San Francisco Cliff House by Mary Germain Hountalas, Sharon Silva |, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
San Francisco Cliff House

San Francisco Cliff House

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by Mary Germain Hountalas, Sharon Silva

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The shifting fortunes of San Francisco’s legendary Cliff House, from raucous seaside roadhouse to fanciful Victorian palace to world-renowned urban destination, are celebrated in this comprehensive illustrated history.

The story of San Francisco’s Cliff House begins in 1863 with a modest white clapboard building perched on a rocky


The shifting fortunes of San Francisco’s legendary Cliff House, from raucous seaside roadhouse to fanciful Victorian palace to world-renowned urban destination, are celebrated in this comprehensive illustrated history.

The story of San Francisco’s Cliff House begins in 1863 with a modest white clapboard building perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the Pacific. Little more than three decades later, following a devastating fire, visionary millionaire Adolph Sutro oversaw construction of an imposing Victorian edifice on the same site. His 1896 “gingerbread palace” drew everyone to its doorstep, from working-class families to the city’s social elite to three U.S. presidents. That grand structure withstood the great earthquake of 1906, but burned to the ground a year later. Sutro’s oldest daughter, Emma Sutro Merritt, immediately set to work on a new Cliff House, which opened in 1909.

In the century since then, the Cliff House has survived a handful of destructive storms, two major earthquakes, three nearby fires, two closures, several facelifts, the swinging sixties, the not-so-swinging seventies, and the often grindingly slow decisions of government. Despite these and other challenges, today’s Cliff House, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is enjoying a renaissance following a two-year, multimillion-dollar restoration. This lavishly illustrated volume chronicles the fortunes of the legendary landmark and the people associated with it–a colorful story that parallels both the history and the irrepressible spirit of the city of San Francisco.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“There are certain Bay Area landmarks that mean so much to so many. And one of the most special must surely be the Cliff House in San Francisco. A new work, ‘The San Francisco Cliff House’…is a centennial celebration of this spectacular and historic edifice…. I was spellbound with the many fascinating photographs. And I was nothing short of ecstatic when I saw several reproductions of early postcards I have in my personal collection. What sent me over the edge, however, was seeing recipes for restaurant favorites like Crab Louis. I just wanted to jump in my car and head to the shrine for an all-day picnic.”
San Jose Mercury News
“a lively text.”
San Francisco Chronicle

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Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony
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9.70(w) x 9.96(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

Part One: The Early Years

In early July 1846, the sleepy pueblo of Yerba Buena, a small enclave of pine-wood shacks and adobes jumbled around a gently curved cove, changed hands. The Mexican flag was replaced by the Stars and Stripes on the plaza that was soon to be renamed Portsmouth Square, after the warship that delivered the conquering Americans. Of course, the Mexicans and the Americans were not the first to settle in this picturesque landscape. They had been preceded by the Ohlone Indians, hunter-gatherers who migrated here probably in the sixth century.

The Ohlones’ world was first interrupted by the arrival of an overland expedition led by Spaniard Gaspar de Portolˆ in 1769. Five years later, another Spanish explorer, Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, accompanied by a handful of soldiers and a Franciscan priest, made his way to the top of a craggy outcropping (today’s Point Lobos) overlooking present-day San Francisco Bay, and planted a cross in the soil. Only two years would pass before Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and a small company of men that included yet another Franciscan priest arrived at a spot nearby. In their role as representatives of the viceroy of New Spain, de Anza’s group raised their own cross at the rocky, windblown tip of the peninsula (today’s Fort Point) and declared it the future home of the Spanish presidio. Next, they headed inland a short distance, where they chose a more temperate location for what would become Mission Dolores de Asis, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order.

Spain’s vast empire was already beginning to unravel, however, and in 1821, Mexico achieved its independence, ending three centuries of colonial rule. But the new rulers would hold the mission and presidio sites for just twenty-five years, before ceding them, without resistance, to the Americans on that July day in 1846. Sources disagree on the size of the settlement at the time, with some putting it at fewer than two hundred souls and others at as many as one thousand. Within a year, the backwater trading post would be renamed San Francisco, and within a dozen years, its population would balloon to nearly fifty-six thousand, a growth triggered by the discovery of gold roughly one hundred miles to the northeast.

The First Cliff House

Samuel Brannan, who had sailed into Yerba Buena cove in 1846, helped fuel that growth. He had arrived a devout Mormon, but in the end proved to be more entrepreneurial than religious. Brannan would eventually launch San Francisco’s first newspaper, open a general store at Sutter’s Fort, in the heart of what would soon become California’s gold country, and buy up large tracts of city real estate.

