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The Cliff House At 150

January 08, 2014 Filed under: The Buzz

What are the iconic structures in San Francisco that almost every visitor to the city wishes to see?

Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge, sure. But also the Cliff House, a modest building situated in a magnificent setting. There remains controversy about how many Cliff Houses have existed on the cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the western rim of San Francisco. There are proponents for three, four, and five. The historic records seem to indicate that the first Cliff House was constructed by a real estate speculator named Charles Cutler in 1863 as a restaurant that offered magnificent views of the ocean and the cavorting sea lions on the rocks beneath.

The Cliff House was almost immediately a destination for rich and poor alike—reached after a long journey along the sand dunes that separated the built-up portion of the city from the ocean’s edge. Soon, however, the destination began to attract an almost exclusively raffish crowd. Visitors to San Francisco continued to visit the well-known landmark and marvel at the scenery, but respectable San Franciscans kept their distance.

A toll road, called the Point Lobos Road, was the connection between the inhabited city and the Cliff House, which facilitated the flow of visitors.

The fascination of the site for residents and visitors alike is illustrated by the number of photographs, lithographs (including a lithograph by the New York firm, Currier and Ives), and engravings that were made.

Numerous letters to friends and relatives in the East and in Europe have described the excellent views from the Cliff House and the superb food available; writers, including Mark Twain, have kept a steady chronicle of the Cliff House down to this very day.

The development of Golden Gate Park in the 1870s gave a new impetus to the Cliff House, as those utilizing the growing attraction of the park would extend their sightseeing farther west. And, in the 1880s, people began using the Cliff House for exhibitions, which made it a precursor of such recreation centers as Disneyland, Great America, and other venues. A tightrope was fashioned between the Cliff House and the nearby Seal Rocks, which daredevil tightrope walkers would traverse.

Early in the 1880s, a man enjoying a ride through Golden Gate Park with his daughter came upon a cottage on a bluff overlooking the Cliff House. He knocked on the door of the cottage, seeking to buy it. The owner sold it, and the 1.65-acre parcel around it, for $15,000.

The purchaser was one of the most remarkable citizens of San Francisco, ever: Adolph Sutro. Sutro, a German immigrant to San Francisco by way of New York, would change Lands End and the Cliff House for many decades.

The formidable Sutro had been a tobacconist during his early days in San Francisco, then went on to build the Sutro Tunnel in Nevada as an accommodation for the Comstock Lode’s needs, became a reforming politician (and mayor of San Francisco), invested his tunnel profits in buying one twelfth of the City and County of San Francisco.

Sutro was intrigued with Lands End. In time he would acquire more than one thousand acres in the area—an extraordinary expansion from his original purchase of 1.65 acres. He decided that he would build his home on the bluff where he had seen the cottage he purchased, eschewing the exclusive enclaves of Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, areas where his fellow millionaires had been—and were still—building their homes.

Among Sutro’s real estate purchases was the Cliff House, from which he evicted its long-time lessee, Captain Junius Foster, and turned over management to others. Sutro made a number of improvements to the Cliff House—improvements that were destroyed in January 1887, when a schooner carrying explosives blew up in the ocean near the structure and turned it into a shambles.

Sutro decided that he would build a new Cliff House—a gingerbread palace that extended over the edge of the cliff and would be both a restaurant and a hotel. The handsome chateau opened in 1896 and became one of the most photographed buildings in San Francisco. Alas, it would survive for only 11 years. In 1907 an electrical fire was responsible for burning it down.

The term Cliff House has become a code for a much larger complex that Sutro constructed. With his interest in the lives of the working classes, Sutro decided to build a massive building that would house both a museum for his extensive collections and a huge structure housing a number of bathing pools.

To lessen the cost of transportation for the poor to reach his complex, Sutro constructed a cable car line that charged half the price of the Southern Pacific, which had a monopoly on San Francisco’s intra-urban lines. The excitement of the then-popular swimming as recreation, the numerous exhibits, and the many entertainments presented at the Sutro complex made it probably the most frequented entertainment spot in the city for decades. Generations of San Franciscans (myself among them) remember swimming (and later ice-skating) at Sutro Baths, viewing the mummies and other historic artifacts from Sutro’s collection, and listening to the hoarse barks of the sea lions.

In 1909 a new Cliff House was built—designed by Reid Brothers, an influential and prestigious San Francisco architectural firm. This Cliff House, with many alterations and changes, is essentially the one that today graces the western edge of San Francisco—a modest, but handsome, structure.

In late 1936, two brothers emerged as new entrepreneurs at the complex at Lands End. George and Leo Whitney bought the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and adjacent property. A new era began that would last for a third of a century. Changes at the derelict complex were instituted; the brothers’ penchant for popular entertainment added numerous attractions to the mix, including a gift shop of ten thousand square feet. They expanded an amusement area just south of the Cliff House, which they named Whitney’s at the Beach, less formally, Playland.

The post-World War II period saw massive changes in the social mores of the United States. The popularity of swimming venues, such as Sutro Baths plummeted. In 1966 the Sutro Baths burned down. The Cliff House was a dreary restaurant. Playland was losing a great deal of money, and San Franciscans and suburbanites sought other forms of entertainment. Condos finally replaced Playland.

In the 1970s, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area began to purchase the land at Lands End, beginning a restoration of this historic area—the latest transformation of a complex dreamed of and built by Adolph Sutro, expanded and changed by the Whitneys, and cherished by generations of San Franciscans and visitors.

by Charles A. Fracchia
Article at Nobhill Gazettte

Charles A. Fracchia majored in history at the University of San Francisco and did his graduate work at the University of San Francisco Law School and several other prestigious universities.  After years as an investment advisor, during which he became one of the founders of Rolling Stone Magazine, he began to write and teach.  He is the author of many articles and books, most recently When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street, and San Francisco During the Gold Rush.

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