Adolph Sutro
December 9, 2012 7:32 PM   Subscribe

Anyone who has spent any time at all on the Western side of San Francisco is familiar with the name Sutro. Being the 24th mayor of the City was actually one of his smaller and lesser-known accomplishments. Born in Prussia in 1830, he first made a name for himself with The Sutro Tunnel, which was used to drain water from underneath the Comstock Lode, improving working conditions and lowering the mine's operating costs. He sold his interest in the company he founded and left for San Francisco, where he built himself a mansion, among other things...

The Sutro Baths: Located at Land's End, it contained not just swimming pools, but also a museum and a concert hall. Opened in 1896, the largest pool (or "tank" as it as known) was converted into an ice-skating (and later roller-skating) rink in its later years. The structure was set to be demolished when a fire broke out, in what was apparently no accident, in June of 1966. The ruins of the Baths are now an attraction in and of themselves. Across the street you can walk around the area that was once his estate.

The Baths were sadly not the only structure Sutro financed to be destroyed by fire. He was responsible for the most elaborate (and short-lived) incarnation of the Cliff House (pictured here), which opened in 1896 and burned to the ground in 1907.

Rising above even the thickest fog, Sutro Tower broadcast signals for 11 TV stations and four FM radio stations. It is located atop Mt. Sutro, which along with Mt. Davidson was completely barren before Mr. Sutro enlisted schoolchildren to plant trees (mostly Eucalyptus) as windbreaks.
posted by MattMangels (24 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Kids from Ida B. Wells High School working with the National Park Service did some archeology on the site of the mansion and dug up the floor of the conservatory. (More.)

And if you want to get your 19th century drink on, I recommend the Comstock Saloon in North Beach.
posted by feckless at 7:36 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, this guy did so much that I knew I would forget something; he also built his own railroad so that there would be a way for people to easily get to the Baths.
posted by MattMangels at 7:39 PM on December 9, 2012

San Francisco writer Herb Caen once wrote, “I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Man that would be so awesome - I'd totally have an excuse to skip work tomorrow.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 7:46 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, they built some amazing things in those days. Hey, I can afford to build even more awesome buildings today, and I'm willing!

Question: May I?

Answer: No way in hell.
posted by alexei at 8:07 PM on December 9, 2012

Another fun Sutro fact: the Sutro library, housed at UCSF, is the remnants of Sutro's book collection:

"Today the Sutro is a major resource for genealogy research. It continues to gather a remarkable list of historical and genealogical publications from the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. The surviving original collections of Sutro include a wide variety of pre-1900 British scientific papers, a unique collection of Mexican works, and many rare ancient Hebrew texts."
posted by dd42 at 9:10 PM on December 9, 2012

The Tower loomed over my house like a giant red alien spider when I lived in the neighborhood just west of Mount Sutro for six years. I actually miss that tower a lot, as creepy as it sometimes was. It's an unmistakable San Francisco landmark.
posted by blucevalo at 9:36 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually miss that tower a lot, as creepy as it sometimes was.

Agreed, blucevalo. I spent only four months living in its shadow but I still get a pang even when I see photos of it.

Also, lovely post. I love the ruins of the baths.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:48 PM on December 9, 2012

Sutro Tower has an account on Flickr, along with a collection of posters from its run for mayor last year.
posted by migurski at 9:59 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Upcoming documentary project described here.
posted by zepheria at 10:02 PM on December 9, 2012

His name is plastered all over western Nevada too. My high school was on Sutro St.
posted by telstar at 10:08 PM on December 9, 2012

We called the tower Ol' Spikey. You can't escape his baleful gaze!—except when it was too foggy and he got lonely and wondered where everyone went.

(Man, 'spiky' just doesn't look right.)
posted by fleacircus at 10:26 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The museum was full of insane and wonderful machines that did things if you put in a penny. Used to be a real treat to go there when I was a kid. Thanks for this post!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:30 AM on December 10, 2012

Sutro and Company was one of the oldest brokerage firms west of the Mississippi, started in 1858. Ceased existence in 2000, when it merged with RBC Dain Rausher. They used to have a beautiful office on California Street.
posted by wuwei at 1:17 AM on December 10, 2012

I love that tower and this post so much!

I've made a bit of a project of shooting the tower out my back door in the Mission. I'm going to have to move soon and am not looking forward to losing my special relationship to it. :(

Here are about a million of my (mostly) sunset pix.
posted by wemayfreeze at 6:07 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

This post reminded me to take my dog walking around Stow Lake this (lovely clear) morning. Sutro Tower in the pre-dawn light, reflected in the lake with the moon over it is awesome.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 6:33 AM on December 10, 2012

Lovely post, thanks for it. The Sutro Heights Park out by the beach is one of the city's hidden gems. You have to catch it on a non-foggy day but the views and landscaping are just terrific. I didn't realize Sutro was behind all the eucalyptus on our hilltops. Kind of a shame, really, although the natural windswept hills like Bernal aren't so lovely.

Is there a good readable but scholarly history book about San Francisco? I'm fuzzily aware of the "Big Four" (Stanford, Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins) but I don't understand how Sutro fit into that world. Wikipedia notes Sutro was Jewish, that's interesting. Did anyone care?

It's inevitable the Space Claw would become the focus of the discussion here. It's mostly an accident Sutro's name is on it at all but it's become a beloved icon of the city, at least if you're under 45. (My sunrise photo).
posted by Nelson at 8:06 AM on December 10, 2012

My friend created this site on the ruins of the Sutro Baths. We used to picnic there. I'm also incredibly fond of Sutro Heights--feels like a private playground.
posted by Riverine at 8:48 AM on December 10, 2012

Nelson, Imperial San Francisco is great though I don't specifically remember Sutro in it.
posted by migurski at 9:48 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ahhh. Thanks. The Sutro Baths are one of my favorite places on earth.

It was a really strange perspective-twist when I learned that eucalyptus trees are not native to California. I remember them everywhere when I was a kid - they were a central part of the feeling of lowland & coastal California. And yet they are completely alien, related to nothing else on the landscape, just an Australian import planted everywhere by enthusiastic terraformers.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:07 AM on December 10, 2012

I would pay good money to see Sutro Tower battle the Oakland Cranes.

(Also, wouldn't the Oakland Cranes be a great name for a sports team? Better than the A's, at least - originally the Philadelphia Athletics. Philly is bad at naming baseball teams.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:08 AM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

And yet they are completely alien, related to nothing else on the landscape

This describes so much of California, it's ridiculous; whether it is L.A.'s palm trees, the Sacramento Valley's orchards, the San Joaquin Valley's cows, or its people.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:15 AM on December 10, 2012

I'd like to personally commend Warren Crandall, on the off chance that he happens to be reading this, for telling the truth about the fire that destroyed the Baths. Since the cost of bribing the two people in the City Gov't was $240,000 (well over $1 million in today's dollars), I'd be very curious to find out how much money the place was insured for.
posted by MattMangels at 1:31 PM on December 10, 2012

And madcaptenor, in the same way Philly sucks at naming teams Oakland is terrible at naming stadiums. Its former name of "McAfee Coliseum" is now especially funny considering the fate of that company's founder. " Coliseum" is just awful. I can't believe I'm saying this but I really would have preferred " Coliseum".
posted by MattMangels at 10:18 PM on December 10, 2012

At least you can pretend that stands for "Oakland.coliseum". Better than most naming deals.
posted by alexei at 12:57 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

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