One piece of land that Brannan “acquired” (no evidence exists that he actually paid for it) was a windy bluff that overlooked Seal Rocks and the Pacific, not far from where the Spanish had planted their cross and near the station that signaled the arrival of ships–originally by semaphore and later telegraph–to the Merchants’ Exchange downtown. The savvy tycoon negotiated a bargain price for the entire cargo of a lumber ship that had broken up on the notoriously rocky shoreline below his land. The salvaged timber was hauled up the cliff and a hotel and restaurant were erected. Brannan named his new establishment Seal Rock House, and most historians put its opening at 1858, though a few push it back to between 1854 and 1857. The primary disagreement is not over the date, however, but rather over the claim that this was the first Cliff House. Those who believe it wasn’t point to the fact that it rose not on the rocky promontory where the Cliff House now stands, but on a site nearby. Those who claim it was insist the distance was not great enough to disqualify it from the legacy. (The Cliff House owners of the 1950s seemed to have favored the latter argument, boldly proclaiming “Since 1858” above the entrance.) Further history of this sprawling scrap-wood hostelry has been lost, except to know that it failed to attract a regular clientele in its early days, possibly because getting there meant traveling over unending sand dunes by horse or mule, and at one point was dubbed the House of Mystery. A circa 1890 photograph taken looking south from the Cliff House identifies the Seal Rock House, and photographs of Ocean Beach from the second decade of the twentieth century continue to show it, albeit much remodeled.

Local real-estate mogul Charles Butler viewed Brannan’s idea of acquiring land on the city’s remote western edge as good business, so in the late 1850s, he purchased the spectacular headland that lay just south of Point Lobos and just north of Ocean Beach, a transaction that was not without difficulty. A potato farmer named Chambers had title to the bluffs and had cultivated them for a number of years, but when Butler tried to buy the 160 acres known as Chambers’ Potato Patch, the farmer was not to be found. Butler discovered that Chambers had gone to Oregon, so he dispatched an agent north to arrange the purchase. The agent proved both a good sleuth and a good negotiator: Chambers reportedly agreed to let his land go for less than the fee Butler paid the agent to make the trip.

Butler’s original plan was to hang on to the land until it could be sold for a handsome profit. But the presence of Brannan’s Seal Rock House and of a second way station, the Ocean House, some four miles south along Ocean Beach, likely jettisoned that plan in favor of a seaside resort for the city’s swells. On October 15, 1863, Butler opened a long, low, white clapboard structure–a writer of the day described it as “looking something like a barracks”–that offered drink, food, rooms, and peerless ocean views. He named it the Cliff House, and he pictured a fashionable neighborhood of pricey villas springing up around it.

Business was slow in the beginning because getting to it from downtown had not changed since the earlier days of the Seal Rock House. Visitors required equal parts fortitude and expert horsemanship along a six-mile route that rose and plunged like a carnival ride. Only the most adventurous day-trippers made the journey, and the earliest Cliff House receipts reflected that limited clientele.

Not surprisingly, it was Butler himself who came up with the solution to that rough ride out to the beach. In 1862, he had formed the Point Lobos Road Company with Senator John P. Buckley, who also became his partner in the Cliff House property, an arrangement stipulated by the state legislature in exchange for granting the road franchise. By spring 1863, several months before the first drink was served, work had begun on a toll road that would deliver travelers efficiently from the western end of Bush Street to the sands of Ocean Beach, passing near the Cliff House. On its completion–reportedly signaled by the detonation of hundreds of kegs of dynamite in the dunes nearby–the one-hundred-ten-foot-wide Point Lobos Avenue proved itself a worthy rival to the roadway that carried visitors from Seventeenth Street, near Mission Dolores, to the Ocean House. The city’s horse fanciers were particularly happy: one stretch of the new thoroughfare boasted a parallel, nearly two-mile, high-speed clay track–the perfect testing ground for their fast-moving trotters. A February 15, 1866 New York Times article describes the macadam surface as being “as smooth as a dollar. . . . At any stable in town you can get a pair of horses that will carry you out there in a half hour . . . my first drive was behind a livery team that brought three of us and a rockaway in twenty-four minutes.” Point Lobos Avenue cost its backers $175,000, which they hoped to recoup quickly at the toll box where they were charging the steep round-trip fare of $1.00.

“A Sort of Family Gathering”

Butler’s state-of-the-art road provided the city’s most prominent families a comfortable ride to his new establishment. Keeping his rarefied clientele happy once they arrived was his next challenge. Toward that end, he wisely leased the Cliff House to Captain Junius Foster, a seasoned hotel man and former purser on the steamship Orizaba, which had ferried men to the goldfields from Panama. Foster was the guiding hand behind the service at the well-regarded International Hotel on Jackson Street, where Butler was living when he purchased the headland. A guest of the time recalled, “meals . . . were on ‘the American plan,’ and not at all bad. Long tables were each adorned with a center line of pies, the line broken by an occasional jelly cake in a high glass dish with glass cover. Facing me sat a stout elderly woman in a . . . red velvet dress with a diamond necklace and fingers literally covered with rings set with every variety of precious stone.” Simply put, Foster knew how to keep a moneyed crowd spending their money.

