Anywhere you set foot in San Francisco, you’re treading on history, though you won’t necessarily know it.
That’s especially true of Ocean Beach, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which answers to the National Park Service. The 3.5-mile-long section of shoreline once was a retreat for the carriage trade, then an outlandish turn-of-the-20th-century playground of amusements run by more than 100 concessionaires. The top draw was 10-acre Playland At the Beach (1926-72), where the It’s It ice-cream sandwich was formulated in 1928, and is now sold nationally.
“People had a different relationship with the beach when the attractions were there,” said park ranger Alexandra Picavet, spokeswoman for the recreation area. “It’s not just the tourists who don’t know what Ocean Beach once was. There are people who have lived in San Francisco most of their lives who have no idea as to its history.”
Through the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, Ocean Beach served as a fusion of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the California State Fair, and foreshadowed elements of Disneyland. Trolley and rail lines brought thousands of eager families to roller coasters, fun houses, music-and-dance pavilions, novelties, games, “dark rides” and a 68-horse carousel handmade in 1904, now displayed at Yerba Buena Gardens.
One star attraction was the Musée Mécanique, a private collection of arcade games that moved from Playland to the Cliff House, and now is a fascinating display at Pier 45 along Fisherman’s Wharf. Laffing Sal is there, too, still scaring children with her hideous cackle.
Another draw of the “pleasure grounds” was the Sutro Baths, a miracle of engineering when they opened in a nearby cove in 1896 as a 3-acre, three-story, glass-ceiling complex with six gigantic tide-fed and heated saltwater swimming pools (and one freshwater pool) that could handle 10,000 bathers at a time.
The “plunge” feature was complemented by a museum, an amphitheater that accommodated 2,700 spectators, more than 500 dressing rooms, an ice rink, concerts and “grand aquatic carnivals” headlining “volunteers” in swimming races and tugs of war. It burned down in 1966, but the ruins are accessible by path.
Perched on a nearby bluff overlooking Ocean Beach and the Sutro Baths is the Cliff House, a destination for the hearty partyers of San Francisco’s elite when it opened in 1863. Over the decades, it burned down twice and has been reincarnated at least four times.
Reflecting the tone of the era, writer Bret Harte (1836-1902) summarized the Cliff House vibe when he wrote this observation, now posted on a wall near the hostess station: “Wherebut a single pane of glass seemed to separate the comforts and refinements of civilization from nature in her rudest aspect.” In that regard, nothing has changed.
Overlooking all this from a nearby hilltop is Sutro Heights Park, once an impeccably maintained 20-acre pubic garden and private estate built by refined German engineer, multimillionaire (the Comstock Lode) and San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro (1830-98), onetime owner of both the Sutro Baths and the Cliff House. One of his proudest accomplishments was to position 200 concrete copies of Roman and Greek statues throughout the grounds in his effort to bring culture to the masses.
Ocean Beach today
These days, Ocean Beach is a desolate stretch of sea-slapped shore visited by more than 3 million people a year, yet so spacious you can walk its length in seeming solitude. It’s a contemplation of wind, waves and earth on the far western reaches of San Francisco, in the Lands End area parallel to the Great Highway, next to Golden Gate Park, the Richmond and Sunset districts, and near the San Francisco Zoo. It serves San Franciscans as a roomy respite from the chaos of a city more crowded than a shoal of sardines.
Ocean Beach is populated by sunbathers, picnickers, fishermen, surfers, kiteboarders, kite fliers, and hand-in-hand strollers who pause for quick kisses and move on. It’s sprinkled with hopping shorebirds and diving gulls, and nature-littered with stones and broken shells. The sand dollar-flat beach is interrupted by sand dunes that would blow away if not for the thick grasses and flowering succulents that anchor them.
Occasionally, when certain weather conditions converge and the seas off Ocean Beach are particularly rough, the remains of the King Philip clipper ship (which sank in 1878) will rise from the bottom and then re-submerge.
