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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 146R: Sutro Tower

Sutro Tower turned 50 this week, so let's revisit this classic Outside Lands Podcast about it.
by Nicole Meldahl - Jul 8, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 146R: Sutro Tower Outside Lands Podcast Episode 146R: Sutro Tower

(above) View N from Mt. Davidson, 1973

Looking north across Miraloma Park to Mt. Sutro and Sutro Tower
Greg Gaar


Podcast Transcription

WNP146R - Sutro Tower

Nicole: [00:00:00] The following is a classic episode of Outside Lands San Francisco. Dates mentioned in this week's podcast pertain to past events only.

Peter: Hello, I'm Peter Linenthal, and you're listening to Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

Woody: It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David.

David: Yes. Woody.

Woody: Why are you Mickey Mouse this week?

David: I don't know because you are being very deep voice and, and, and a resonant…

Woody: That wasn't me.

David: And I thought I would, I thought I would do, you know, a counterpoint to that.

Woody: I'm gonna talk like this the entire time.

David: Like Batman?

Woody: I'm Batman, I'm Woody.

David: And I'm Robin.

Woody: You're [00:01:00] my ward. David!

David: I, I have some, well, I have some demands.

Woody: That's my ward.

David: I wanna stay up later every night.

Woody: Actually…

David: And more frozen bananas and chocolate.

Woody: I'm gonna make you a ward of the state, San Francisco State, where you graduated.

David: Oh, no.

Woody: We already did that podcast. David, this week, I wanna tell you a little story from my childhood. When I was…

David: Okay.

Woody: When I was a boy of, I guess I was seven, and I was in my grandmother's house, which was a, a basement apartment in the Richmond district.

David: Is that the one with the pink frosting on the outside of the building?

Woody: No, no. That’s a different one. No, we were in, it was like one of those in-laws behind the garage.

David: I see.

Woody: Anyway, we had pipes on the ceiling. She had a TV and we'd go and watch TV. And, but this is the days when cable television was a crazy odd luxury for people. Like, I didn't know anybody with cable TV, although I think it [00:02:00] existed.

David: I had, I had cable for a short period of time because San Bruno, California was one of the first…

Woody: That's right.

David: Municipalities to build their own cable system, which they have to this day.

Woody: I heard, I remember that.

David: And then they gave it to everybody for free to start with. And then they took it away.

Woody: Well, we poor urban youths didn't wanna pay for cable. That seemed crazy to pay for TV.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, we had a little rabbit ears antenna on top of my grandmother's TV.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And it barely got some stations. And so, there were few cartoons for me to watch. It was the day when it was like three stations and like two UHF stations, right? Or whatever.

David: You paint such a terrible picture. Did you eat like lead paint flakes off the window sill too?

Woody: No. We ate like Vienna sausages and cheese out of a can, but that's not my story. My story is, I remember this wondrous day in the summer of 1973 when suddenly, I was able to get all these stations, like two or [00:03:00] three, and I got to see Kimba the White Lion, and it came.

David: On Channel 44?

Woody: Yeah. And it totally came in clear and I was like, I have a whole new cartoon channel essentially.

David: I wanna tell you something, Woody.

Woody: Yes.

David: The tower is on.

Woody: That's what…

David: The Tower is on.

Woody: That's what it was. Sutro Tower turned on and suddenly I could watch cartoons on Channel 44 in the Richmond district.

David: What is Sutro Tower?

Woody: Well, this is an, everybody knows what Sutro Tower is, because you cannot miss it. If you have visited San Francisco even for an hour, you see Sutro Tower. This thing is the biggest, most obvious landmark in the city of San Francisco, which makes sense.

David: It’s the devil’s pitchfork.

Woody: So sad.

David: The biggest eyesore in the, on the West coast.

Woody: Yeah. But I have to say, it's, it's kind of reversed its reputation with a lot of people. But we'll get there. Let's talk about the beginning. Sutro Tower is kind of to the side of Mount Sutro. It's on a flat spot [00:04:00] up on the hills, looking down on San Francisco.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Near Twin Peaks, right?

