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The long & peculiar history of the Cliff House in San Francisco

Ian Harvey

In the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the northwestern corner of San Francisco, California stands a restaurant that has been in business, on and off, for more than one hundred and fifty years.

Senator John Buckley and C. C. Butler originally built the Cliff House in 1863. At first, it was difficult and very expensive to get there because it was situated on the rocky hills of Land’s End overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A road, Point Lobos Avenue, was built enabling a stage coach to bring visitors from San Francisco.

The Cliff House became an exclusive resort for wealthy guests such as U.S. Presidents and the Hearst family.

"Cliff House and Seal Rocks. Photo Credit

“Cliff House and Seal Rocks. Photo Credit

 

eal Rocks and Cliff House, San Francisco, Cal, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. Photo Credit

eal Rocks and Cliff House, San Francisco, Cal, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. Photo Credit

 

The Cliff House hotel burns. Photo Credit

The Cliff House Hotel burns. Photo Credit

By the end of the 1870s, the resort was losing money and allowed gambling and alcohol in order to interest new patrons. Unfortunately, the new customers were not the same caliber as what the resort was accustomed to, and the Cliff House was no longer considered respectable.

Adolph Sutro, the soon to be mayor of San Francisco, bought the Cliff House in 1883. He began renovations and hired new staff with the intention of returning the resort back to a respectable family-oriented setting. Sutro also commissioned a railroad to improve accessibility. Having no luck managing the restaurant himself, he leased it to a wholesale liquor company, Sroufe, and McCrum. By 1885, it was leased out to J. M. Wilkins with instructions to bring families back to the resort.

In 1887, the schooner Parallel ran aground on the rocks below the resort, and a load of dynamite in the ship’s hold exploded, destroying the north wing of the building. The damage was repaired, and the Cliff House remained in operation until Christmas day in 1894 when a chimney fire destroyed the entire building.

A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company. Photo Credit

A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company. Photo Credit

 

A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company.. Photo Credit

A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company.. Photo Credit

 

Cliff House and Seal Rocks, from the sea beach, showing the tide coming in, San Francisco, Cal, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 2 Photo Credit

Cliff House and Seal Rocks, from the sea beach, showing the tide coming in, San Francisco, Cal, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 2 Photo Credit

 

Sutro rebuilt the Cliff House, spending $75,000 to create a replica of a French Chateau, and the venue reopened in February of 1896. Guests could take advantage of the observation tower built 200 feet above sea level, looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

The new resort stretching on eight floors consisted of restaurants, a photography studio, an art gallery, reception rooms available for lease, a gem exhibit, several private dining rooms, and many bars. The house had returned to its previous status as a venue for the upper class and hosted Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley as well as residents.

After the death of Adolph Sutro in 1898, the Cliff House was again leased out to John Tait. It, fortunately, survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake during renovations and was scheduled to reopen in September of 1907 but caught fire again and was totally destroyed.

Cliff House, circa 1900 Photo Credit

Cliff House, circa 1900 Photo Credit

 

San Francisco’s Cliff House Restaurant, ca.1900 San Francisco’s Cliff House Restaurant, ca.1900 Photo Credit

San Francisco’s Cliff House Restaurant, ca.1900 San Francisco’s Cliff House Restaurant, ca.1900 Photo Credit

 

 

Cliff House from Ocean beach, 2010 Photo Credit

Cliff House from Ocean Beach, 2010 Photo Credit

In 1908, Sutro’s daughter Emma Sutro Merritt took over the property and rebuilt the resort with fireproof concrete and steel. It was a smaller building that blended in with the landscape rather than taking over the ocean view. It reopened in 1909, still catering to the well-to-do.

During Prohibition, the resort’s patronage fell, and the resort closed in 1925. It was sold to George and Leo Whitney, the owners of a nearby amusement park.  The Cliff house was, again, remodeled and re-opened in 1938. The operation continued, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area purchased the Cliff House in 1977.

Read another story from us: Drish House – the abandoned Alabaman House that’s the center of many Ghost Stories in the state

The Cliff House, now at 1090 Point Lobos Avenue, was restored back to the 1909 design with modern skylights and a new wing named for  Adolph Sutro. The present managers, Dan and Mary Hountalas, have been running the Cliff House for the past thirty-five years, offering fine dining, a stylish bistro, and party rooms. Reservations can be made for Sutro’s restaurant and the Sunday all you can eat and drink champagne brunch buffet in the Terrace Room, but the Bistro is always first to come first served. The resort is very popular among locals for holiday parties and wedding reception and those who just want to relax and enjoy the beautiful ocean scenery through the floor to ceiling windows featured in Sutro’s restaurant.