Stranger than Fiction: Adolph Sutro's Spectacular San Francisco Lives On

Sutro historic district

What do you call a man who's one part engineering genius, one part shrewd businessman, one part political influencer, and all public advocate? In San Francisco, we just call him Adolph Sutro, and he's the subject of the second post in our Stranger than Fiction series.

Sutro was born in 1830 in Germany, where he was educated in mining engineering before taking over his father's factory as a teenager. By the age of 20, he was bound for California, which was in the heyday of its Gold Rush. Sutro proved his mettle not in the gold fields but on the streets, peddling goods to newly arrived San Franciscans. In 1859, when Nevada's Comstock silver Lode made headlines, Sutro headed for California's neighboring state and put his engineering knowledge to good use. He designed a special tunnel that made local silver mining both safer and more efficient, selling it in 1879 for a reported $5 million. 

Sutro returned to San Francisco and began buying up acres and acres of sandy dunes in the city's outskirts, eventually coming to own nearly 10 percent of the land in the city. But far from becoming a self-absorbed millionaire or sealing himself off from the public, he dedicated the rest of his life – and his land – to making San Francisco a better place to live for everyday San Franciscans.

Adolph Sutro created parks, art collections, and entertainment complexes, all in an effort to give poor San Franciscans a taste of leisure and a respite from urban life. Sutro even served a term as mayor of the city before dying here a few years later in 1898.

More than 100 years after his death, Sutro's most beloved gifts to the city are still around today – and visiting them makes for a pretty spectacular experience. So come along as we honor San Francisco's most legendary populist with a tour of all things Sutro.   

Sutro Heights Park

Sutro heights lionOverlooking the Pacific Ocean, filled with Monterey cypress, eucalyptus, and palm trees, and gracefully scattered with crumbling ruins, Sutro Heights is a park with a history. Legend had it that Sutro fell in love with the spot at first sight, going so far as to put a $1,000 deposit (out of a $15,000 selling price) down on the property the very afternoon of his first visit in 1881. Sutro kept a relatively modest house on the property for his home, but quickly set about developing grand, European-style gardens on its surrounding 20 acres. 

Rather than fencing the gardens off for his exclusive use, though, Sutro invited the public to come enjoy the same beautiful grounds he did starting in 1885. 

"I had intended Sutro Heights as a breathing spot for the poor people as a benefit to the public," Sutro would later state.

Sutro parapetHe filled the gardens with flowers, trees, and replicas he commissioned of nearly 200 sculptures in Europe, and provided pathways and plenty of shade to make his gardens a welcoming place to relax. Sutro's personal invitees to the estate were about as varied as you might expect to find on a White House guest list: over the years he entertained everyone from President Benjamin Harrison, to Oscar Wilde, to groups of teachers and school children. 

Today you can still enjoy much the same view as visitors to Sutro Heights did back in the 19th century: several sculptures remain, including two reclining lions that watch over the entrance to the park, and benches and lush patches of lawn invite you to sit down and take in the landscape. Though the buildings on Sutro's estate are long gone, many of their ruins still stand proudly. Play archaeologist as you scramble up decaying stone stairways, across wall fragments, and even out onto the remnants of the stone parapet that marked the highest point on the property.

Sutro Baths

Sutro bathsLess than a half-mile walk from Sutro Heights Park, at the end of a gorgeous coastal trail, you'll find evidence of another of Sutro's grand plans for the greater good: the Sutro Baths. Today, the land where the Sutro Baths once stood is little more than the former complex's footprint: low, crumbling walls contain several small pools where seagulls splash around and curious passersby gaze at their reflections. 

The whole site may look like the remains of some medieval moat these days, but once upon a time this was the grandest leisure spot in all of San Francisco. The Sutro Baths opened in 1896 atop a promontory sitting just above the Pacific's crashing waves. At the time, the public was becoming increasingly interested in swimming, but was understandably wary of doing it in the Pacific's famously frigid waters. So Sutro himself designed an ingenious system whereby water was circulated into the pools directly from the ocean, heated, and eventually sent back into the Pacific.

