The first of the four Cliff Houses to occupy the northwest tip of San Francisco -- at the entrance to the Golden Gate where the land ends and the Pacific crashes against the cliffs and shore -- was erected in 1863 by Charles Butler, a local real estate man. Not only did it afford a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, but its many visitors were greatly entertained by the antics of thousands of sea lions, otters and the famous seals from which the massive sandstone cliffs -- once a part of the mainland -- were named.
Before the first Europeans arrived in the seventeen hundreds, Ocean Beach was part of one vast sand dune with not a tree in sight. In 1857, Harper's Weekly had this to say about Ocean Beach: "The voyager is impressed with the gloomy appearance of the scene before him; a multitude of low, black sand hills are partially visible over which continually sweep, like disturbed spirits, flying clouds of dense mist. Passing gradually into the strait, the scene constantly increases in interest. The surrounding hills assume a more positive form; the islands become bold and rocky, and in some parts precipitous, swelling at times into towering mountains. The strong winds and heavy fog which constantly assail the land, prevents trees and luxuriant vegetation.
Despite the fog and frequent winds, this first Cliff House had everything necessary to ensure its success. Except easy access. Located at what was popularly referred to as Lands End, Ocean Beach was so far out of the city, and so difficult to reach, that it wasn't until a toll road was finished in 1864 that visitors could finally travel there in relative comfort and a great deal less time.
In 1866, the proprietor of the first Cliff House was Capt. Junius G. Foster, who was a jovial, innovative innkeeper. People flocked in from San Francisco for good food and drink, horse racing and other recreation. The mile-and-a-quarter-long "speedway" (one of the final sections of the toll road) was constantly rolled to keep it smooth and watered to hold down the dust. Such famous men as Senator George Hearst, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker regularly raced their trotters on this improvised speedway.
In 1868, Captain Foster tripled the size of the building by adding two wings and a long balcony to the original structure, thus making it what is now referred to as the "second" Cliff House, and providing overnight lodging for his guests. It became one of the premiere attractions for all the first families of the city. But in the late 1870s, the guests began to complain that the outings to Lands End weren't as much fun as they had once been. The reason for this wasn't difficult to find: Cliff House was now crawling with tourists. On nice afternoons, it wasn't unusual to see 1,200 teams hitched in front of the buildings. As the genteel clientele disappeared, the Cliff House began attracting more moneyed gamblers, politicians, and lobbyists, along with their assorted collection of lady friends.
In the early 1880s, Adolph Sutro -- a quiet and scholarly German who made his fortune by solving the drainage and ventilation problems at the Comstock Lode -- bought the Cliff House and much of the surrounding land, In fact, at one time Sutro owned 1/12 of the city of San Francisco! He went on to build a vast mansion, a conservatory, a park, and the largest indoor public bath complex in the world.
When the "second" Cliff House burned to the ground in 1894, Adolph Sutro rebuilt, but this time on a much grander scale. (Incidentally, this is the Cliff House pictured on the jacket of THE CLIFF HOUSE STRANGLER, chosen, if fifteen years ahead of its time, because it is so much more dramatic and recognizable than the actual building which stood there at that time). This new structure was so ornate that it quickly became known as the "Gingerbread Palace". It was a gradiose and eye-catching ediface, and went on to host many of the celebrities and luminaries of the day, such as Sarah Bernhardt, Adelina Patti, Presidents Hays, Grant, Teddi Roosevelt and Taft. In his quest to attract more working-class families to the Cliff House, Sutro discontinued offering hotel services, leading the establishment to become a popular venue for dining, receptions, private lunches, galleries, gift shops and exhibits.
Adolph Sutro died in 1898, and thus did not live long enough to see his beloved Cliff House bravely withstand the ravages of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Unfortunately, its good fortune was short-lived. On September 7, 1907, the Gingerbread Palace Cliff House burned completely down to the rocks. Sutro's daughter, Dr. Emma Merritt, erected the "fourth" Cliff House, but rather than creating another elaborate structure, she opted to build one of concrete and steel that would blend in with its surroundings. This Cliff House opened its doors on July 1, 1909. After the unique and expansive Sutro Baths burned down in 1966, part of its contents -- the Musee Mecanique -- moved into the Cliff House where it still remains. The Cliff House closed once more in 1969, but reopened again in 1973 with restaurants, bars and shops. In 1977, the Golden Gate National Parks Association became the owner of the property for $3,791,000.
To this day, the San Francisco Cliff House remains one of the city's most beloved and exciting landmarks, attracting millions of visitors every year from all over the world.
Sources: "San Francisciana: Photographs of the Cliff House," by Marilyn Blaisdell; "San Francisco's Ocean Beach," by Kathleen Manning and Jim Dickson, Arcadia Books; "Suddenly San Francisco: The Early Years of an Instant City," by Charles Lockwood, A California Living Book.