Sutro Baths and Vicinity: San Francisco History Bits
The Sutro Baths complex held a great many attractions, but the pools were on the lowest level, and accessed by means of, shall we say, way too many stairs! You had to be in pretty doggoned good shape to get to the pools, and to climb your way out again after your swim.
My father's descriptions were so vivid that I almost feel as if I had been there myself. He told of a hot pool, a cold pool, and others of various temperatures. The main pool, largest of them all, was in an "L" shape. All of the pools were saltwater, filled by a series of pumps and filters drawing directly from the Pacific Ocean just below. There was a boiler and furnace room below the pools for heating the water. My father, being mechanically minded, knew many of the details of this nature.
Probably the single best website I've found to get a true "immersed in the history" feeling is found at The Cliff House Project. There are many historic photos of the building and plunges, or baths, as they called swimming pools back then, along with explanatory text and captions, newspaper articles, posters, etc.
The era of the pools was the era of the "still fully clothed" swim suits. Men's suits were heavy woolen tank top-style, reaching to mid-thigh, with knee-length shorts underneath. The garments were wool, and emblazoned with "SUTRO BATHS" across the chest. You rented your suit for the day--you did not get to bring your own.
The women's suits were similar. It is a wonder more people did not drown, weighed down by such unwieldy garments. Wool absorbs something on the order of 1/3 of its weight in water!
Women's suit styles of the day for beaches and such were of the bloomer-style pants, daringly exposing their legs below the knee, topped by puffy-sleeved dresses reaching to mid-thigh. They often included a mob-cap style hat.
All Dressed up to Go Swimming
From Pools to Ice Rink
By the time my generation came along, the pools were long since abandoned, and there was not much left of the wonder of the original amusements.
Most of the mezzanine and viewing galleries were cordoned off, and the restaurants were long since shut down. Tantalizing glimpses down the promenades showed still-standing, faded signs pointing to "Ladies' Locker Room," and "Gentlemen's Lockers." With each visit, I wished I was one of those brave, adventurous (and somewhat naughty) souls who dared venture beyond the ropes to explore.
Still extant was a portion of the museum and its treasures, including the glass-encased moth-eaten stuffed grizzly bear.. Most fascinating to me was the entire carnival diorama built entirely from toothpicks. It was huge, occupying a glass display case that was probably 3 feet or more on each side.
All the flights and levels of stairs were still there, and they led down to what was by then an ice rink. The rink occupied the short leg of the "L" of the original pool area. It was a huge rink, giving some idea of the scale of the pools. At the north end, there was a wall of glass windows above the rail of the ice rink. It had once been painted with a mural, but by my day, even that was aging, and the paint had been scraped off in many places, offering glimpses into the original pools and the past.
Remembering my father's stories, these glimpses, for me, were heart-wrenchingly nostalgic. Not so nostalgic was the climb back up the stairs after a 3-hour ice skating session during which your leg muscles had been reduced to the consistency of over-cooked spaghetti!
All that remains of the once-grand bath complex are ruins, now within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Going Along "Swimmingly..."
While skating, the one reminder of the original pools was a pool that would form on the western end of the rink each afternoon as the lowering sun shone through the windows and melted a section of the ice. It did not melt all the way through: just enough to make a puddle where some unfortunate would invariably slip and fall, leaving them to go home with wet pants.
It was an old-fashioned skating rink, with musical selections played over a fuzzy-sounding loudspeaker, and an announcer calling out different sessions: "Ladies only," "Men only" "Couples only" or "All skate." One day, while a girlfriend and I were waiting out the "Men only" skate, a young man, probably in his mid-teens, was coming around fast, and showing off. He arrived at the west end, and slipped, landing in the infamous puddle, and skidded along the ice, coming to a stop against the rail where my friend and I were standing. My friend rather automatically said, "Whoopsie!"
The fellow scrambled to his feet, threw her his very best if-looks-could-kill expression, and growled, "Whaddya mean, whoopsie!!??" We were both startled, but proceeded to laugh ourselves silly.
What Were the Baths Originally Like?
The Sad End
On June 26 of 1966, the structure burned to the ground. A high school friend and I were witness to this sad event. "Oh, NO! My ice rink!! My vicarious memories!! All gone!!" I thought. We had both skated there; I had skated there many times over the years.
We had just graduated from high school earlier in the year, and were out with her mother simply driving around the City, playing tourist and sightseeing, when we saw smoke. Realizing it was out toward the beach, my friend's mother steered the car out Geary Boulevard. From downtown San Francisco, Geary runs almost due west, ending at 48th Avenue. However, at 40th Avenue, there is a jog to the north, which is Point Lobos Avenue. This winds down the hill past the Seal Rock Inn, around the corner past Sutro Heights Park, and turns south merging into the ocean- side Great Highway at Balboa Street. (See map, below.)
