Cliff House, Sutro Baths display area’s past

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco is a place with people from all over the world. People from different social, economic and ethnic backgrounds come together and live in harmony.  

It was not always like that, however.


Geary Boulevard, named after the first mayor of San Francisco John W. Geary and spanning almost completely across the city from East to West, is the main road that leads to Point Lobos. 

Left, the Cliff House from the Sutro Baths (Photos by Kashae Foster, Gabrielle Foster). Next,  the dangers of the baths. Below, remains of the train tracks that brought visitors. Next, remains of the Sutro Baths. Last, Lisa Bellomo, director of Marketing, points to picture of Victorian Cliff House.

In 1881, when the Cliff House was bought by Adolf Sutro, Geary Boulevard was a toll road and only the rich could afford travel to get the beautiful Point Lobos that overlooks the water with a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  


Adolf Sutro was a man who believed that all San Franciscans should be able to take in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean while enjoying a nice meal and entertainment. Shortly after he purchased the house he and his cousin built a railroad that brought in people in who couldn’t otherwise afford to.


“He was really a man for the people. He believed that all of the wonderful [nature] should be for everyone to enjoy. Where as the other rich people thought it should just be for them,” said Lisa Bellomo, director of marketing at The Cliff House, and a native San Franciscan.


Unfortunately, the first Cliff House burned down on Christmas Day of 1894. Sutro soon rebuilt, but this time he decided to bring more opulence to the property. The Victorian, also known as the French Chateau or the Gingerbread Palace, was built in 1896 and was the most beautiful and extravagant Cliff House.


But, in 1907, after surviving the great earthquake of 1906 that destroyed most of San Francisco, that Cliff House also burned down and fell into the ocean. Miraculously, no one was hurt of killed in either of the fires.


When Sutro built the Victorian, he also built a bath house where ocean water was pumped in, filtered, and released into the tanks.

With and admission of just 10 cents, the Sutro Baths offered six bathing tanks, each heated to a different temperature, for people to enjoy.  The largest bath sometimes had occupants in row boats floating around in it. In 1937 the largest pool was turned into an ice skating rink.


“The baths were very costly to keep up. I believe it was Adolf Sutro’s [grandson] who closed off the pools and the biggest pool was turned into an ice skating rink,” explained Bellomo.


Coincidentally, just as two other Cliff Houses and Adolf’s house located just a few hundred feet away did, the Sutro Baths also burned down in 1966 as it was being demolished.


“As the locals say it ‘conveniently burned’. I was a kid, but I remember my parents saying ‘Oh they are tearing it down and now it burns down?’” she said.


In 1973, the Baths were bought by the city and became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The ruins can be visited still be visited today, but they are not for the skittish. They rest on the edge of a cliff and water still fills some of the compartments.

All it takes is a strong gust of wind, and there are very strong winds down there, and a person can land right in the water, on a rock, or even worse, over the cliff. Safety should always be a precaution when visiting the Baths ruins.


Even with the danger of being on or in the Sutro Baths, it is still a beautiful to see remains that are more than 100 years old while listening to the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash up against the rocks. That is why it is still a popular place for locals and tourists alike to visit.


“I always bring people here. These two people that are with me are from New York. I bring people here because it is interesting,” explained Matthew, a San Francisco resident. 


John and Jan are the two New Yorkers to which Matthew was referencing. John was in town on business while Jan came to visit Matthew. When asked about their trip so far they both replied, “I love it!”


“I’m glad I didn’t fall it,” Jan said with a laugh. “He [Matthew] got really excited and said we’re stopping here, so I guess it is not really a touristy thing to do.”


The second fire occurred after Adolf Sutro had passed away, and it seemed like that might have been the end for the Cliff Houses.  Thankfully, it was restored by Sutro’s daughter, Emma in 1909.

Since then, the Cliff House has traded hands two more times, first in the 1950s when it was bought by George Whitney, owner of the Playland amusement park that was once across the street from which statues and pictures still adorn the building today, and then by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1977.


Because the Cliff House has been through so many reconstructions, it is plausible to think that there is not much left of the original charm. This is not true.


The current Cliff House which went through a two year restoration process that started in 2002, is separated into two areas.


The Bistro, which is a more causal dining with memorabilia from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and autographed photos of the many celebrities who have passed through their walls, and  Sutro’s at The Cliff House, which offers more upscale dining complete with ocean views. The Sutro’s side of the restaurant is modeled after the inside of the Baths and is noticeable by the rounded ceiling with piping that resembles that of a warehouse.


In addition to the design, there are statues, art and fixtures from the original Cliff House that have been brought back to life in the new house, some of if just coming from people who grew up going the baths and the house.


“When people pass on, their kids go through the attic and find all of these pictures and they are always offering them to the Cliff House. We also find a lot of stuff on eBay,” stated Bellomo.


These and other pictures line the hallways of the Cliff House.

More than 100 years after the modern day Cliff House was built, it is still bringing in people from all over the country to see and experience its charm and beauty.


If You Go:


The Cliff House is located at 1090 Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco, Calif., 94121, and overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the Sutro Baths.


The Cliff House offers a variety of different menu items, however most of the dishes are sea based or inspired. 


Drink specials are offered at the 1999 prices of $5 for the Cliff House classic Ramos Fizz and Irish Coffee as a gesture to the current economic situation.


There is no guided tour for the Sutro Baths, to get more information before visiting, go to  and  


Reservations are not accepted at The Bistro section of the Cliff House, however they are encouraged for dining in Sutro’s at the Cliff House and can be made online at For more information about the Cliff House or to book at private party, call 415-386-3330.

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