Sutro Baths and the Cliff House
This is what the Cliff House looks like today with the remains of the Sutro Baths in the foreground. I've spent many pleasurable hours at The Cliff House restaraunt and bar overlooking Seal Rocks on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. One day I climbed down the hill from the restaraunt to the sutro baths remains. Halfway down the hill I saw something that caught my eye. It was the neck of an old bottle. I carefully dug it from the hillside and held it in my hands. The bottle was embossed with these words: Florida Water, Murray & Lanman, No. 69 Water St. New York. The Sutro baths were a health resort in the 1800s and some Victorian health nut had tossed the bottle on the hillside a century before Perrier was even concieved and I was lucky enough to discover this little piece of history.
The original Cliff House.
Four different variations of the Cliff House have stood on the cliffs overlooking Seal Rocks, at the Northwest corner of San Francisco. Two earlier versions were rather modestly small in size, especially when compared with the elaborate eight-story Victorian building which stood on that spot from 1896 to 1907 as the third Cliff House. And when that ornate version of the building burned down, the fourth version to be built was designed more like the first two: simple, and made to blend in with the ocean and cliffs surrounding it. That fourth version is still standing today.
The Cliff House has held restaurants, dance halls, gift shops and vista points. From the windows of the building, a person could see for miles down the coast. They could also sit at their table and watch any ships that might be sailing in or out of the Golden Gate. Regardless of which incarnation of the building a person was visiting, they always had a spectacular view.
There were various means of commuting out to the building. At first there were horse-drawn carriages, which for a small fee would take them on the approx. 45 minute trot from downtown to the ocean. Later, trolly and train lines were added for more frequent runs back and forth across the city.
There were several other attractions for people to visit after making this trip out to the coast. Depending on the year, people could also walk among the statues in the elaborate gardens above the Cliff House, on the grounds of Sutro Heights. There was also a sky tram that carried passengers between the Cliff House and Point Lobos, along the water’s edge. For many years, just down the hill from the Cliff House was a large amusement park called Playland, and then directly North of the Cliff House were the famous and elaborate swimming/ bathing/sauna buildings of Sutro Baths.
And of course, people have always loved just strolling along the beach, breathing in the salty air and listening to the waves. The Cliff House has always been one of the true San Francisco icons.
Sutro Baths and The Cliff House in their heyday.
Inside the Baths.
Adolph Sutro began planning his lavish public baths in 1888, offering a $500 prize for their design. Architects C.J. Colley and Emil S. Lemme, who also designed the second Cliff House for Sutro, were the winners. After years of amazing engineering work, a long fight with the Southern Pacific over railway access, and the investment of over a million dollars in the project, Sutro had his natatorium. The official opening to the public wasn't until 1896, but private events, tours, and splashes had been hosted for almost two years.
The seven pools, the stage, the seating for thousands to observe were all topped by a glazed roof of 100,000 panes of glass to allow the sunlight. Unheated seawater filled the largest of the tanks. The rest were heated to varying temperatures, as Jerry Flamm relates in his book, "Good Life in Hard Times":
"They ranged, with ten-degree gaps, from ice-cold to a steaming warm eighty degrees. A favorite 'let's see you do this' dare among the hordes of kids scampering around the pools was to dive into the 'hot' pool, climb out, race down to the small ice-cold pool, and dive in there. An almost cutting sensation was experienced as the ice water covered your warm skin. I sometimes wonder how many of our gang died before their time, due to early heart attacks stemming from this mad folly."
And one could enter the pools in a number of ways, thanks to Sutro: trampolines, flying rings, slides, swings, toboggan slides, and diving platforms surrounded the water. All the bathers were required to use the establishment's suits, as Jerry Flamm remembered:
"Most of the suits were floppy looking, and usually gray in color with white stripes around the bottom edges. Women's suits had a skirt, often stretched from innumerable launderings, Men's suits had half skirts in front until about 1925."
The proprietor held numerous events, fairs, competitions, beauty contests, and legitimate championships to keep the public coming to the Baths. In 1913 and 1914 the Pacific Coast Swimming Championships featured Hawaiian swimmer Duke P. Kahanamoku (Olympic gold medalist) setting world records. Less prestigious draws included appearances by trapeze acts, contortionists, dwarf boxing matches, magicians and high-diving canines.
On Merrie Way, above the Baths, Sutro installed amusement park rides appropriated from the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park. Children could get themselves properly prepared for the carnival atmosphere inside the Baths with a ride on the "Firth Wheel" and the "Haunted Swing".
After Sutro's death, his heirs struggled to keep the enterprise afloat. They unsuccessfully tried to get the City of San Francisco to buy the Baths by bond issue for $687,000 in 1912. His daughter, the physician Emma Merritt struck out in 1919 putting out a price tag of $410,000. Eventually Grandson Adolph G. Sutro ran the operation, renovating the Baths' look with a south seas theme ("Tropic Beach"). He brought in ice skating, offered dancing, ping-pong, basketball and an indoor beach for those rainy days.
In 1952, losing money every year, Grandson Sutro gave up. He sold the Baths to George Whitney, owner of Playland-at-the Beach, for $250,000. Whitney, unable to keep up with the pools and pumping system upkeep, took out the swimming activities altogether. He closed the Baths down for good in 1966. Soon after, the building burned down, in what some called a suspicious fire.
A developer had plans to erect a housing and shopping complex on the site, but in 1980 the National Park Service bought the land for over five million dollars, adding it to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Outside the old Sutro Baths.