Yesterday we went to the Cliff House, a venerable San Francisco landmark for well over a 100 years…It was bought by Adolph Sutro, a well known San Francisco financier and wheeler and dealer around the turn of the century….He originally made his fortune in the Comstock Lode silver mines, and was actually Mayor of San Francisco from 1894-1896…He was a very well known and respected man of his era…
All that remains of his vast estate and monumental projects are the few scattered remnants we can see in the accompanying photos… All the splendor and magnificence has vanished into a few scattered ruins….
Sutro bought thousands of acres of land in San Francisco….. He bought a cottage on a bluff overlooking the Pacific for his private estate, and he steadily added land all around it….
Unlike many other rich men, Sutro strove to share his good fortune with the public. He purchased the generally disreputable Cliff House below his residence and gardens, remodeled the structure into a fairy tale Victorian castle, and turned it into a respectable destination for families.
In the early 1890s Sutro spent over a million dollars to build an amazing complex of public baths next to his Cliff House…. Sutro Bath’s enormous swimming pools, filled with pumped-in ocean water and heated to different temperatures, were accessed by slides, ladders, and flying rings….
Thousands of people came to enjoy the public baths…. They enjoyed the rides inside the public bath houses…. “The front entrance contained natural history exhibits, galleries of sculptures, paintings, tapestries and artifacts from Mexico, China, Asia, and the Middle East, including the popular Egyptian mummies.”….
“In addition to swimming, Sutro Baths offered visitors many other attractions including band concerts, talent shows, and restaurants. With several railroads providing transportation to the area by the late 1890s, a visit to Sutro Baths crowned an all-day family excursion to the shore, including stops at Sutro Heights, the Cliff House and Ocean Beach”…The Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at one time and offered 20,000 bathing suits and also 40, 000 towels for rent….
At his estate on the bluff anyone was welcome to stroll his elaborate gardens, embellished with statuary, gazebos, topiary and dazzling carpet-bed designs. There Sutro played host to presidents, writers, dancers and celebrities of the day….. Everyone from Oscar Wilde to President Benjamin Harrison breakfasted with Sutro among the classical statues of his parapet high above Seal Rock and the sea….
And now it is all nothing, reduced to a few scattered shells, a bare bones skeleton of the opulence and magnificence that once was the highlight and delight of San Francisco residents….If you look at the sparse remnants of this once opulent recreational area, it is hard to imagine there was ever such a splendid pleasure palace at this site….All that remains now is the Cliff House itself, which Sutro’s mansion overlooked…
The public baths and attractions were all situated next to the Cliff House and you can stroll through the ruins, because that is what they are now….If you have a very good imagination, perhaps you can re-create in your mind what once was the splendor and glory of this magnificent recreational complex, but it is very hard to do so because so very little of it is left today to view….
In a very real way, this reminds me of the transitory nature of all fame, and the works of humanity that we are all so proud of at the time….This quote from the English poet Percy Shelly, in reference to an ancient Egyptian pharoah, Ozymandias, or better known as Rameses II, perhaps sums it up best
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelly, Ozymandias
Adolph Sutro was no despotic dictator, like the pharaoh Ramses II, he brought joy and pleasure to millions of people, but the point is that we need to enjoy each and every day, because no matter how grand and awesome the wonders of our world seem to us, things never last…Only people, memories, and love do….