Vestiges of Sutro Baths

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Historic colored postcard showing interior of ornate public bathhouse.
Postcard of Sutro Bath interior, circa 1909

photo courtesy of sanfranciscodays.com

 

Sutro Baths, Adolph Sutro’s giant center for recreation and entertainment, opened next to the Cliff House in 1896 after two years of construction. The structure spread over three acres and included seven pools of seawater heated to various temperatures, slides, spring boards, over 500 dressing rooms, stadium seating that could hold up to 3,700 seated spectators, restaurants, coin operated games, and a museum full of photographs, coins, and stuffed animals. At the time of its opening, Sutro Baths was virtually unrivaled in the United States in its scale, technical achievement, and modernity.

The complex hosted events from swimming competitions to beauty contests to dwarf boxing matches. Sutro Baths was a popular Lands End destination for many years, yet the great expense of its upkeep and maintenance made it an uncertain business proposal.

After Adolph Sutro died in 1898, his family struggled to operate the facility profitably adding ice skating, dancing and other sports to its list of attractions. Sutro’s grandson finally sold the Baths to Playland-at-the-Beach owner, George Whitney, in 1952. Whitney also struggled with operations and, despite his best efforts to keep it open, the Baths were permanently closed in 1966.

The land was sold to a developer who planned to erect a 200-unit ocean front apartment complex at the site. During the demolition of the Sutro Baths property, a mysterious fire destroyed the remaining structures. After the fire, the developer abandoned his plans. The Sutro Bath’s concrete ruins became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1976 and are still visible today.

 

To learn more about the different aspects of Sutro Baths, please explore the following narratives

 
Top: View looking above the glass Sutor Baths pool area. Bottom: An interior view of baths.
Top: Exterior of Baths showing Grecian front entrance; Bottom: Interior of baths, ca. 1890s.

Architecture of Sutro Baths

The Sutro Baths were one of San Francisco’s iconic architectural marvels. Their distinctive appearance resulted from a fusion of classical styling and modern engineering technology, combining classic Greek ornamental elements with the exposed steel columns and wooden trusses of the pools’ glass roof.

The building’s architectural design was created as a result of several competitions offered by Adolph Sutro in 1890 and 1891. The firm of Colley & Lemme -- designers of the Victorian Cliff House -- won the final design award. Sutro himself engineered the operations of the baths.

In 1934 famed architect Harold G. Stoner redesigned the front entrance with a tropical art deco theme.The Sutro Baths were an impressive architectural wonder not only in style and artistic detail, but also because of their sheer size. The building stood almost 500 feet long and 254 feet wide and was able to hold up to 10,000 people.
 
Left: line of women in old fashioned bathing suits. Right A man and women modeling Sutro Baths bathing suits.
Left: Women in bathing suits, 1920s; Right: Examples of the men's’ and women’s swimsuits worn at Sutro Baths.

Bathing Suits

Swimwear has evolved a great deal since swimming became a recreational activity in the mid-1800s. American bathing suit designs during the Victorian era were influenced by ideals of modesty. When women first started going into the water they wore full dresses with black stockings and bloomers, sometimes even sewing weights into the bottom of their dresses so their skirts would not accidentally fly up and expose too much. Bathing suits gradually became more revealing as they adjusted to allow women to swim without being weighed down with a cumbersome wool suit.

Children were allowed more freedom and were able to take off their shoes and stockings, and roll up their pantaloons. It was not until the late 1930s that men began to wear swim trunks. Women’s swimwear became gradually more revealing throughout the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in the introduction of the bikini in the 1940s. At Sutro Baths all swimming guests, both male and female, were issued one-piece wool suits with a short skirt that covered short trunks. The policy changed in the mid-1930s, allowing swimmers at the baths to wear their own suits.
 
Top: Colored illustration of beach with land mass in background. Bottom: Aerial view of Sutro Baths ruins and ocean.
Top: Naiad Cove painted by Gilbert Munger in 1870; Bottom: Naiad Cove today, with the ruins of Sutro Baths.

Naiad Cove

This small recess in the shoreline lays south of Point Lobos, north of the Cliff House, and just east of Seal Rocks. In the past, it was also known as Fisherman’s Cove and Sutro’s Cove. For millenia before the arrival of Europeans, the area’s native Ohlone residents camped in the sheltered surroundings of the cove.

