Before Now – Whitney’s unbuilt plans for the Cliff House and Lands End
On Christmas Day, 1894, a kitchen fire burned down the 30-year-old Cliff House. Millionaire Adolph Sutro — who owned the old roadhouse, lived on the rocky promontory above it, and was in the process of having the huge natatorium of Sutro Baths constructed in the cove beside it — decided its replacement should be a tad larger and a shade more ornate. The new Cliff House, generally referred to as the Victorian Cliff House, opened in 1896 sporting spires, turrets, esplanades, galleries, arcades, hundreds of windows and an observation tower 200 feet above the waves. Eight stories high and appearing to be precariously balanced on the cliff’s edge, the gingerbread castle dominated the landscape.
Not everyone was pleased that the natural beauty of the site had been overshadowed by a massive structure of questionable taste. Architect Willis Polk wrote sarcastically that the new Cliff House showed how “the beauty of the most picturesque and romantic spot of the Pacific Coast has been heightened by the erection of a wooden bird cage and a half-gross assortment of triangles.” When famed landscape designer and city planner Daniel Burnham created his commissioned report for San Francisco he recommended that the eight-year-old building be “condemned and removed.” Even when the new Cliff House met the fate of its predecessor and burned down in 1907, nostalgia competed with critical delight at its demise. The Argonaut newspaper declared it was “a thing of complicated and amazing ugliness,” and a reader responded that “its tawdry architecture, its ungainly proportions, its dirty corridors and opaque windows … all have made hideous a spot which Nature meant to be beautiful.”
Love it or loathe it, the Victorian Cliff House had its day in the setting sunshine, unlike another goliath project of Sutro’s. Just to the north of his baths, on land later described by his daughter as having “an unsurpassed view … which is without parallel on this peninsula,” Sutro envisioned an enormous hotel. No cozy bed and breakfast, the opulent hotel would have been on the scale of the Swiss Gothic Hotel Del Monte in Monterey or Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Sutro couldn’t find the financing or the time to realize the vision before he died in 1898.
In the 1920s, when the economy was roaring, the idea of building on the cliff north of the baths was revived. The Pacific Edgewater Club planned a facility some 10 stories high on the rocks. The design, with terraced promenades that extended to the Pacific like welcoming arms, was by the firm of Miller and Pflueger. Timothy Pflueger was the mastermind of gilded movie palaces such as the Castro and Paramount theaters, as well as artistic skyscrapers such as the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph building and the 450 Sutter St. Medico-Dental building. No doubt the Pacific Edgewater would have exuded the same luxuriousness. In part because of its isolated location and sweeping views, the club and its exclusive membership were expected to be highly sought after. Perhaps the location was too sequestered or the membership too exclusive, because the plan for Pacific Edgewater never got off the drawing board.
The dream of skyscrapers at the ocean’s edge did return. After World War II, business at Sutro Baths had declined as competition with newer (and cheaper) city pools, escalating labor costs, and increased maintenance work on the aging facility cut into profits. The Sutros sold the baths to the Whitney family in the early 1950s, and before the decade was out George K. Whitney Jr. began investigating the idea of developing the cove for housing or a hotel. Different plans were drawn up that combined towers and plazas while also rebuilding and expanding the Cliff House. Sketches in hand and hoping for co-investors, Whitney traveled to Japan to present the scheme to a major hotel chain. The deal fell through, possibly over cultural misunderstandings, and an inter-family division of the land and business direction stalled further plans. The closed Baths burned down in 1966. Condominium development plans for the site were pitched until 1980, when the inclusion of the land in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area permanently put to rest visions of cliff-side towers.
For all the complaints about the Victorian Cliff House, National Park Service staff members will tell you that most visitors express sadness that it didn’t survive, and even suggest it be rebuilt. The grand, overdone architecture of the Victorian era, lambasted and derided into the mid-20th century, has been redeemed in the public’s eyes. Would the Pacific Edgewater Club have been an Art Deco masterpiece? Could the Whitney resort plan have become a paragon of mid-century modernism? Maybe, but considering the singular view from the Golden Gate to the Farallon Islands, I think some visions are better left unbuilt.
Trivia answer: The name of the barbecue restaurant (1970s to early 1990s) that occupied the small shack across 46th Avenue from the Doggie Diner/Carousel restaurant was Leon’s. We all miss it.
New trivia question: What was the Beach Chalet used for, prior to its 1990s renovation as brewpub and restaurant?
Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”
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