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A Brief History Of Sutro Heights And The Sutro Baths
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A Brief History Of Sutro Heights And The Sutro Baths

Picture of Megan Busch
Updated: 11 December 2015
Sutro Heights Park is a 20-acre, cliff-side park located at the western point of Lands End that is popular with tourists and locals alike. Self-made millionaire and former mayor of San Francisco Adolph Sutro began developing the area in 1885. Today the park is home to many San Francisco landmarks, from the Seal Rocks, to the Cliff House, to the Sutro Baths, and is full of hiking trails and breathtaking ocean views.
Sutro Baths| © Matt Chan/Flickr
Sutro Baths | © Matt Chan/Flickr

Adolph Sutro, from Germany, had a grand vision for the area that became Sutro Heights Park. Over the years, he decorated the park with an enormous collection of sculpture replicas (which he was almost obsessive about collecting), elegant flowerbeds, forests, hedge mazes, and parterres, a popular Victorian landscape feature where flowers and bushes are carefully trimmed into shapes of names or designs. The entrance to the park once boasted a stone archway with two massive stone lions on each side. Today, while there is no longer an archway, copies of the original lions mark the spot where the originals once stood. Sutro had builders construct an observation plaza that overlooked the Cliff House as well as the Dolce far Niente balcony, a long terrace-like structure on the cliff overlooking Ocean Beach and the former Playland at the Beach. After Sutro died in 1898, the park slowly began to decline, and many statue replicas were removed and stolen, until the National Park Service purchased the area and began to restore it.

View of Sutro Baths | © Taro the Shiba Inu/Flickr
View of Sutro Baths | © Taro the Shiba Inu/Flickr

The original Cliff House was constructed in 1863 at the height of the Gold Rush by real estate developers to be a fashionable resort for the wealthy. This small one-story wood-frame restaurant was situated on top of the cliff overlooking the Seal Rocks, and provides breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific coastline. In 1881, Sutro purchased the Cliff House from the original owners and began to re-establish the restaurant into a more family-friendly establishment. However, in December 1894 a fire destroyed the original Cliff House. The original Cliff House was rebuilt in the Victorian style, and stood from 1896 to 1907 before it, too, was destroyed by fire. The third, neoclassical Cliff House was constructed in 1909 and is the building that is present at Sutro Heights today. Over the years, the current restaurant changed hands several times and the building went through multiple facelifts until 2005, when the National Park Service rehabilitated the historic Cliff House to return it to its neoclassical design and add an adjacent Sutro Wing to improve access to ocean views.

Victorian Cliff House | © Ed Bierman/Flickr
Victorian Cliff House | © Ed Bierman/Flickr

One of the most unique aspects of the Sutro Heights Park are the Sutro Bath ruins. Adolph Sutro was very interested in natural history and marine studies, so in 1894 he built an ocean pool aquarium along the rocks below the Cliff House. But he didn’t stop there. He then expanded his oceanfront complex by constructing a massive public bathhouse that covered three acres. Sutro envisioned the Baths as a healthy, recreational, and inexpensive swimming facility for thousands of San Franciscans. There were several temperature-controlled pools, fed by ocean water, as well as slides, trapezes, springboards, and a high dive. The Baths could hold 1.7 million gallons of water, and during high tide, the ocean could fill all the water required for all the pools in only an hour. At its peak, the Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at one time and offered 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for patrons to rent.

Entrance to the Park | © caccamo/Flickr
Entrance to the Park | © caccamo/Flickr

Sadly, the Baths did not prove a success and after Sutro’s death in 1898, his property, including Sutro Heights Park and the Sutro Baths, began to fall into disarray. In 1964, developers planned on turning the Baths property into high-rise apartments, until a fire destroyed what remained of the Baths in 1966 and that project was discontinued. Today, the ruins near the water are the remains of the grand Sutro Baths and have been part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1973.

The National Park Service has done a terrific job preserving the area and honoring Sutro’s vision of the park. Today, Sutro Heights is a popular destination for tourists and locals looking to experience beautiful panoramic ocean views and hiking trails that branch out from Lands End. The Baths provide an interactive experience because climbing, standing, and playing are permitted on the concrete ruins. Visitors can top off their excursions to the park with food and drinks at the Cliff House, located just south of the Baths ruins.

Point Lobos Avenue/El Camino Del Mar, San Francisco, CA, USA, +1 (415) 561-4323

By Megan Busch

A San Diego native, Megan is currently battling the San Francisco fog to finish her senior year at the University of San Francisco. A communication studies major with a minor in sociology, she has a passion for traveling (after studying abroad in Florence, Italy) and a love of books and movies, exploring, hiking, and great food.