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Sutro Heights

Adolph Sutro was San Francisco’s mayor from 1895 to 1897. He realized the idiosyncratic weather of the Richmond district, but apparently loved it. After making five million in the Nevada Comstock silver mines making ventilator tunnels, Sutro moved to San Francisco and bought 1,000 acres on the Ocean’s edge. There he planted imported eucalyptus trees by the thousands, and on the site now called Sutro Heights Park at the end of the Geary bus line, he built a mansion with twenty acres of formal gardens and statuary.

Sutro was a Prussian Jew from Aachen born in 1830, educated as an engineer and of course Euro-influenced in his visions. On the Pacific edge stood the Cliff House, which Sutro bought and rebuilt in 1896 as a six-story French Chateau (the second version, which later burnt down). He engineered and built the Sutro Baths, a public facility (50 cents admission to swim) nearby, a huge glass building inside of which were seven swimming pools, all kept at different temperatures, the water for six of them coming from the ocean through a tunnel. The seventh was a cold water plunge fed from an underground spring. The one large L-shaped pool was 275 feet in length, and the smaller pools were 75 feet long. Posters of it can be seen in various places, including the window of Louis’ coffee shop at the end of Geary: they’re also for sale in the Land’s End Monument gift shop. Remains of the Baths walls still exist, and every person visiting me in San Francisco who walks the Sutro Baths trail invariably remarks how wonderful it would be if the Baths were rebuilt. Easy to fantasize how terrific it would be to swim in a pool of ocean water – a choice of water at different temperatures, and the high ceilings and quantities of glass must have made it Finlandic, a real nature experience. The cost to rebuild would be prohibitive, and when the Sutro family finally sold the Baths, they accepted a small part of what it originally cost Sutro to build them, the generating plant, the changing rooms, cafes, and museum. From street level down to the pools was 100 feet, an elevator taking the visitors down if they wished. The Baths were deemed a “Wonder of the West.” As I look down on the remains of the Baths, I imagine myself striking out for the end of the longest pool, the one for long-lap swimmers, and I have to wonder. In the gift store there’s an area for comments by visitors. Kevin, who swam in the pools in 1957, writes that the rental swim suits were made out of an itchy blue wool.

Higher up on Geary, on the plateau overlooking the ocean from which there are points of heartbreakingly fine wide ocean views, in late afternoon I walk the Sutro Heights land that was the location of Sutro’s mansion, which he opened up to the public in 1885, with a 10 cents admission. He’d hired unemployed men to plant thousands of the blue gum eucalyptus trees in places like Mount Parnassus behind the University of California, land Sutro had given to the University. Sutro planted eucalyptus with the goal in mind of using them as a protective shield against the harsh winds and ocean fog for cypress and ash trees he intended to then plant in between. The eucalyptus trees, from Australia, grew tall, were good windbreakers, but were highly flammable and were mentioned as helping to spread the Oakland fire in modern times. Sutro meant to remove the eucalyptus later, but died in 1898 before he was able to bring this plan to fruition. The eucalyptus more or less took over. On the mansion grounds he built a glass conservatory to the end of protecting warmth-loving plants (he had palm trees too) from the Pacific fog, and to nudge along infant shrubs, grasses, and moss, for use in the sculpted designs of carpet beds that lined the road into the estate, Victorian-influenced gardens. He had exotic plants that wouldn’t normally have grown at ocean’s edge. I have to believe he was a bracing-temp, fog-loving guy with a real desire to bring elements of the European lifestyle to the citizens of his adopted city in the form of diversions and nature-inspired landscape. There’s not a lot about his personal life or motivations in the city library books. At one point he had a Ferris Wheel he bought along with other rides from the 1894 San Francisco Midwinter Exposition set up across the road from Sutro Heights in an area called Sutro Pleasure Grounds. On the ides of January I’ve walked out to the Sutro Heights grounds, imagining myself a tourist going through the gate, on either side of which a lion statue sits. Off to the right is a modest white gazebo, and ahead a flattened chalice bird bath. On the second path to the left of the driveway remains a sculpture of the goddess Dianna, the huntress. Diana has one hand on the head of her hunting hound, the other pulls an arrow from the quiver on her shoulder. On top of the pedestal of the statue are offerings left by visitors: 3 pine cones, 2 tangerines, 1 apple, a seagull feather, a pine branch with a standing cone, and a 1.5-inch heart-shaped plastic locket (I heart you). Diana’s right foot is solidly set, she’s balanced and strong and despite chips broken off, she’s a figure deserving of homage. Did the Sutro heirs leave her because they didn’t want her, or because she was a fitting gift to the site and city? I’m most surprised that some wealthy person hasn’t been able to wrangle the Sutro grounds from the National Park Service and reprise the mansion. It would of course then be walled off to protect from the fog and cold winds, and wouldn’t be open to the masses. Will it in the future go to an Apple offspring, a multi-billionaire ex-politician, sports star, video game King? The Amway queen?

Sutro left a library of books, many about Mexico and its war for independence, along with his own papers. His will stipulated the collection be kept in San Francisco and it now resides at San Francisco State. In his written-about public activities it’s difficult to see into the personal man, and whenever I’d read about him I’d seem to come up against a between-the-lines negativity.