Just as Butler and Foster had hoped, the best families–the Crockers, the Hearsts, the Stanfords, the Lathams, the Vandewaters–flocked to the broad veranda of the roadhouse, where they sipped refreshments and watched the sea lions cavort on the nearby rocks. Gentlemen arrived astride their stylish trotters, while their wives, friends, and children rolled along more slowly by carriage on the wide macadam drive. Robert O’Brien describes this lively scene in This Is San Francisco: “Almost daily adding crust and elegance to this procession were the Vandewaters in their rockaway, Mrs. S. J. Hensley and friends in her blue, seashell carriage that was drawn by four horses, Mrs. Milton Latham in her brown, yellow-wheeled barouche with the blue satin lining, and various additional matrons of fashion sitting in their neat broughams or basket phaetons with the inevitable Dalmatians trotting docilely along between the rear wheels.” The Cliff House road also saw the West’s first four-in-hand coach imported from England, the property of the clever, colorful Lucky Baldwin, a former horse trader who made millions in the silver rush. Kentucky-born James Ben Ali Haggin, a lawyer who had migrated west and made a fortune investing in the goldfields, “drove the second with a pair of bays and a pair of iron-grays.”

“Everybody knew everybody, so it was a sort of family gathering,” Foster recalled years later when asked about his days at the Cliff House. En route “there was a continual nodding and buzzing from one carriage to another, while there was a constant succession of spins on the track between the flyers. These matches . . . were generally just for the fun of the thing, or for champagne all around for the speeders.”

The road to the Cliff House was always busy. The city’s power brokers took to it in the early morning, before they were bound to their desks for the rest of the day. Their wives and children were driven out along it in the afternoons, happy to breathe in the fresh sea air, and moonlit nights brought out spooning lovers. When the sky was clear and the sea was calm, it seemed as if everybody headed to the beach. Newspaper accounts of the time report as many as twelve hundred teams tying up at the Cliff House hitching posts on a sunny day, with still more visitors forced to go farther down the coast in search of a place to tether their horses.

In the San Francisco Daily Morning Call of June 25, 1864, Mark Twain sang the praises of a trip to the Cliff House: “If one tires of the drudgeries and scenes of the city, and would breathe the fresh air of the sea, let him take the cars and omnibuses, or, better still, a buggy and pleasant steed, and, ere the sea breeze sets in, glide out to the Cliff House. . . . Away you go over paved, or planked, or Macadamized roads, out to the cities of the dead, pass between Lone Mountain and Calvary, and make a straight due west course for the ocean. Along the way are many things to please and entertain . . . the little homesteads . . . Dr. Rowell’s arena castle, and Zeke Wilson’s Bleak House in the sand. Splendid road, ocean air that swells the lungs and strengthens the limbs. Then there’s the Cliff House, perched on the very brink of the ocean, like a castle by the Rhine.”

In another account little more than a week later, Twain describes a second and decidedly less successful trip to the Cliff House, this one in the predawn hours: “The wind was cold and benumbing, and blew with such force that we could hardly make headway against it. It came straight from the ocean, and I think there are icebergs out there somewhere. True, there was not much dust, because the gale blew it all to Oregon in two minutes. . . . From the moment we left the stable, almost, the fog was so thick that we could scarcely see fifty yards behind or before, or overhead; and for a while, as we approached the Cliff House, we could not see the horse at all, and were obliged to steer by his ears. . . . But for those friendly beacons, we must have been cast away and lost. . . .” Strong winds and dense fog–San Franciscans of every era can easily imagine Twain’s journey.

In an article in the Californian, Twain was no more complimentary about what the Cliff House offered indoors than he was about his predawn trip. “There was nothing in sight but an ordinary counter, and behind it a long row of bottles with Old Bourbon, and Old Rye, and Old Tom, and the old, old story of man’s falter and woman’s fall, in them.”

Amelia Ransome Neville, who settled in San Francisco as a young newlywed in the 1850s, provided a somewhat sunnier account of the early days of the Cliff House in her 1932 memoir, The Fantastic City: “From its balcony high above the breakers one gazed through binoculars at the seals or sighted ships beyond the Farallones. . . . There was an excellent cuisine at the Cliff House, specializing in fried Eastern oysters, and a bar famous for its mixed drinks. Mixed spirits, however, were never served to ladies. On cold afternoons we sipped port or sherry on the balcony while men drank high-balls, cocktails, or Tom-and-Jerry at the brass rail indoors.” In an 1894 interview, Charles Butler seconded Neville’s assessment of Foster’s table: He “would have the finest sea fish right out of the ocean and crabs within ten minutes after they were caught. Mushrooms he grew himself. . . . Some of his suppers cost $50 for each person.”

Foster knew that even society people would sometimes try to skip out on those high tabs. On one occasion, two young stockbrokers and their ladies arrived in a carriage, enjoyed several bottles of wine along with plates of duck and frog’s legs, and then the men told the waiter to “charge it” as they headed for their carriage. Foster, overhearing them, quickly invited them all back to the table for another bottle of wine, relieving the women of their sealskin wraps just as they were seated. When that final bottle was finished, the sealskin wraps were nowhere to be found until the gentlemen paid the bill.

Meet the Author

MARY GERMAIN HOUNTALAS has been operating the Cliff House in partnership with her husband, Dan Hountalas, since 1973. Over the years, she has become a serious historian of the building and its environs and a dedicated collector of countless artifacts associated with it, including vintage photographs, postcards, menus, and other memorabilia from every era. She resides in Sausalito, California.

SHARON SILVA is a freelance editor and writer living in San Francisco, California.

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