David: It's just, just west of Twin Peaks. It's, I mean, it's almost like, Mount Sutro is the third peak of Twin Peaks, right?

Woody: And it's a giant 977-foot tall, looks like a radio tower.

David: Which is already on an 800-foot tall hill.

Woody: Yes. And it's kind of got three, it's kind like three legged with prongs reaching into, piercing into the clouds. And it's painted with orange or kind of red and white stripes.

David: Yep.

Woody: And it's the most gigantic eyesore you could possibly imagine in San Francisco. That's what we're gonna talk about this week.

David: Yay.

Woody: So, Sutro Tower, it had a predecessor, David. Which I think you know about, in that same spot.

David: It did, yeah.

Woody: You didn't know that?

David: It had a different, yeah, no. It had, there was a different tower there.

Woody: Yeah.

David: There was a different broadcasting tower. Are we just gonna go backwards in [00:05:00] time? From, from, yeah, so there was a different broadcasting tower there.

Woody: Right. Which, and, and why was there a broadcasting tower at all? I mean, what happened? It’s television, my friend.

David: Right.

Woody: Television is what changes everything. It's after World War II. It's 1949. And television is a big deal. And so, we live in a very hilly city.

David: Yes.

Woody: And it's hard to get the signal through everywhere. So, they built a…

David: Tell me about it.

Woody: They built a tower, which was only 580-feet tall.

David: Right.

Woody: To help broadcast the television stations at the time.

David: Well, so I believe it was just KGO. Which was Channel 7, right?

Woody: That, that might be right. KGO could be channel, yeah, it was KGO.

David: Built its broadcasting station on top of Mount Sutro.

Woody: Right.

David: Other stations had their broadcast from San Bruno Mountain and other places. And, and that, KGO had built, built this tower on top of Mount Sutro. And why is it called Mount Sutro, Woody?

Woody: Well, [00:06:00] I'll tell you. So, we talk a lot about Adolph Sutro, who was long dead by this time. It was 50 years he'd been deceased.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But he owned that area. He owned a big chunk of the middle of San Francisco.

David: And so, his heirs continued to own it up until the ‘40s, right?

Woody: That’s right. And his grandson had built right next, right where Sutro Tower is today, essentially.

David: Right.

Woody: A, it looks sort of like a Swiss chalet, but it was essentially a big mansion.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Up on that same little plateau in the ‘30s.

David: We’re talking about Adolph G. Sutro,.

Woody: Right. Like a grandson.

David: Right. His, our Adolph Sutro’s grandson. And he built this mansion, which was built, it was built by a pretty well-known architect at the time, Harold Stoner. Who we've done a podcast on.

Woody: Right.

David: And Harold Stoner also, I, did a remodel of the Sutro Baths, the entrance of the Sutro Baths. So, he was working with the Sutro family.

Woody: Right.

David: Extensively in the ‘30s, right?

Woody: Yeah. And Stoner, if you remember the podcast, you, really liked these sort of [00:07:00] fairytale sort of fantastic designs, right?

David: Very fanciful.

Woody: Yeah.

David: So, buildings are still like that you see around the city today.

Woody: Yeah. In Balboa Terrace and stuff.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But so, the Sutro Mansion was kinda, like I said, it looked kinda like a Swiss castle. It was kind of an interesting place. So, ABC, KGO puts a tower right next to it, essentially.

David: Right.

Woody: And they use the mansion, which I assume they rented or bought from Adolph G., as the recording studio for a while.

David: Yeah. Up on top of the hill. They broadcast their, they broadcast their, their broadcast from there. So, they…

Woody: Right. Not a recording studio. Yeah.

David: So news reports or whatever would be from the mansion.

Woody: Right. They did that for a while. It was really interesting. So, that's where we were at some point, right? It was like just another tower up there. It wasn't, it was 580-feet, but it was like a more thin sort of radio tower. It wasn't as gigantic. What changed, and this is what cracks me up. It's just like this would never happen today. Now I know people complained about the plans for the Golden Gate Bridge, which is an icon. Everybody thinks [00:08:00] it's beautiful, it's amazing. But back then you could understand it, people were like, you can't put a big bridge on that beautiful, you know, natural setting. People fought Coit Tower, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: It was like, how can you put a big concrete tower on?

