THIS WEEK: the fiery fate of the first Cliff House, and the case of a parrot who would not sing. Click the audio player above to listen in, or just read on … cliff-house-c1890

December 25, 1894:
First San Francisco Cliff House burns

On Christmas Day, 1894, the first San Francisco Cliff House burned to the ground.

As the Chronicle poetically reported the next morning,

San Francisco’s most historic landmark has gone up in flames. The Cliff House is a smouldering ruin, where the silent ghosts of memory hover pale and wan over the blackened embers.

Ah, yes. We discussed this first incarnation of the Cliff House a few weeks ago — its novel location at the edge of the world, its singular popularity with San Francisco’s beautiful people, and its subsequent decline into a house of ill-repute.

Well, before it could rise from that undignified state to the status of a beloved landmark, San Francisco’s original “destination resort” needed a white knight to ride to the rescue. That knight would be Mr. Adolph Sutro, who — in 1881 — purchased not only the faded Cliff House, but acres of land surrounding it.

adolph sutro

Mining engineer millionaire and future San Francisco mayor, the larger-than-life Sutro had already established a fabulous estate on the heights above the Cliff House, and by the mid-1880s could count 10% of San Francisco as his personal property.

Unlike the robber barons atop Nob Hill, though, Adolph believed in sharing his good fortune — you can hear more about his eccentric philanthropy in the “Adolph Sutro” podcast right here at

Sutro’s first order of business upon acquiring the property was to instruct his architect to turn the Cliff House into a “respectable resort with no bolts on the doors or beds in the house.”

This was just a small part of Sutro’s grand entertain-the-heck-out-of-San-Francisco scheme. The elaborate gardens of his estate were already open to the public, and the soon-to-be-famous Sutro Baths were on the drawing board. His goal was to create a lavish and family safe environment out at Land’s End, and that’s just how things worked out.

With streetcar lines beginning to move into the brand new Golden Gate Park, and the City’s acquisition of the Point Lobos Toll Road (now Geary Boulevard), the western edge of the City was becoming more attractive and accessible, and over the next decade, families did indeed flock to Adolph’s resuscitated resort.

And then in 1894, it happened.

About 8 o’clock on Christmas evening, after most of the holiday visitors had gone home for the day, a small fire broke out in a kitchen chimney. As the flames shot up inside the walls, the horrified staff quickly learned that none of the fire-extinguishers around the place actually worked. Within minutes, the entire building was engulfed in flames.

The resort burned so quickly, in fact, that its famous guest book, inscribed by such notables as Mark Twain, Ulysses S Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes, was lost along with the building itself.

As the Chronicle went on to report, the Cliff House

“… went up as befitted such a shell of remembrances, in a blaze of glory. Fifty miles at sea the incinerating fires easily shone out, reflected from the high rocks beyond.”

Sutro hadn’t taken out insurance on the place, but he was so determined to rebuild — and so damned rich — that it just really didn’t matter. And in fact, the burning of Cliff House number one was a sort of blessing in disguise. That fire cleared the decks — so to speak — for Cliff House number two, which would rise from the ashes like a magnificent 8-story Victorian phoenix.

Cliff House mark 2 would become everybody’s favourite, an opulent monstrosity as beloved by San Franciscans in the Gilded Age as it still is today, frankly — but guess what happened to that one? The fate of Sutro’s Gingerbread Palace coming up in a future Sparkletack Timecapsule.

December 25, 1894
“It Would Not Sing”

Yes, this item not only also happened on Christmas, but also in 1894. That’s not a coincidence, either, I just happened to spot this little slice of life in the same edition of the Chronicle that contained parts of the Cliff House story .

Without further ado, a case which may or may not bring a certain Monty Python sketch to mind:


It Would Not Sing
End of Another Chapter in a Case of a Bird With Disputed Talents

The celebrated Martin-Donnelly parrot controversy has been decided. Justice Dunne, after communing with the bird for over a week, gave judgement in favor of the Martins, and on Christmas eve there was a deep and abiding sorrow in the home of the Donnellys. The Judge gave much time and thought to this remarkable case. While he believed the Donnellys were sincerely honest in their claims, the law and the bird were against them.

The red and yellow-headed parrot positively declined to sing “Ta-ra-boom-de-ay” and other classical selections which the Donnellys said it had in its repertoire, and confined itself to “Hello Arthur”, “I want to go bed” and “Hip-hip, hooray,” in pursuance of the programme given of its accomplishments by the Martins.

This bird had been before the … courts for months, and it is estimated that the parties to the controversy have each expended $200 in court and lawyer’s fees. Mrs. Donnelly, who lives on Minna street, owned an accomplished parrot. One day the bird was stolen. A search was immediately instituted, and a bird seen hanging in front of Mr. Martin’s saloon, at the north end of Kearny street, was thought to be the lost polly.

It was secured on a search warrant and … after a bitter contest, the bird was awarded to the Martins. Suit was brought … and nearly fifty witnesses examined. Justice Dunne, upon being unable to decide the case upon the testimony, took the much-litigated parrot to his home that he might satisfy the judicial ear as to the line of accomplishments in which it was best versed.

Polly insisted on confining itself to the programme the Martins had testified their bird would render. Not one of the songs on the Donnelly programme would the parrot warble. Hence the decision of the court.

Mrs. Donnelly was in the courtroom yesterday afternoon and wept and became hysterical over the decision, but the Judge was inexorable and gave the parrot to the Martins. It is understood that the case will be appealed.

San Francisco Chronicle — 12.25.1894