Monday, December 22nd, 2008
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 …
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.
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 Sparkletack.com.
Sutro’s first order of business upon making 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.
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.