The ruins of the Sutro Baths now sit there, but before they were built Naiad Cove was just another small secluded beach. A spring-fed creek flows into the cove from the east, which may have been the reason why American settlers named it after the mythical nymph who has power over creeks and springs.

By the mid-19th century San Franciscans began to visit the cove to sunbathe, swim, and beachcomb. Adolph Sutro bought the inlet in the 1880s, after which it became the site of his Aquarium and eventually the Sutro Baths.
 
Postcard illustration of Sutro Bath ruins and beach area.
Postcard showing Sutro’s Aquarium viewed from Point Lobos, ca. 1890.

Sutro Aquarium

In 1887 Adolph Sutro began construction of a project he called “The Aquarium”. The Aquarium was located in Naiad Cove just north of the Cliff House. It was a giant artificial tide pool built into the cove. Sutro oversaw construction of a rock and concrete catch basin into the side of Parallel Point to collect sea water and a canal through Parallel Point that transported the water to a second basin -- the aquarium itself -- built on the shore below.

When the tides came in, the aquarium basin would fill with water and any accompanying sea life that was caught up up in the flow, allowing the public to view fish and other marine creatures from the safety of the shore. This, at least, was the concept for the attraction. Though the basins were successful in catching seawater, it is not known if the sea creatures that Sutro envisioned -- including sea lions -- were ever transported into the Aquarium.

The Aquarium was a unique example of the engineering feats and creative enterprises at which Sutro excelled. The canalworks of the Aquarium were later incorporated into the Sutro Baths.
 
Close-up view of remnants of building and Sutro Baths pools remnants.
Visitors sit on the edge of the settling pond ruins as the water filtration tank ruins soak in the sunlight, 2012.

Sutro Baths Ruins

This complicated system of water channels, tanks, and foundations, once fed the world’s largest complex of fresh and saltwater swimming pools. Softened D. Sheby w 2012years of decay from wind and weather, the ruins begin to take on the appearance of some ancient civilization.

The large concrete-lined pond that now fills the cove once held the five swimming tanks of the baths. The smaller circular pool at the north end of the cove was originally the Aquarium, and later served as a settling pond to help remove sand and other debris from the water entering the bathing tanks. The large grid-like structure (shown in the photo above) was a water filtration tank. In a city of high real estate values where demolition, redevelopment and revitalization occur constantly, the ruins of the baths have remained essentially untouched since the structure’s sudden destruction by fire in 1966.
 
Men in hat standing in middle of uncompleted cast iron building.
Adolph Sutro standing in his Sutro Baths during construction, ca. mid-1890s

Sutro the Engineer

Adolph Sutro made his fortune through the success of his engineering works at Nevada’s Comstock silver mine. His construction of a tunnel for de-watering and de-gassing the mine shafts of the Comstock Lode not only earned him several million dollars, but saved countless lives by improving safety conditions for miners working the lode.

When Sutro returned to San Francisco after the tunnel’s completion, he directed his engineering efforts toward projects that would provide recreation for the people of San Francisco and nearby communities, such as the Baths and Railroads.

The Sutro Baths were filled and emptied by a complex system of tunnels, canals, gates, and boilers that displayed Sutro’s knowledge and skill in engineering.
 
Yellow  and green program flyers and interior photo of Sutro Baths.
Clockwise from top left: Sutro Baths 1908 program; May Day Festival 1897 program; the baths crowded with spectators on May Day.

Entertainment at Sutro Baths

Countless events were held at Sutro Baths in its early years. Adolph Sutro and Colonel T.P. Robinson, the manager of Sutro’s amusements in the 1890s, hosted May Day festivals, high dive contests, swimming contests, orchestral performances, dancers, choirs, and magicians.

The goal, of course, was to attract paying visitors to Sutro’s complex of amusements. Many people who came to the baths did not come to swim themselves, but to watch the swimmers, contests, and performances from the stands that lined the bath pavilion. The stands held seating for 8000 people.

The wide range of entertainments gave Sutro Baths a broad appeal as a destination for people of all classes to socialize and relax.
 
