Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Dream of Adolph Sutro Thrilled San Francisco

Adolph Sutro, a mining engineer who made his fantastic fortune in the Comstock Lode Silver Mine, bought acreage at the western headlands of San Francisco and built his home there in 1881. Fifteen years later, on a three-acre parcel, he built the Sutro Baths. This extravagant Victorian structure cost $1 million and contained seven salt water plunges of varying temperatures, including slides, springboards and diving towers. The grand opening was held on March 14, 1896. The pools contained a total of 1.7 million gallons and there were 20,000 bathing suits for rent (the facility could hold 10,000 people at a time). The tropical winter garden was lush with palms and gingerbread detail, including massive galleries for those who only wished to watch the swimmers. Sutro also built his own railroad to take the public from the City out to the Baths.

There were also stage shows and extravaganzas held in the structure. Three restaurants could accommodate 1,000 people at a sitting. A museum displayed oddities such as mummies, a miniature motorized amusement park made entirely of toothpicks, dozens of stuff animals, and Tom Thumb's clothing.

The baths were popular for a brief time, but were closed off and an ice skating rink was installed in the southern-most section of the building in 1937. There was originally glass between the rink and the baths, but by the 1950s, the panels had been painted over, though you could still see the vast, ghostly pools through a scratched area. The revenue from skating was not enough to maintain the structure, and it was slated for demolition when it burned in 1966. Sutro's home on the hills above the baths had also burned. The entire area is now a park, and the ruins of the concrete pools can still be seen today, adjacent to the newly renovated Cliff House.

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