Sutro Baths was on the Point Lobos section near the top of the hill, just a few doors uphill from the world-famous Cliff House, which still stands today. (The Cliff House of today is the third reconstruction--it burned down twice in the past.)
Sutro Baths and Cliff House Area
Dirt parking lot overlooking the Sutro Ruins, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Location of the still-standing Cliff House, in its third incarnation.
The Seal Rock Inn is located just before Point Lobos drops over the hill toward the ocean.
Because the building no longers exists, this is an approximate location, but places it fairly correctly, given that it was a 3-acre construction.
Approximate location of the erstwhile Playland at the Beach. Closed in 1972, and razed to build the apartments which now occupy the site.
World-famous restaurant that has been a San Francisco landmark since it opened in 1937.
A Short Documentary of Sutro
Just up the hill to the north, and on the same side of the street, is a dirt road that widens into a dirt lot used still for overflow parking for the area. Its name is Merrie Way. There is a street sign, but it is not always shown on maps. From Merrie Way, one could look down onto the roof of the huge structure that was Sutro's. We sat there for over an hour, shaking our heads in disbelief, watching the firefighters and hoping they could save the landmark. It was not to be. The fire burned for three days. Too much fuel, too difficult to access on the steep cliff-side terrain.
It was a very old building, having been completed in about 1894--that was three years before my father was even born! He was a boy of ten when the family arrived in San Francisco in 1907; he was probably a young man in his early twenties when he first enjoyed the wonders of Sutro Baths.
There was rumor and speculation that the fire was deliberate. Suspicions centered around the age of the building, the upkeep cost, and it was postulated that it had been set to collect insurance money and do away with the upkeep costs. I don't know whether or not that was ever proven.
Further History of the Area Near Sutro Baths
- The History of Merrie Way
Adolph Sutro's Forgotten Pleasure Grounds by John Martini
The Cliff House
Located at 1090 Point Lobos Avenue ("B" on the map above), the Cliff House is another San Francisco landmark along the Ocean Beach coastline. First built in 1863, It is a restaurant, bar and souvenir shop.
I've never been in the bar proper, but I have eaten in the restaurant a couple of times. It is a bit on the overpriced side, but what tourist-draw isn't?
The souvenir shop sports mostly the tacky "souvenir-of San-Francisco-made-in-Hong-Kong" variety of silly novelties, shot glasses, t-shirts and the like.
On the way down the stairs to the bar, however, are one or two of the original reliefs rescued from the Sutro fire. They are remarkable not only because they were rescued, but also because I learned later that they were carved by my current husband's grandfather!
Behind and below the Cliff House on the outdoor observation deck, sits the Giant Camera Obscura. Go inside, and you are inside the basic mechanism behind all cameras. It is very simplistic, and fascinating.
In this same area used to be the Musee Mecanique, a museum of antique penny-arcade amusements. I suppose you could compare these things to the video arcades and pinball machines of our era.
The Musee Mecanique experienced a fire, and some things were lost, but many were rescued. The building was shut down, and the rescued items moved to Fisherman's Wharf. Included in this collection, but not part of the original, is the infamous Laughing Sal formerly of Playland at the Beach.
A New View
As sad as the fire was, it marked the beginning of a new tourism era for the area. The land on which the old Sutro Baths stood is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From Merrie Way, now an official parking lot, trails lead off in various directions, including one down a great many stairs to the lower cliffs on which the great Sutro Baths once stood.
The ruins of the pools still stand; the foundations of the old building are still there, and one can wander freely around absorbing the atmosphere of what once was. There are a couple of caves, one of which may be the remnants of the man-made intake for the pool water. It is still a bit sad, but very interesting nonetheless, offering as it does, a peek behind the scenes where the public was originally not permitted.
Ruins of Sutro BathsClick thumbnail to view full-size
It's All Gone, Now
They say "you can't go home again," and in many ways, that is true. Less than half a mile down the road from Sutro's used to be Playland at the Beach. It was a hokey, old-time amusement park.
In my day, it was already antiquated, and the metal on most of the rides showed a lot of rust and peeling paint. Naturally. It was right across the street from Ocean Beach, pelted daily by gusty wind, blowing sand, salt spray and San Francisco's ever-present fog.
There was a fun house, with a bigger-than-life-size lady in the window. It was a huge mannequin, and I suppose it could be considered one of the first of what are now called "animatronics." She laughed and laughed all day long, alternately bowing forward and tilting back, her hands raised at the elbows.
It was, bar none, the single ugliest representation of womankind I have ever seen, before or since. Many small children were frightened by "Laughing Sal" as she was named. I was not afraid, but I did find the laugh most annoying and unpleasant. (It was supposedly a recording a a real woman's laugh--I'm glad I did not know her!)
Playland stretched for two or three long blocks. Besides the fun house, there were "scary" in-the-dark rides, old-fashioned rides such as Rock-O-Plane, Tilt-a-Whirl and a carousel. Of course, there were the obligatory hot dogs, cotton candy and saltwater taffy; the better for getting sick on the rides!
