I Left My Heart in San Francisco History (pt.1): The Sutro Baths

Originally, I was going to write a small compendium of historical places in San Francisco.  But once I started writing, I realized that each one really deserves its own page.  Consider this one: I Left My Heart in San Francisco History (pt.1).  Enjoy!

Once I found the Sutro Baths last year, (yes, I grew up in the East Bay and had NO idea this existed) I became obsessed with any history related to San Francisco around the era of Sutro.  The Sutro Baths were built by Adolf Sutro in 1894.  Sutro made his millions while in Nevada working in mining operations.  Not having much of a formal education, he was a self-taught scientist and architect.  After selling off his shares in mining, he came to San Francisco.  It is said that his belief was that the rich had an obligation to improve the lives of others in the working-class.  He did just that; realizing there was no place for families to swim or have fun (since the bay water temperature of SF is always a brisk freezing degrees) at an affordable cost.   He built the largest wave powered, heated, saltwater bath house in the world. During the construction of the bath house, Sutro served as Mayor of San Francisco for two terms. While nobody says expressly what he did, people say that he gave more than any other Mayor of San Francisco .

Though the bath house was finished in 1894, it didn’t open to the public for another two years. At the completion of construction, he was in the midst of a battle with the Southern Pacific Railroad-the RR wanted to double the fares to the bath houses.  Sutro asked politely to keep the round-trip rate at 5 cents.  When the RR denied him, he basically said, “To hell with the railroad! I’ll build my own.” And he did.

The bathhouse contained 7 pools, 6 large slides, diving boards, a museum, concession stands, and more.  The pools took 1.7 million gallons to fill and took up over 3 1/2 acres. The facility had a filtration and pump system from the Pacific Ocean into chambers which then heated and expelled the water to fill the baths.

Sutro_Baths_

*Picture found on SFGate.com

As popularity rose, Sutro added Vaudeville acts in the evening for entertainment, and ice skating.  Unfortunately, after Sutro died in 1907, bath houses slowly started losing their popularity.  His family kept the baths going until about 1937 then officially drained the pools to make the ice skating rinks a permanent attraction.  By 1952 the facility was becoming too expensive to maintain and the Sutro family sold the bath house to George Whitney (remember this name, you’ll hear it again later).  The Whitney family only ran the bath house for a short time before planning to demolish the facility to replace it with a sprawling condo development.  However, before demolition could be finished, a rather suspicious fire broke out in June 1966.  Within 24 hours, the Sutro Baths were almost nothing but cement and left over iron beams.  What you see today closely resembles what was left after the fire.

On Fire

*Picture found on SFGate.com

Since the fire, the City of San Francisco has protected this land by labeling it a historical monument. We don’t have to worry about the Sutro Bath ruins going anywhere anytime soon.

The ruins can be found to the left of The Cliff House restaurant on Point Lobos Ave. Parking is free but if you get there later in the day, it does get crowded.  Once parked, walk uphill, away from the Cliff House and you will come to a pathway leading down to the ruins.

 

Bonus: There are trails that run all over this place. If you follow the trail leading around to the Golden Gate Bridge, it is possible to see a few small pieces of shipwrecks from the 1920’s-30’s: The SS Ohioan, The Lyman A. Stewart and Frank H. Buck.

 

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