In 1881, Adolph Sutro bought over 22 acres of undeveloped land on the outskirts of San Francisco that included a promontory overlooking the Cliff House and Seal Rocks. Here he built an elaborate public garden complete with statues, flowerbeds, a parapet overlook, gallery, conservatory, well house, observatory, water tower, and his private home. The upkeep of the grounds required a staff of 10 gardeners, a tree man, coachman, driver, gatekeeper, two machinists, and a road maker.
To learn more about the history and design elements of Sutro Heights, please explore the following narratives:
Photo GalleryA one-story wooden building with a distinctive Queen Anne style tower and fishscale shingles stood at the northeast corner of the Sutro Heights Parapet. This was the Photo Gallery, built in 1894. Here, visitors could have their tintype images taken, rent “marine glasses” to view Seal Rocks, and buy souvenir photographs and postcards of nearby attractions.
The gallery was operated by W. C. Billington and later John Billington from 1894 to the early 1900s. It continued to serve visitors into the 1920s, when the building was converted to a garage. By this time, many people owned their own cheap box camera and the days of the novelty photographer were nearly over.The building was demolished by the Works Progress Administration in 1939.
Dolce far Niente“Sweet to do nothing” (Dolce Far Niente) was the name given to this long balcony built in 1884-5 on the cliff face below Sutro Heights. It had a wooden deck and open arches above a decorative railing and was more than 250 feet long. The platform was a place for visitors to relax and enjoy the splendid view of Ocean Beach.
The balcony was in good shape into the 1920s, but succumbed to landslides and disrepair during the 1930s and was demolished in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration.
Gardens of Sutro HeightsAdolph Sutro created Sutro Heights as a place where everyone could enjoy nature’s beauty in the form of ocean and shoreline vistas and an elaborately designed garden. Sutro Heights gardens included a maze, sculpted hedges, carpet and patterned flower beds, open lawns, and forests. Many of the plants were drought tolerant species imported from similar climates in the Mediterranean, Australia, New Zealand, and South America.
After Sutro’s death the expense of maintaining Sutro Heights became too costly for his heirs and the gardens became overgrown. In the early 1900s management of Sutro Heights was given over to the City. After Emma Sutro’s death in 1938 ownership was transferred to the City Parks Department. The National Park Service took over in 1976 and the grounds were rehabilitated.
Some of Palm Avenue is still lined by palm trees and groupings of historic trees and shrubs have survived throughout the park. Though there are no longer intricate flower beds, manicured hedges, and grand lawns, Sutro Heights still offers a peaceful open space with exquisite ocean views.
StatuesVisitors to Sutro Heights were treated to Adolph Sutro’s ideas of sophisticated European culture. His estate gloried in over 200 sculptures, planters, fountains, and rustic furniture. Statues included a replica of the Venus de Milo and many Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures. Nude figures abounded.
When Sutro Heights was given to the National Park Service in 1976 only a handful of original statues still remained. The Park Service moved the original statues into protective storage and erected replicas in their place. No one knows for certain what became of the rest of the hundreds of statues that once dotted the landscape but archaeologists have uncovered fragments of statues in their work around the park.
Sutro Residence and CottageWhat would be known as the Sutro residence at Sutro Heights was built in the 1860s by James Butler, first owner of the Cliff House. It was expanded by Samuel Tetlow proprietor of the Bella Union Music Hall. Adolph Sutro purchased the house and grounds from Tetlow for $15,000.
Sutro’s modifications to the cottage were modest. He added a small side room, rear terrace and several statues. Adolph Sutro died in 1898 leaving the cottage to his daughter, Emma Sutro Merritt, who lived there until her own death 40 years later. In 1939, the estate was demolished by the Works Progress Administration.
Sutro Heights ConservatoryThe Sutro Heights Conservatorywas an intricate greenhouse that sat on a mound at the east end of Palm Avenue.
The conservatory housed AdolphSutro’s extensive collection oftropical plants that includevarieties of ferns, palms, andflowers. Like all of Sutro Heights, the interior of the conservatorydisplayed many pieces of statuary.
The building was constructed ofwood-framed glass panels andsurmounted by a centralventilation tower. The impressivestructure was one of the park’scentral attractions.
Traces of the conservatory’s tiledfloor can still be seen on the grassy rise at the end of Palm Avenue.
Sutro Heights Main GateBy 1883, Sutro Heights had impressive gates to both the main and the private entrances. The main entrance was at the intersection of Point Lobos Avenue and Palm Avenue, the palm tree-lined boulevard that ran through Sutro Heights.
The main gate was an ornate 25-foot tall decorative wooden structure with a high central arch for carriages and a pedestrian arch on each side. The original structure was demolished by the Works Progress Administration in 1939 but replicas of the two reclining lion statues that flanked the gate are still in place today.
Sutro Heights ParapetThis dramatic curved stone wall was built in 1885 on a natural sandstone outcrop on the high point of Sutro Heights, near Adolph Sutro’s residence. Visitors could get to the Parapet by walking up a ramp at the rear wall or along a narrow staircase on the western side.
As its name suggests, the Sutro Heights Parapet looked like a castle battlement. The solid stone wall was topped with statues of classical figures that looked over the ocean.
The Parapet also held a pair of non-firing ornamental cannons, (one apparently aimed at the Cliff House), chairs andbenches, a photo studio, and an observation deck.
The stone remains of the Parapet can still be seen on the hillside above the GreatHighway. Visitors to theremains enjoy exquisite views of the Cliff House, Seal Rocks, and Ocean Beach.
Sutro’s Family and His Contested WillAdolph Sutro was born in Prussia in 1830, the son of Emmanuel and Rosa Sutro. His widowed mother brought her 11 children to New York in 1850. Sutro married Adelheid in 1856. They had six children -- Charles, Edgar, Clara, Emma, Rosa, and Katie.
Like many other wealthy men of the time, Sutro also had a mistress. Clara Kluge-Sutro claimed that she and Adolph were wed after Adelheid’s death in 1893 and that her two children, Adolph Newton and Adolphine Charlotte, were Sutro’s.
After her father’s death in 1898, Dr. Emma Merrit tried to keep Sutro Heights open for public enjoyment. Sutro had drafted a trust that would put much of his estate into public ownership. But the trust and his will were contested by Kluge-Sutro and several of his children, and were ultimately judged to be invalid. Sutro’s extensive real estate holdings were auctioned off, and the proceeds divided between his children and second wife.
Tankhouse & ObservatoryAdolph Sutro built this tankhouse topped with an observation tower next to his residence at Sutro Heights. The tankhouse was a three story building that enclosed two 15,000 gallon water tanks.
Next to the tankhouse Sutro also built a three story wooden tower with a glass enclosed observatory at the top. The observatory was a highly visible Sutro Heights landmark. Visitors to the nearby Parapet could climb the stairs to the observation platform for a spectacular view view of Seal Rocks and the Golden Gate.
The tankhouse and observatory were demolished in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration. Only fragments of their foundations remain today.
Sutro Heights Base End Stations
During WWII, Sutro Heights was taken over by the US military and closed to the public. Two base end stations were erected to the north of the Sutro Heights Parapet in 1942. Soldiers working in the stations used telescopes to determine a target’s angle (azimuth), location, and direction of travel. These sightings were relayed to nearby gun batteries to calculate aiming instructions.
The first station spotted for a battery at Fort Barry, in the Marin Headlands and the second for a battery at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio, San Francisco. Abandoned after the war, the stations were vandalized once the park reopened.
The structures have now been sealed and stabilized by the Park Service and can still be seen today
Adolph Sutro, Mayor and PhilanthropistAdolph Sutro was the 24th Mayor of San Francisco, serving from January of 1895 to January of 1897. His position was generally “for the people” and against the monopolies of giant corporations, known as “the Octopus.” Ironically, Sutro sold his Cliff House railroad line to the Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the most powerful arms of the Octopus.
The elaborate gardens of Sutro Heights surrounding Sutro’s personal estate were open to the public, free of charge. Many of his projects were meant to entertain and eductate the public, such as his marine Aquarium, and the museum at the entrance to the Baths.
During his time as mayor Sutro received letters from people all over the world -- far more than he and his staff had time to answer. Most wrote to ask for money, but other requests included gifts of everything from pianos to bicycles to houses. His good will and generousity toward San Franciscoans inspired poetry, wishing that “long life and honor be his just reward, for all the happiness he doth afford ” (from Autumnal Sunset by E.J. jackosn, 1890) .
Well HouseThis small wooden structure at the top of Serpentine Drive, marked the entrance to the central garden area from the lower gate. It originally held a pair of drinking fountains fed by water pumped by windmill from one of several tankhouses on the Heights.
The ornate building featured carved wooden posts, iron grillwork doors on the north and south sides, decorative shingles, and a pointed finial on each end of the roof.
The well house has been partially restored and remains the only building commisioned by Adolph Sutro that still stands on the grounds of Sutro Heights.
Airship SightingMysterious lights were seen moving over San Francisco Bay on the night of November 23, 1896.Witnesses claimed that the lights belonged to an “airship” - a machine that had not yet beeninvented. The event was described in several contemporary newspaper articles, including thisstatement made by Adolph Sutro (paraphrased from a San Francisco Call Bulletin article):
“When I reached home one evening ... I found [my employees] in a great state of excitement, and when I inquired the reason of the agitation they told me of a strange spectacle they had witnessed a short time before. They told me that shortly after dark they had seen a strange, brilliant light coming in from the direction of the sea... As it approached the heights they saw that it was not over 500 feet above the ocean and was moving swiftly and with a slightly undulating motion...
"They watched it until it disappeared in the direction of the City and saw it turn toward the north just before it passed from view... I certainly think that some shrewd inventor has solved the problem of aerial navigation and that we will hear all about it within a short time. It would not be any more wonderful than the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph or the X ray, and it would seem that some one must hit on the proper appliances when so many smart men have been working on the problem." (24 November 1896) Many similar “airship” sightings were reported across the world during the 1880s and 1890s.
Last updated: May 13, 2022