Spirits of the City

San Francisco’s Beautiful, Not-So-Ancient Ruins

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

The remnants of the Sutro Baths are not only reminders of a huge bathing complex that was once one of the City’s most celebrated attractions, they’re extraordinarily atmospheric. (Illustration by Paul Madonna)

Although San Francisco is too young a city to have many ruins, it does boast a few — the brick arch in the Golden Gateway that once marked the entrance to the Colombo Market, the marble doorframe called “Portals of the Past” on Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park.

But the damndest fine ruins in San Francisco are without doubt the remnants of Sutro Baths, just north of the Cliff House and just around the corner from Mile Rock. They’re not only reminders of a huge bathing complex that was once one of the City’s most celebrated attractions, they’re extraordinarily atmospheric. Thanks to their location on a pocket beach, the corrosive effects of salt and sea, and the benign neglect practiced by the National Park Service, these relatively new ruins look as ancient as the overgrown fragments of a lost city in Asia Minor.

The Sutro Baths actually began their existence not as the world’s largest public baths, but the world’s most ambitious aquarium. In the early 1880s Comstock magnate Adolph Sutro acquired the Cliff House and the land around it, including a little beach called Seal Rock Beach, or Fisherman’s Cove. Sutro loved to sit on the beach and watch the waves crashing into the rocks. He was particularly drawn to one place where a hollow in the rock caught waves, and decided to build a tide pool-aquarium around it.

Sutro built his 100-by-100-foot natural aquarium against a headland, equipping it with a sluice gate that would be opened to let water in through a tunnel at high tide, then closed to let the water drain out. Visitors were allowed in only at high tide to view the fish, rays, sea anemones, and supposedly even seals that would be washed into the aquarium.

However, Sutro had bigger plans. He soon began work on a bathing complex that he intended would outdo the baths of ancient Rome. The finished baths were indeed stupendous in their scale: Sutro’s vast glass palace was 500 feet long and 254 feet wide, with six saltwater tanks and a freshwater plunge tank fed by a spring. But the mighty natatorium was never commercially successful. In 1952 Sutro’s family sold it to George Whitney, owner of nearby Playland at the Beach, for just $250,000, but it became a white elephant and burned down soon after it was closed in 1966. The National Park Service acquired the 4.4-acre site in 1980, and it has been in a — highly appropriate — state of disintegration ever since.

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