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.
In 1885, Sutro opened Sutro Heights to the public free of charge. Sutro used his estate and gardens to host some of the most prominent people of the day: President Benjamin Harrison, William Jennings Bryan, Oscar Wilde, and Andrew Carnegie. Social groups and clubs were invited to Sutro Heights for hosted luncheons, breakfasts, and picnics. The grounds were also used for public events, such as an 1895 production of Shakespeare’s “ As You Like It” that drew a crowd of 5,000.
The attractions, sights, and events offered at Sutro Heights made the gardens a favorite venue for San Franciscans for many years. After Sutro’s death in 1898, his daughter, Emma Sutro Merritt, managed to keep Sutro Heights open to the public by drastically reducing the grounds staff. Over time, the gardens fell into neglect as the small grounds crew could not keep up with the intensive labor required to maintain the elaborate property.
In 1920, the Sutro family gifted Sutro Heights to the City of San Francisco to be “forever held and maintained as a free public resort or park under the name of Sutro Heights.” The condition of the grounds still declined and in 1938, the Works Progress Administration began demolishing structures in disrepair, adding new plants, upgrading roads, and cleaning and repairing the remaining statues. Emma Sutro Merritt died that same year while still living in the family home.
For almost 40 years after Emma Sutro’s death the gardens sat neglected and overgrown, a target for vandalism. In 1976, Sutro Heights was turned over to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, part of the National Park Service. Since that time, the Park Service has worked to preserve and restore historic features, clear overgrown areas, and add new landscape elements. Sutro Heights once again serves the public as an open space for recreation and enjoyment that still offers stunning views of the broad Pacific.