I took Highway 1 from LA back to San Francisco ten years ago. I remember massive bird flocks on the Morro Rock’s caldera, elephant seals clumsily one-upping each other on the narrow strip of a sandy beach, never-ending serpentine, and the waves breaking over the rocks. More than that, I remember a particular type of melancholy you get when you realize you ran out of land to pursue your dream. Yet, the dream is still far over the horizon, unreachable like a vanishing point in a painting.
The informative bluntness of the toponym “Lands End,” the name of the area in the North West corner of San Francisco, encapsulated that feeling. The land ended, Wile E. Coyote ran off the cliff, and the Roadrunner had nowhere to go. The physical symbol of the long-gone optimism was the remains of the Sutro Baths, the shadow of the Golden Age of the Golden State.
The silver ore of the Comstock Lode in Nevada made fortunes for many, including one Adolph Sutro, a Jewish immigrant from the banks of the Rhine in Germany and the 24th mayor of San Francisco. A self-trained engineer, he first distinguished himself by building a tunnel under Mt. Davidson that allowed him to extract water and haul ore from the mines at a reasonable cost. Mine owners rented the tunnel at around $10,000 a day – an astronomical sum of money that paled in comparison to the profits of the commercial enterprises during the Comstock bonanza. Adolph’s money allowed him to move to San Francisco, where he became a real estate investor and developer, eventually acquiring 1/12 of the city in his personal possession.
Adolph Sutro was especially fond of the area around the Cliff House, a tavern, a destination far away from the busy downtown that attracted lovers of questionable pastimes. Sutro loved this area so much that in 1880 he built his Sutro Heights residence on the piece of land overlooking the tavern. The nouveau riche extravagance of Sutro shone through: the house was equipped with an observatory and decorated by a Versailles-style garden and antique statues.
Eventually, Adolph Sutro also took over the Cliff House, which was remade into a family attraction under his stewardship. Sutro’s vision was to create a destination out of the area, and it was working. Remarkably, Sutro went out of the way to keep it affordable – even getting into a lengthy dispute with South Pacific Railroad to keep the route coming to the area at the original price (a nickel).
Adolph Sutro was known to enjoy a walk around Point Lobos, where he was frequently noticed observing tide pools – small ponds of ocean water that would trap sea creatures during low tides. As an engineer, he figured he could improve nature’s design. He did so by converting Naiad Cove into an outdoor aquarium filled up by waves with a seawall to protect it. The aquarium was supposed to trap all kinds of wildlife (from fish to sea lions; the latter never happened). On the day of the aquarium’s public opening, Sutro clarified that this was just the beginning. He was not nearly done.
Baths became his next project. The whole cove was subdivided into seven concrete tanks. The aquarium was turned into a settling pond. The water would stay before being mixed with the hot water from boiler rooms, delivering water of various temperatures to each pool. The warmest pool (no. 6) was heated up to 90 degrees, and pool no. 1 had water of ocean temperature.
In hopes of further heating up the water, Sutro decided to build a glass roof, which was then completed with a side wall, almost incrementally turning an engineering experiment with an aquarium into the world’s largest swimming complex.
The Sutro Baths were completed in 1895, and they looked astounding. With painted glass ceiling, multiple levels of promenades, and staircases, they were a mixture of Wild West exuberant optimism with culture and civilization.
Although baths were primarily designed for swimming, they were much more than a large swimming pool. For a dime, one could buy a ticket to a museum filled to the brim with items from Adolph Sutro’s personal collection. It was his Cabinet of Curiosities, the fashion of the day. The list of artifacts looked both random and endearing. Stuffed animals (polar bears, leopards, reptiles). Suits of armor. Gems. Stereoviewers of pyramids Giza, Arc de Triomphe. Genuine Ancient Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi – the few truly valuable items from the eclectic collection. Everything and anything sprinkled with concession stands and accompanied by music (early on, live music six days a week; later – an orchestrion, a giant music box).
Soon after opening, one of the pools was turned into a stage for performances and entertainment that included vaudevilles, tug-o-war, trained animals, and dancers. On the May Day of 1897, Sutro’s were attended by 19 thousand people watching a dance performance.
If access to entertainment costs you a dime, for another 15 cents, you could get access to the swimming pool. All attendees were required to wear swimsuits provided by the baths. It was a necessity – very few people had swimsuits at that time, and allowing people to choose their bathing outfits could be dangerous and unhygienic. Equipped with a swimsuit and two towels, one would be accompanied to one of the 517 small changing rooms. The changing room was locked with a key that a bather would wear around the neck like a talisman.
Sutro’s After Sutro
In 1896-1897, Adolph Sutro suffered a stroke. He was in poor health overall, suffering from diabetes and, potentially, Alzheimer’s. He passed away on August 8, 1898, leaving after himself a peculiar empire: massive landholding all across San Francisco but only a few thousand dollars of liquid assets. It could not have been much of a surprise because the baths cost him $1 million to complete. The Sutro estate was trying to unload some properties, including the baths, starting in 1913. The baths were the hardest sell – expensive to maintain, with next to no probability of respectable return on investments (they would generate $1,200-1,500 a month).
The descendants of the founder, Adolph G. Sutro, attempted to reinvent the baths in 1937 after a decade of decline and disrepair. He rebuilt the exterior in Art Deco style. He hyped the place up as a one-stop recreation sight – “not your grandfather’s bathhouse” – with jazz bands, dining establishments, volleyball courts, sunbathing platforms, indoor tropic beach club… In hindsight, none of that innovation made much sense (a swanky beach bar under the old painted glass roof separated by a thin wall from kids splashing in pools?), except for one – an ice skating rink that took the place of one of the baths. For the most part, “going to Sutro’s” started to mean ice skating.
In 1952, the baths were purchased from the Sutro family by their long-time “friendly competitor,” George Whitney. He used the space for his own Cabinet of Curiosities – a collection of rickshaws and old chariots some dragged by plastic mannequins. The baths closed off, and only the ice skating rink remained.
A known secret among San Francisco kids in the 1950s was a door at the Sutro’s Ice Skating Rink that led to the abandoned world of the Sutro’s Public Baths. The age-old yellow color of the walls, broken glass on the roof, cement water pools, and enormous space mesmerized and reminded of the past grandeur.
The history of Sutro’s, a Wild West version of the Roman baths, ended in a scene worthy of Roman emperor Nero, albeit with an American touch. The property was bought by a group of developers planning to demolish it and build condos. The developers hired a night watchman, who, unbeknownst to them, was a convicted pyromaniac responsible for burning down his own junior high school. Sutro’s became his masterpiece.
According to John Martini, the historian of Sutro Baths, since the territory came under the control of the National Park Administration, there were several ideas of what to do with it, including rebuilding the baths. Yet the “project” that emerged victorious was ironically titled “not ruining the ruins.”
And so, the Sutro Baths entered the final chapter of its life that continues till today, that of romantic ruins at the Lands End, a melancholy monument to the uncontrollable optimism and life force of the Wild West that is all but gone.
For a beautiful detailed account of Sutro’s history, please watch the lecture of John Martini for the San Francisco Historical Society: