Sutro seemed undiscouraged. With architects Emile S. Lemme and C.J. Colley, he soon erected a considerably grander, French château-style replacement, stuffed with private dining rooms, curio shops, and parlors. He also built an electric trolley line out to the beach, so more people of lesser means could enjoy his entertainments.

(Right) Sutro Baths

Beside the Cliff House on the north, the ambitious Sutro raised the largest public bathhouse in the world. Opened officially in 1896, while its creator was serving his first and only term as mayor of San Francisco, Sutro Baths boasted seven swimming pools of varying sizes and depths (the largest being an unheated, L-shaped seawater pool 300 feet long and 175 feet wide), and 500 dressing rooms. The Victorian structure, with its Greek temple-like entrance, was roofed by two acres of crystal glass and also contained sweeping staircases, gardens of palms and ferns, restaurants, a theater, a gymnasium, and an eccentric museum that showcased Egyptian mummies, stuffed animals, medieval armor, and even a carnival made of toothpicks, crafted by a penitentiary inmate.

Adolph Sutro died in 1898, only a year and a half after relinquishing the mayor’s office to banker James D. Phelan. In 1907, his luxurious Cliff House went up in flames during a remodeling project. It was replaced two years later by a conspicuously less grandiose (but more fire-resistant) version, the essence of which still stands today. The Sutro Baths persisted as a recreation center well into the 20th century, though its largest pool was turned into an ice-skating rink in 1937. Declining attendance and rising maintenance costs finally shuttered the facility in 1966, shortly after which it too burned, leaving what some call “the finest ruins in the city,” now part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area.
I’ve been out to the Cliff House on numerous occasions--the first time, in the 1970s, with my parents; the most recent time with my brother, Matt, on a very long walk west from downtown. I know that it holds a special place in the hearts of native San Franciscans. But every time I visit the Cliff House, I feel, well, just a little disappointed. I’m too familiar with photographs of the Cliff House at its baronial, turn-of-the-last-century best, and I keep hoping that the next time I visit there, it will have been somehow magically restored to that incarnation. Unfortunately, that’s a dream only to be realized in trick photos such as this one.

If you’d to learn more about this landmark, pick up or order a copy of Mary Germain Hountalas’ 2009 book, The San Francisco Cliff House (Ten Speed Press).

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