Clockwise from left: Woman in costume dancing. Men in formal dress posing on Ocean Beach. Children sliding down water slide. Swimmers in a large pool.
A collage of still frames from Edison’s and Miles’ movies. Clockwise from upper left: The Leander Sisters perform the dance “Cupid and Psyche” at the Baths (1902); panorama of the crowds at Ocean Beach (1903); and two different films of swimmers at the Baths (1897).

Films at Lands End

For more than 100 years films have been shot at locations around Lands End. In 1897 Thomas Alva Edison created several movies of swimmers and performers at Sutro Baths and in 1902 produced a panoramic view of the Golden Gate while traveling along the Ferries & Cliff House Railway. In 1903 H.J. Miles shot panoramic footage of the crowds at Ocean Beach on a late September day. The Library of Congress has made several of these movies available to view online at http://www.youtube.com/user/LibraryOfCongress.

Other films at Lands End include Greed (1925, with a scene inside the Cliff House), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (filmed in 1938 at the Cliff House), The Lady from Shanghai (1947 at Playland), The Lineup (1958 at Sutro Baths and Cliff House), Vertigo (1958 at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and Lincoln Park), Harold and Maude (1971 at Sutro Baths), Around the Fire (1998 at Ocean Beach), The Princess Diaries (2001 on the Cliff House Terrace at Musée Mécanique) and The Wedding Planner (2001 at Lincoln Park). The Lineup features extensive shots of the interior of Sutro Baths.
 
Left: Map indicating tunnels at Lands End. Right: Photo of Sutro Baths cliffs with an arrow indicating a large tunnel.
Left: A drawing of the tunnel system at Parallel Point, constructed to bring water into the pools at Sutro Baths; Right: a modern view of the “Large Tunnel” that is accessible to visitors today (tunnel at white arrow).

Tunnels at Parallel Point

Several tunnels have been bored through Parallel Point (the rocky bluff on the north side of Naiad Cove), some of which can still be seen by visitors. The first was the Main Tunnel, excavated for Sutro’s Aquarium in 1887. The Main Tunnel transported ocean water from a catch basin to the Aquarium. Due to its placement, the Main Tunnel is not typically visible to visitors.

The Large Tunnel was dug from the northwest corner of the Aquarium all the way through Parallel Point to its north side. It served as a path for dump carts transporting loads to the far side of the point and its debris was initially used for construction of the baths and seawall. The Large Tunnel is still open for visitors to walk through. Backup Pump Tunnel was a tunnel constructed in 1893 that was used to access the pump room for the Sutro Baths.

The last tunnel at the point is the Maintenance Tunnel, which was only 24 feet long and provided access for workers headed to the catch basin during low wave action. The Backup Pump tunnel and Maintenance Tunnel are currently sealed for visitor safety.
 
Left: Large metal structure on top of a rock. Middle: View of metal structure from beach. Right: View of rocks and beach with land in background
Left: Holland’s wave motor, ca. 1890s; Center: The motor with a view of the nearby coastline; Right: Modern view of the former location of Holland’s motor.

Wave Motors

Harnessing the power of the ocean with wave motors at Lands End has been attempted at least five times. The first was in 1886 by E. Stern who constructed his wave motor a few hundred yards north of the Cliff House near the shore of the southern entrance to the Golden Gate on land leased from Adolph Sutro. Stern tinkered with his motor for several years, but by 1891 it was gone, apparently washed away into the cold ocean waters.

A second motor was constructed in 1891 by Henry P. Holland in the same location as Stern’s. Holland’s motor stayed in place for 59 years. Two other motors were built by unknown inventors in the early 1890s. The final attempt was made in 1948 by Lewis Reece, who erected his device in the ocean about 50 ft. north of the Cliff House observation platform.

Each motor was different in its construction. A description of the first wave motor was published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1891: “That (machine) operated in a wiggle-waggle sort of way depending on the pushing power of the waves against a broad surface, something like the centerboard of a flat-bottomed vessel." None of the wave motors proved successful as a source of power. However, the ideas of these pioneering inventors have not been forgotten, and research into wave-generated energy for the San Francisco Bay area continues today.

Last updated: May 13, 2022

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