Sutro baths poolSutro held a public contest for the design of the structure that would enclose the baths, eventually choosing a marvelous wood-and-glass design that made the place look almost like a conservatory. Sutro built one freshwater pool and six saltwater pools of varying temperatures and adorned them with trapezes, slides, and diving boards. He also filled the building's entryway with works of art, wildlife taxidermy, and even Egyptian mummies, all on display to the delight of early visitors. The baths were later converted to an ice-skating facility before eventually burning down in the 1960s. Today, the ruins of the baths are the perfect spot for an eerie-beautiful, only-in-San Francisco stroll. 

The Cliff House

Cliff HouseFrom the Sutro Baths, climb your way uphill to the Cliff House, a sleek structure perched on a cliff's edge (hence the name) just off the Great Highway. Sutro purchased the Cliff House in 1883, when it had already been operating as a restaurant for about 20 years. When the building burned down in 1894, Sutro reimagined it as an elegant French chateau that would bring the experience of a European vacation to San Francisco's working class (the man practically invented backyard travel!). He reopened his grandiose dining, dancing, and entertainment complex to the public in 1896. The new Cliff House was eight stories high with four spires, an observation tower that shot up 200 feet above sea level, a photo gallery, and the kind of panoramic views such a stunning locale demanded.

The grand Cliff House, beloved by everyone from ordinary San Franciscans to the celebrities and public figures (including two U.S. presidents) who visited it, sadly burned down in 1907. Though today, a more modern structure stands in the place of Sutro's everyman's palace, it's still well worth a visit. You can take in the site's famous ocean views with a quick stroll around the building's perimeter, or head inside to watch the waves while staying sheltered from the wind. 

Cliff house zinc barThe Cliff House's bistro and bar menus can get pricy, but you can sit inside at a long zinc bar and enjoy a cappuccino for a mere $4. The view from the bar is just as spectacular as it is from the establishment's spendier seats. As you look out the huge windows onto the Pacific, be sure to take note of the jagged rock formations out in the middle of the water: now called the Seal Rocks in homage to a population of sea lions that used to call them home, these distinctive crags – and the natural habitat they formed – were protected by Congress in 1887 due largely to Sutro's own urging. 

 Sutro's Railroad

Louis restaurantJust up the road from the Cliff House, a less grand – but no less beloved – restaurant called Louis' occupies a squat, brown building (think greasy-spoon food meets million-dollar views and you'll get the idea). While Louis' opened for business in 1937 – long after Sutro's death – it still marks an important site in his legacy. 

By the 1890s, Sutro had sunk a good deal of time, effort, and capital into creating an idyllic seaside escape for everyday San Franciscans. Rather than taking an expensive horse and buggy to Sutro's coastal wonderland, most visitors would ride a steam engine train that had been set up specially to help them access Sutro Heights and the Cliff House. But by the middle of the decade, the railroad had doubled its fare to 20 cents round-trip. Sutro considered this fare outrageously expensive on a workingman's salary. And so, in 1894, he decided to construct his own streetcar line. The cars began operation in 1896, depositing visitors at a terminal adjacent to where Louis' stands today – for a roundtrip fare of 10 cents. 

Stand in front of the modern-day restaurant (or, even better, sit inside with a plate of eggs benedict or hotcakes), and imagine what Sutro's streetcars would have looked like approaching from Clement and Geary Streets.

Mount Sutro

Sutro's modern-day legacy isn't just limited to the tightly clustered Sutro Heights Park, Sutro Baths, and Cliff House. Climb up a narrow set of wooden stairs at Stanyan and 17th Streets and you'll soon find yourself in a dense forest of eucalyptus known as Mount Sutro. 

The 900-foot-high mountain in the middle of the city was once one of Adolph Sutro's innumerable land holdings, and, in typical Sutro style, he worked hard at making it a lush, green paradise. He planted thousands of trees here, and today many of them are over 100 feet high. While much of the mountain now belongs to the University of California at San Francisco medical school, there are about 20 acres of trails available for public hiking. 

The Sutro Library

Sutro had a keen interest in literature, architecture, and art, and amassed one of the country's finest private libraries over the course of his lifetime. In 1917, the California State Library created the Sutro Library from his private collection. Now located on the campus of San Francisco State University, the Sutro library is still home to a collection of the former mayor's own rare books and manuscripts.

Whatever you do on your next visit to San Francisco, just remember to get outdoors, breathe some fresh air, and say a silent thanks to Adolph Sutro. Without him this weird, wonderful, beautiful city just wouldn't be the same.

If You Go 

Stay at one of HI's three San Francisco hostels.