More disconcerting to beachgoers is coming across the occasional headstone that seemingly has risen from the sand. Park ranger Picavet explained that 30 cemeteries were relocated from San Francisco to nearby Colma after the city decided in 1900 to cease burials within city limits.
“The unclaimed headstones were placed along Ocean Beach to gird it against erosion,” Picavet said. “Usually there’s 10 to 20 feet of sand over them, but (occasional) sand events or wind events will expose some of them. That always becomes a big news day. I have to explain to people that they didn’t just float there.”
Exploring the Cliff House
After a windblown walkabout on Ocean Beach, we drove up to the Cliff House for a bowl of clam chowder and a slab of grilled mahi-mahi. Director of marketing Lisa Bellomo gave us a tour of the mini-labyrinth of restaurants, lounges, balconies, banquet room, private terrace and observation decks on three natural light-flooded levels backdropped by striking views of the ocean, coastline and Seal Rocks, a series of unique mini islands.
The art, antiques, huge mirrors, memorabilia, and vintage photos and menus form a fascinating visual history. Notable is the magnificent hand-carved mahogany back bar at the Zinc Bar, created for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (Paris world fair). The main restaurant (the Bistro) displays hundreds of framed photos of celebrities who have visited, including Shirley Temple, Red Skelton, Annette Funicello, Danny Glover and Robin Williams, whose picture wears a perpetual flower.
On a deck out back we found the wonderfully low-tech Camera Obscura (“dark room”) and Robert Tacchetto, its longtime curator. It’s no coincidence that his kiosk resembles a giant box camera, as the camera obscura – a device that dates back millennia – was the precursor to photography. This camera obscura is one of the few remaining in California, has been on site since 1946 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Its simple science aside, visitors get a live, three-dimensional, 360-degree view of the outside vista, reflected on a concave circular table inside a literal dark room. The images are almost textural, and, really, more interesting than a webcam. The cost to witness the wonder is only $3 ($2 for seniors and kids).
One issue that consistently plagued the Cliff House was the perception that it was invariably slammed with tourists, as evidenced by the monster buses idling out front. Plenty of motorists would decide the stop wasn’t worth the hassle and drive on, but the issue is moot since tour buses were banned from the entrance area.
“The buses never really had anything to do with the Cliff House,” Bellomo said. “They had permits from the city (to park here), and the tourists mostly would come in to use our bathrooms and maybe get coffee. We got a reputation for caring only about tourists, but that never was the case. But when you drive by and see 10 buses out front …”
Moving on ...
We left the Cliff House, took a path down the slope and surveyed the sad ruins of the Sutro Baths. The path connects to the Lands End Coastal Trail, a spectacular walk through woods and above cliffs, with the wild Pacific as a constant companion.
Next, we stopped into the Lands End Lookout visitor center to pick up a couple of maps and a copy of “San Francisco’s Ocean Beach” by Kathleen Manning and Jim Dickson, filled with intriguing vintage photos and informative text. The center is stocked with an educational array of historic exhibits, artifacts and interactive displays, a library of rarely seen guidebooks, and souvenir-type merchandise from hats and T-shirts to classy framed posters.
Up the hill is Sutro Heights Park, the remnants of Adolph Sutro’s world-class estate. The grounds once held stables, a conservatory, glorious gardens, intricate flowerbeds, statuary, and a staff of caretakers and gardeners to keep it all tidy. The main entrance was an avenue lined with palm trees. The long-gone house itself was topped with an observatory and stuffed with art and furniture Sutro collected during his many trips to Europe.
The public park still echoes those glory years – a damaged statue of Diana the Huntress, flowers here and there (including a rose garden), stairways, a giant planter on a pedestal, an old outbuilding, massive cypress trees, tangled shrubs. It’s a quiet, calm, sweet-smelling glen where ocean breezes whisper memories from an era lost in time.
We took stairs to the top of a fortress-like structure and found a large circular area bounded by rock pillars. Was this the foundation of Sutro’s home? Could it have been the sitting area called La Dolce Far Niente – “Sweet To Do Nothing”? It didn’t matter. At 25 stories above the ocean, the view went on forever.