San Francisco’s Sutro Baths is the ruins of a once massive establishment. Visitors, hikers, and tourists might see great slabs of concrete that conjure imagery of Ancient Greece and Rome’s respective ruins. Others might simply see blocks of glorified rubble. These binary interpretations are exacerbated by the fact that there seems to be little effort made by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which has owned and maintained the site since 1973, to display informational signs about the site, its history, or connection to the city of San Francisco. But documentation of its grandeur and eventual collapse—it literally burned to the ground—tells the tale of these famous coastal ruins.
The Baths’ real history begins in 1894, when Adolph Sutro, millionaire and mayor of San Francisco, finalized his pet project. His vision was impressive, although his tenure as mayor was widely considered a flop. As the mastermind behind the design, Sutro oversaw the construction of a fun, family-oriented recreational pool along a strip of coastline in Northern California. His facility would fit 10,000 visitors at any given time. The massive pool filled itself using the tidal might of the Pacific Ocean, a process which took less than an hour and sucked in 1.7 million gallons of water. He did all this with one million dollars of his own pocket money, simply for the joy of providing families with healthy, low-cost entertainment.
The millionaire-mayor’s populist pool facility enjoyed a few years of relative prosperity. Complete with slides, tightropes, changing rooms, bleacher sections, and a high-dive board, the Sutro Baths was massive and multi-functional. But it didn’t flourish for long. In 1898, Mr. Sutro passed away, just four years after the Baths had been built, and ownership passed to his family. The slides, tightropes, and high-dive remained, but popularity dwindled. To make matters worse, the Great Depression brought such hard times to the Sutro family that they converted the pool into an ice-skating rink. Still it was not enough.
Photos taken of the original facility show it was an architectural marvel by today’s standards, but in 1894 it was even more impressive; the Sutro Baths was the largest indoor water recreational facility in the world. Perhaps this novelty simply wore off, but in 1964, it was sold to businessman Robert Fraser, who quickly scheduled it for demolition. Plans were all but made to replace the Sutro Baths with high-rise condominiums when, in a twist of fate (or perhaps a simple con), the Baths burned down in 1966. The determined cause of the fire was arson. Developers of the condo project collected heavily on insurance and skipped town and no one was ever charged.
The legacy of the Sutro Baths is accidental. Had the demolition taken place and the condos been built, the landscape would have been dramatically altered. No trails or gorgeous look-out points would be available to the public, and a prime piece of property would be dominated by an elitist condominium tower. Ironically, it took the destruction of the Baths by fire for Adolph Sutro’s populist vision of low-cost, healthy family entertainment to come to fruition.
Today, tourists are permitted to walk across the remains of the concrete foundation. Trailheads branch out to numerous wonderful hiking spots, such as the scenic hike to Land’s End. The area is so popular that the parking lot is full by late morning. No surfers visit this part of the coastline due to large rock formations jutting out of the water. Beach-goers can walk the sandy beach and climb rocks as they please, but some areas are marked off-limits by ropes and signs. All around the Sutro Baths, trails and walking paths wind around some of the most beautiful coastal property in the country.
When your trip to the Baths is done, top off your excursion with food and drinks at Cliff House, located just south of the ruins.