The Storied History of San Francisco’s Cliff House

Cliff 3 1902

Cliff House 1890

 The first Cliff House was built in 1858, above Ocean Beach, in west San Francisco. It has been rebuilt five times since for various reasons, such as remodeling or damage.

In 1894, the third, and most photographed, incarnation of the house was built by Adolph Sutro, a successful mining engineer. Sutro built the seven-story mansion in Victorian style, an elaborately decorated structure dubbed the “Gingerbread House.” It was a hotel for most of its incarnation.

Cliff House was the scene of a number of historic events, including several shipwrecks. A wreck in 1887 caused damage to the second Cliff House when the dynamite on the ship exploded. The first ship-to-shore transmission, using Morse Code, was received here in 1899 and in 1905; the first radio voice transmission was sent from the house to a point a mile and a half away.

–“Select a table next to one of the western windows and order a breakfast that is served here better than any place we have tried. This breakfast will consist of broiled breast of young turkey, served with broiled Virginia ham with a side dish of corn fritters. We have discovered nothing that makes so complete a breakfast as this.”Clarence E. Edwards, 1914–

Cliff House survived the earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906 with only minor damage. It burned to the ground the following year, however. Sutro’s daughter began the construction of a new Cliff House restaurant in 1908, but on a vastly smaller scale. And so it is today.

cliff 4 1900




cliff2 1902


cliff5 fire 1907

1907 fire

In 1937, George and Leo Whitney purchased the Cliff House, to complement their Playland-at-the-Beach attraction nearby, and extensively remodelled it into an American roadhouse. From 1955 until 1961, a sky tram operated across the Sutro Baths basin, taking up to 25 visitors at a time from Point Lobos, enhanced by an artificial waterfall, to the outer balcony of the Cliff House.

In the 1960s, upon the closing of Playland, the Musée Mécanique, a museum of 20th-century penny arcade games, was moved into the basement of the Cliff House. The building was acquired by the National Park Service in 1977 and became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

In 2003, as part of an extensive renovation, many of Whitney’s additions were removed and the building was restored to its 1909 appearance. A new two-story wing was constructed overlooking what were by then the ruins of the Sutro Baths. (The Baths burned to the ground on June 26, 1966). During the site restoration, the Musée Mécanique was moved to Fisherman’s Wharf.

More than thirty ships have been pounded to pieces on the southern shore of the Golden Gate below the Cliff House.

The area immediately around Cliff House is part of the setting of Jack London’s novel The Scarlet Plague (1912).

cliff6 1956


cliff7 1995


cliff house 2010



1941 top, 2009 bottom

One thought on “The Storied History of San Francisco’s Cliff House

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.