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Historical photos of the iconic Cliff House in San Francisco, 1860-1950


Local historians regularly disagree about how many cliff houses are built on the northwest edge of San Francisco. Three is the most common answer, some argue that four is correct, and even Feis has its sides.

But everyone agrees that San Francisco wouldn't be the same without its legendary Cliff House, a destination for young and old, rich and humble, presidents and plumbers for a century and a half.

Some observers state that the first Cliff House was built in 1858 by Gold Rush tycoon Samuel Brannan, using lumber recovered from a nearby shipwreck.

But his building stood a short distance to the south of the rocky province where Cliff House stands today and where the second Cliff House - in fact, the first retains - was built in 1863 by local real estate speculator Charles Butler.

Their clapboard structure offered unparalleled ocean views and its trendy, high-priced dining room promoted the carriage trade well. Simply put, the Cliff House was that place.

Within five years, Butler's structure had tripled in size, an expansion that some call the Second Cliff House. Others, who regard Brannon's building as the first, have dubbed it the third. Still others insist that Butler was the first with growing pains.

These changes meant that more and more people—people with no money—were making their way to a distant beach for fun.

Over time, the respectable nature of Cliff House's clients began to fade, as gamblers, grifters, and their girls gradually replaced the town's first families as regular visitors.


Adolf Sutro, a mining engineer who had made a fortune by modernizing the tunnels of the silver-rich Comstock Lode, decided to protect the formerly venerable establishment from his descendants in treachery and purchased it in 1883. Cliff House in a family destination.

After a few years of quiet management, Cliff House was severely damaged when a schooner parallel left with a cargo, including burning oil lamps and dynamite powder, exploded on the morning of January 16, 1887, while rolling at Lands End. done.

The sound of the explosion was heard a hundred miles away and the entire northern part of the tavern collapsed. The building was repaired, but was later completely destroyed by fire on Christmas night 1894 due to a faulty flue.

Employees were unable to save the guest register, which contained the signatures of three US presidents and dozens of world-famous visitors. This incarnation of the Cliff House, with its various extensions, lasted 31 years.


By 1896, Sutro, who owned more than a thousand acres of seaside property, had replaced the burnt remains with a monumental, multi-turret building reminiscent of a French château, with architectural grandeur. There were facilities.

The new Cliff House was indeed a grand sight, yet Sutro was intent on making it a destination for working class and wealthy families. He succeeded by offering a menu with affordable prices—a penny got you a seat on the porch and a drink—and a rail line that cost only a nickel and ended at the beach.

Eleven years later, the Cliff House is on fire once again, causing Sutro's "Gingerbread Palace" to burn to the ground. In its place a "huge gray shoebox" of concrete and steel opened in 1909.

In 1914, the guidebook Bohemian San Francisco described it as "one of San Francisco's great bohemian restaurants".


Although in the decades that followed, the building was regularly refurbished, refurbished, and remodeled, closed and reopened, bought and sold, the 1909 "Shoebox" is today's Cliff House.

In its lifetime, it has boasted everything from the largest gift shop in the world to an employee roster that included Rudolph Valentino as a dance instructor.

Today, the Cliff House remains an iconic destination and a symbol of hospitality as the westernmost end of the city. Indeed, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a stop at the Cliff House.

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