Official Opening: March 14, 1896
Closed: 1966 (Burned on June 26, 1966)
What couldn't you see at Sutro Baths? Egyptian Mummies? Stuffed birds, stuffed apes, stuffed snakes fighting stuffed jaguars? Totem poles? Cigar-store Indians? How about tropical plants? Pinned insects? Coin collections? Photograph collections? Fine Art Collections? They were all there. Oh yes, you could also see up to ten thousand bathers (the capacity, by the owner's estimate) swimming, diving, sliding, swinging, soaking and lolling about.
Adolph Sutro began planning his lavish public baths in 1888, offering a $500 prize for their design. Architects C.J. Colley and Emil S. Lemme, who also designed the second Cliff House for Sutro, were the winners. After years of amazing engineering work, a long fight with the Southern Pacific over railway access, and the investment of over a million dollars in the project, Sutro had his natatorium. The official opening to the public wasn't until 1896, but private events, tours, and splashes had been hosted for almost two years.
The seven pools, the stage, the seating for thousands to observe were all topped by a glazed roof of 100,000 panes of glass to allow the sunlight. Unheated seawater filled the largest of the tanks. The rest were heated to varying temperatures, as Jerry Flamm relates in his book, "Good Life in Hard Times": "They ranged, with ten-degree gaps, from ice-cold to a steaming warm eighty degrees. A favorite 'let's see you do this' dare among the hordes of kids scampering around the pools was to dive into the 'hot' pool, climb out, race down to the small ice-cold pool, and dive in there. An almost cutting sensation was experienced as the ice water covered your warm skin. I sometimes wonder how many of our gang died before their time, due to early heart attacks stemming from this mad folly."
And one could enter the pools in a number of ways, thanks to Sutro: trampolines, flying rings, slides, swings, toboggan slides, and diving platforms surrounded the water. All the bathers were required to use the establishment's suits, as Jerry Flamm remembered: "Most of the suits were floppy looking, and usually gray in color with white stripes around the bottom edges. Women's suits had a skirt, often stretched from innumerable launderings, Men's suits had half skirts in front until about 1925."
The proprietor held numerous events, fairs, competitions, beauty contests, and legitimate championships to keep the public coming to the Baths. In 1913 and 1914 the Pacific Coast Swimming Championships featured Hawaiian swimmer Duke P. Kahanamoku (Olympic gold medalist) setting world records. Less prestigious draws included appearances by trapeze acts, contortionists, dwarf boxing matches, magicians and high-diving canines.
On Merrie Way, above the Baths, Sutro installed amusement park rides appropriated from the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park. Children could get themselves properly prepared for the carnival atmosphere inside the Baths with a ride on the "Firth Wheel" and the "Haunted Swing".
After Sutro's death, his heirs struggled to keep the enterprise afloat. They unsuccessfully tried to get the City of San Francisco to buy the Baths by bond issue for $687,000 in 1912. His daughter, the physician Emma Merritt struck out in 1919 putting out a price tag of $410,000. Eventually Grandson Adolph G. Sutro ran the operation, renovating the Baths' look with a south seas theme ("Tropic Beach"). He brought in ice skating, offered dancing, ping-pong, basketball and an indoor beach for those rainy days.
In 1952, losing money every year, Grandson Sutro gave up. He sold the Baths to George Whitney, owner of Playland-at-the Beach, for $250,000. Whitney, unable to keep up with the pools and pumping system upkeep, took out the swimming activities altogether. He closed the Baths down for good in 1966. Soon after, the building burned down, in what some called a suspicious fire.
A developer had plans to erect a housing and shopping complex on the site, but in 1980 the National Park Service bought the land for over five million dollars, adding it to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.