Sutro had enormous energy, big ideas, and visions, and showed stubborn perseverance carrying them out. I began to realize Adolph Sutro was a singular individual, outspoken, courageous in support of what he called the “laboring classes.” He went up against the “Big Four” railroad barons, Huntington, Stanford, Fairmont and Hopkins. And he did so to the extent of taking out a seven-page supplement in The Star paper, in which, among other things Sutro says “Collis P. Huntington is a Lobbyist at the doors of Congress…, He is the spirit incarnate of Monopoly in its most aggressive form.” In San Francisco when the “Big Four” railroad coming out to the Pacific was charging too much for his taste, Sutro opposed “The Octopus” by building his own street car line, finally using the generator at Sutro Baths to make the street cars run, and pricing the ride out to the Ocean at 5 cents. He didn’t shy from taking on big corporations. As a result he made a lot of powerful enemies.

Adolph Sutro’s mother left Prussia with her children after her husband died in 1847 and the 1848 European Revolution destroyed the family’s successful cloth manufacturing business. They settled in Baltimore in 1850. In 1851 Adolph sailed alone to San Francisco, where he then ran a small trades business for nine years, got married, and visited the Comstock silver mines in Nevada. There he saw the need for air ventilation and water drainage, and after some struggle earned the right of franchise to engineer a tunnel and drainage. In the process he got into a political battle with the Bank of California, which was motivated by a desire to subvert Sutro’s right to build the tunnel.

In San Francisco, Sutro ran as a populist mayor but his individualism, including making enemies of the most powerful, probably prevented him from thriving as a politician. I can imagine he may have been too serious a man for politics. But when he ran in 1894 for mayor, he won, despite the opposition of all the daily papers and political organizations.

A May 1895 edition of the San Francisco Examiner reported that the mayor gave a “Disquisition on the Art of Book Stealing” to the then City commissioners. The article seems a sly making-fun-of. The commissioners wanted to open a special collection room in the library for rare and valuable books – sort of like this History Room I’m now in — and Sutro argued against this idea. “No, we will have no private rooms in the public library. We will keep the books in the general room, where everybody can look after them.”( Could it be that as a young man Sutro had been lastingly influenced by the European Revolution that eventually brought about his family’s exile?) He told the commissioners that book thieves were often book lovers who had no money to buy the books. He cautioned that a thief might come into a private room and put a moistened string into a rare book next to the page he wanted, and when he leaves pull the string out with the page attached to it. He suggested that book-loving clergy and teachers might be among the tempted. This tidbit about Sutro’s personality fits with his tell-it-like-it-is character revealed while he was at the Comstock mines – he spent 14 years building the tunnels there – and in his fight against the railroad moguls. But. A citizen in 2017 using special collections of the History Room of the San Francisco Library must take a pencil from a holder on the desk – no pens allowed because of past desecration of the reading materials – and check bags and purses. You give up your library card until you leave. This in the era of the photocopy machine. So whether the page-plucking trick works or not, Sutro knew a thing or two about human nature.

Before he left the commissioners that day, Sutro invited them to come and see his own library, which he claimed was the best in the City.

Why is there little written about Sutro? Did he sink to lesser stature than, say, Huntington and Hopkins, because he refused to play ball with his financial class, didn’t dance and step to their autocratic tune? Had ideas of his own?

The outspoken populist Adolph Sutro was a suitable political precursor for 20th century San Francisco. He was a soft-spoken champion of the working man, an engineer by original trade with a certain natural can-do bent. A civilized man, but a realist. He had two daughters and four sons who may have influenced him to look to the future. And he had one of the most beautiful views on the north California coast just outside his door to plump up his elan vital. He introduced Bermuda grass in California, he advocated for Arbor Day, enjoyed children, and supported kindergartens – he would often tell children stories that he’d made up on the spot. He died in his San Francisco home, in summer, so he may have sailed over the horizon on our signature fog, waving to the seals on the rocks next to his Baths. His ashes were buried on Sutro Heights.

(Copyright©2017, Penny Skillman who is at work on a travel memoir.)


  1. George Hollister April 7, 2017

    Adolf Sutro was not the only notable person to emerge from the booming small town riches of Gold Hill and Virginia City, Nevada. VC had a population of about 25,000 at it’s peak. Check this out:

    “Notables who won their start in Virginia City included Samuel Clemens who first reported as Mark Twain for the Territorial Enterprise. George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst, founded his economic empire with Comstock ore. The Bank of California with its leaders William Ralston and William Sharon dominated Nevada’s economy in the 1860s and early 1870s. John Mackay and James Fair became nationally famous as great silver barons. William Stewart, a lawyer, argued the famed Single-Ledge Case that settled ownership claims on the Comstock. As a U.S. Senator, he played a pivotal role in the development of the 1866 National Mining Law including its important 1872 amendment. Today, this legislation still governs mining in the United States.
    Other residents of note included Philipp Deidesheimer, inventor of the famed square-set timber method. Richard Jose, an orphaned Cornish immigrant who sang for handouts on the streets of Virginia City, earned international renown as a performer. Father Patrick Manogue, builder of the magnificent St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church in 1876, became the Sacramento bishop of an expansive western diocese. Albert Michelson left Virginia City for Annapolis and eventually won the Nobel Prize for his optics and his measurements of the speed of light. Newspaper publisher Joseph Goodman, who gave Samuel Clemens his start as a writer, took his own place in history by cracking the code of the Mayan calendar. Gold Hill gave Nevada its first native-born governor with Emmet Boyle.”

  2. Rick Weddle April 9, 2017

    Excellent article on Sutro thank you. Always been fascinated with the story, whenever it arose. The ruins of the baths, alone, are something to behold. Had no idea the Baths’ generator facility pulled the cable for the famous SF Cable Cars. Also, laughed long and loud at Sutro, as SF’s very Mayor, delivering to his colleagues on the City’s Commission a “Disquisition on the Art of Book Stealing.” A long-neglected Pier of Literature: Shoplifting?

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