San Francisco's Cliff House to get makeover

Park Service plans return of beach-resort allure and better visitor facilities

May 19, 2002|By Marilee Enge | Marilee Enge,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN FRANCISCO - Generations of city dwellers and tourists have come to the western edge of San Francisco to promenade on the wide sandy beach, breathe the salt-laced air and sip something warm or strong while the sun dropped into the Pacific.

For nearly a century and a half, a beloved roadhouse played host to their visits.

The Cliff House burned twice, was nearly destroyed once when a ship full of blasting powder wrecked on the rocks below, and has fallen prey to the corroding effects of sea spray and time. But the National Park Service now plans a major restoration that promises to return some of the Cliff House's old-fashioned beach resort allure while updating the visitor facilities.

More than 1.5 million people come to the Cliff House every year, making it one of Northern California's most visited attractions.

Its restaurant is among the 50 top-grossing in the country, taking in $10.8 million last year. For many tourists from abroad, a walk along its parapet provides their first close-up glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. Yet the restaurant management insists the vast majority of diners are local residents, who go there to propose or to celebrate against a backdrop of crashing surf and endless ocean.

`It's gotten seedy'

Fresh off the success of its renovation of the old Crissy Field air base, the Park Service is turning its attention to the parklands in western San Francisco, which include the one-time holdings of noted San Franciscan Adolph Sutro.

"The site has great potential, but it's gotten seedy," said Brian O'Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "This is really about transforming the whole western edge of the city."

That edge, where the North American continent comes to an abrupt end at a rocky promontory, contains the ruins of one of San Francisco's most colorful eras. But the sites are not easily accessible, and the rich story is not obvious.

The first Cliff House was built in 1863, designed as an exclusive dining retreat for San Francisco's wealthiest families. Guests, who included Stanfords, Crockers and Hearsts, traveled by horse and carriage along a toll road that became the present-day Geary Boulevard.

In 1881, it was purchased by Adolph Sutro, an engineer who made a fortune in Nevada silver mining and later became mayor of San Francisco.

Sutro built his own estate on a hill above the Cliff House and began to transform the area into a Victorian seaside playground for families of all means.

The elaborate grounds surrounding his Sutro Heights home were tended by teams of gardeners and open to the public.

Most elaborate project

But his most elaborate project was the Sutro Baths, a large glass enclosure containing seven swimming pools of various temperatures. They held 1.7 million gallons of water and were filled by tidal action. Bathers frolicked on trapezes, springboards and slides or lolled among tropical plants, sculptures and arcade amusements.

The Cliff House was destroyed by fire in 1894, and Sutro spent $75,000 to build an eight-story gabled chateau in its place. The effect, along with the baths, was of a fantastic gingerbread playland on the fog-shrouded Pacific. Sutro also built an excursion rail line and a streetcar line to bring San Franciscans to the ocean.

The Victorian Cliff House also burned, in 1907, and Sutro's daughter built a third structure, which opened in 1909. It was designed in a simpler style and built of fireproof concrete. Although that building still exists, it was remodeled under subsequent owners and today looks more like a 1950s diner. The baths stayed open until 1937, when a grandson converted them for ice skating. They burned in 1966.

By the 1970s, a development company had bought the site of the baths and planned to replace them with apartments or a hotel. Under the threat of development, the Park Service tried to force a sale through condemnation, but a jury settled on a price that was too high. Finally, activists who were outraged at the possibility of high-rises blocking spectacular ocean views forced the city to halt any large-scale development plans. The Park Service eventually agreed to buy the 4-acre parcel for $5.4 million. It was the most expensive acquisition in the history of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

A 16-month, $14 million renovation of the Cliff House is scheduled to begin in the fall. The majority, $10.6 million, will be financed by the owner of the popular restaurant and bar, who leases the site from the park service. Federal funds will make up the difference.

The modern additions, including the Terrace Bar overlooking Ocean Beach, will be demolished and the building returned to its 1909 condition. It will house a bar and bistro dining. The main, formal dining room will be included in a sleek, modern building to be constructed next door, replacing the old visitors' center and a gift shop. The new design will restore views of the Marin Headlands to the north, according to project manager Carrie Strahan.

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