There was an ancient wooden roller coaster: I only rode that coaster once or twice before it either burned or was torn down for safety concerns (memory fails as to which). It was replaced by a smaller steel-frame coaster, called "The Mouse." The Mouse was much less fun to ride, given as it was to abrupt and jarring 90-degree turns.
One of the most popular attractions here was the diving bell; a submersible chamber with view ports, which was essentially a single-story elevator lowering into a concrete tank stocked with 'scary' denizens of the deep: a couple of sharks and rays. That is, if you could even see them through the murky water.
Its most famous attribute was getting stuck underwater. No danger, though; the chamber only submerged just past the viewing ports. Its roof remained above water, and it was connected to an air supply. It probably had an escape hatch in the roof. It never got stuck the few times I rode it...I found it boring. However, it was not a good ride for folks with claustrophobia.
I recall my father telling of being in the area on one such occasion and found the entire midway flooded, as the thing had gotten stuck and they'd had to pump out the tank to work on the mechanics of the thing.
Anyone who grew up in San Francisco in the era of Playland no doubt at one time or another indulged their taste buds at "It's It" or "The Hot House." "It's It," of course, was the famous San Francisco originated giant ice cream sandwich between generous oatmeal cookies and the whole thing was dipped in chocolate. The treat has since morphed into mint ice and cappuccino varieties, but is still made in the Bay Area, and the Playland shop, circa 1928, was its origin.
The Hot House was a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant with counter-only seating. They made the best cup tamales ever! I'm sure their other dishes were equally delicious; I got stuck in a rut and always ordered the cup tamale. My dad and I would go in there for lunch many times for a break while he was teaching me to drive back in the mid 1960s.
At the Other End of the Great Highway
No description or memory of the area is complete without mention of Golden Gate Park, the western end of which terminates at Great Highway.
Golden Gate Park is famous in its own right, and of course is still there to this day; it will always be there. It is a protected part of San Francisco, and sits less than a mile from the old Playland location. stretches 1 mile into San Francisco toward the north, and is just 4 blocks wide for most of that length--the western end stretches out to span about twice that.
It is a must-see for visitors to San Francisco, but there is no way to take it all in with a single day's visit. It deserves an article in its own right, for there is no one photograph that can summarize what is there: so many varied attractions lie within the park, that there are even San Francisco natives who have not seen all of it.
I was one of the lucky ones; my parents loved the park, and we went there often, and I also toured all of its roads while learning to drive. I would guess I've seen about ninety-nine percent of what is held within.
Golden Gate Park Overview
San Francisco Zoo and Fleishhacker Pool
The zoo is approximately 2 miles down the road from where Playland used to be, and has undergone many remodels over the years. The current site extends all the way out to Great Highway, having swallowed up the former Fleishhacker Pool site. Of course, all of that land was part of the Fleishhacker property, so really, it was simply re-purposed.
The pool was at the time, the largest swimming pool in the world. Indeed: it was 1,000 feet long, and 100 feet wide, with a large jog toward one end where the width of the pool measured out at 160 feet. There were diving platforms and a high-diving tower at the north end, where the water was 15 feet deep. (I was always too 'chicken' to jump off the high tower.)
The pool held six million gallons of heated salt water, filtered and heated (how could we tell?) by a unique system that used the ocean tides to fill the pool. Given that it was an outdoor pool, not a wise choice in San Francisco's climate to start with, and especially not right across the street from the chilly Pacific Ocean, from which it drew its water supply, its claims to being heated were to be taken with a grain of salt; pun intended. It was only heated to about 72 degrees--still considerably colder than body temperature, and when the air temperature is hovering around 60 degrees with foggy overcast and wind-chill factor added, it made for a fairly miserable swim.
I only swam there a few times. But every time my friend and I would go, there would be an older man already there, still there when we left, swimming lengthwise laps of that huge pool. He must have swum several miles per day!
A Note of Thanks For the Inspiration to Write This Article
I close with a tip of the hat and thank you to fellow author, Kathryn Vercillo, for her excellent article which inspired this one.
San Francisco has much rich history: after reading her article about the historic Sutro Baths of San Francisco, I was transported to my past, as I was born and raised in SF, and (just plain) "Sutro's," as it was called by then, was a big part of my growing-up years.
In reading Kathryn's article, all my memories of the place came flooding back. Those memories included many tales from my father, who was of the generation that enjoyed the place in its original incarnation. (My parents were a May-December love story. My father being the elder partner, had memories stretching back to a time before my mother was born!)
I started out initially to leave a comment on Kathryn's piece, but it was apparent that I had more to say than was appropriate for a comment, and so I decided to write my comment as a memoir and more general history of the area, instead.
Her article deals more with the initial construction and history, outlining the various stages through which the structure passed.
© 2010 Liz Elias