If you’ve ever been to the Cliff House, you’ll know that it gives you one of the most beautiful views in California. The building is the farthest west that you can go in San Francisco and a classic choice to many when it comes to planning a romantic dinner. But besides views and food, CH has a unique historical past that ties us to the San Francisco community from over a century ago. Self made millionaire Adolph Sutro, who is also credited for the creation of the Sutro Baths, established the Cliff House as a family friendly restaurant in 1881. Over a hundred years later, though having been destroyed by fires and earthquakes, the tradition of the Cliff House still stands. Tucked away past the Great Highway, this is a favorite San Francisco spot for locals and tourists alike. Check below to view the full history of the Cliff House.
After the Gold Rush, San Francisco’s population exploded and the city’s downtown area got very crowded with new buildings and neighborhoods. Real estate developers, eager to make more money, saw Lands End and its unparalleled beauty as a new place to develop. They constructed the Cliff House in 1863 as a fashionable resort for the wealthy. The modest one-story wood-frame structure was skillfully situated on top of the cliff overlooking Seal Rocks, providing breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific Coast line.
In 1881, Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire, philanthropist, and later mayor of San Francisco, bought the Cliff House from the original owners. He had plans to re-establish the restaurant as a wholesome, family-friendly venue and for next few years, he remodeled rooms, hired new management and lured families back to the restaurant. Sutro also began construction on a railroad that would transport more people to this seaside attraction. Unfortunately, a very tragic event happened on Christmas Day, 1894 when fire destroyed the original wood-frame Cliff House.
Within six months of the devastating fire, Sutro had plans for a new Cliff House and after spending $75,000, he proudly opened the second Cliff House in 1896. The new building was a grand, eight-story tall castle-like structure with turrets, decorative spires, fanciful roof dormers and an observation tower. The new resort, designed specifically for dining, dancing and entertainment, had several private dining rooms, parlors, bars, and kitchens at the ground level. Private lunchrooms, a large art gallery, a gem exhibit, a photo gallery, a reception room, panoramic views from large windows and an open-air veranda were all located on the upper floors. Although this elegant building survived the 1906 earthquake, sadly, it was no less fire proof than the first Cliff House. In September 1907, fire once again destroyed the Cliff House.
After Sutro’s death in 1898, his properties were managed by his daughter Emma Sutro Merritt. A year after the destruction of the second Cliff House, Mrs. Merritt obtained approval to construct a third Cliff House. Because so many of the city’s wood-frame buildings burned after the 1906 earthquake, builders began to construct San Francisco’s new buildings in fireproof steel-reinforced concrete. The third Cliff House, constructed in concrete, was designed in a streamline, classically inspired architectural style; the building settled into the landscape rather than dominating the ocean view. Open to the public in 1909, the Cliff House carried on the tradition of sumptuous dining rooms and elegant entertainment.
World War I and the Great Depression took their toll on the Lands End area and the Sutro family sold the Cliff House in 1937 to other operators. During the 1940s and 1950s, the owners modified the Cliff House several times. In 1977, the National Park Service acquired the property to become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service rehabilitated the historic Cliff House in 2005 to return it to its original neoclassical design. Architects added an adjacent Sutro Wing to improve access to ocean views, allowing diners and visitors alike to continue the long tradition of enjoying the magnificent Pacific from the Cliff House high above Seal Rocks.