David: Yes.

Woody: And we both, we like both those things now, right?

David: Yeah. Well, yeah.

Woody: Somehow Sutro Tower got approved and apparently it was all kind of done under the radar. That's kind of a connection. That's, yeah.

David: That's a good one, Woody. But so, the, in general, the broadcasting of TV signals was done from two different places, right?

Woody: Yeah.

David: San Bruno Mountain.

Woody: Right.

David: Which was Channel 4, the Chronicle.

Woody: KPIX or something?

David: KPIX was actually, adjoined KGO.

Woody: Oh, okay.

David: On, on Mount Sutro.

Woody: Right.

David: And they wanted to build on Mount Sutro and Channel 4 didn't want that. They wanted San Bruno Mountain. But after a bunch of studies, I think they realized that San Bruno Mountain was too close to the [00:09:00] airport to build a giant tower on top of.

Woody: Yeah. Can you imagine a thing would just like stick up, go around that thing.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So?

David: So Sutro, so Mount Sutro won out, right?

Woody: Right, right.

David: And that, and even, you know, even the Chronicle and KRON sued to still not allow it, but it never, that didn't come to fruition.

Woody: Right.

David: And Sutro Tower was approved.

Woody: Kind of secretly.

David: And was begun in 1971.

Woody: Yeah. And I remember reading it was sort of like, because you have to, the media companies were all kind of connected, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, the Chronicle, the newspaper was connected to KRON, the TV station.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, they were sort of a, a collusion not to report so much.

David: Right.

Woody: On this approval and this petition to build this giant tower, cause they wanted it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they didn't want people to complain and protest. So, it was only when it really got started that people went, [00:10:00] what the heck are you doing there?

David: Yeah.

Woody: It’s, and I remember there was like some newspaper thing where they, they said there are rumors it's gonna be painted like orange and white stripes. And the media guy said, no, come on. It's not gonna be painted with big orange and white stripes. And then sure enough, yeah, they painted it with like reddish and white strips.

David: So, I mean, you were just a kid, but I, I didn't know when I heard that recording that said, “the tower was on,” I didn't know what that meant, cause I lived in San Bruno and I couldn't really see Sutro Tower from where I lived. But do…

Woody: Are you sure?

David: Yeah. I'm not sure, but no, cause San Bruno Mountain's in the way.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I mean, and you know, we had big bushes in our front yard too. So, and I wasn't allowed to go across the street and everything was scary. There was a thief in San Bruno Park.

Woody: You have a point.

David: Yeah. Could you, as a child, do you remember seeing it being built? Do you remember?

Woody: No.

David: Does, does that ring a bell with you when you saw these?

Woody: No, I, I've seen pictures, but I, I don't remember it being built as a kid. I just remember, like I said, my first experience with it [00:11:00] was the cartoons came on.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And I was like, what happened? And it was, “the tower is on,” which was you, you said that, but that's sort of like a little promo that they would do.

David: On every station.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I mean, they had this voiceover. Very big brothers. Now we can see it. Now I get channel 44.

Woody: Yeah. And it's funny, there were protests when it was starting to be built and there were complaints about it marring the view and the skyline and the whole thing. Herb Caen, the columnist didn't like it. Nobody liked it.

David: Right.

Woody: Right And it barely got approved. But I gotta tell you, you gotta think about it. It's like today, if they said, oh you have spotty wireless internet.

David: Right.

Woody: But this will be built and you'll have great wireless internet. I think people would probably be okay with it. And that's what it was like then, TV.

David: Yeah.

Woody: It was like suddenly people want TV and they got TV in.

David: Right.

Woody: So, they don't want to complain about it, right? Even though it's a big, giant, ridiculous looking thing. And so, it still is a TV tower. This is funny now because it's like, cable [00:12:00] is everywhere. People are seeing things on the internet.

David: Right.

Woody: And it does have a wireless component, but, and it does do like fires and police band, radio stuff.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And it does I think regular radio too.

David: Right. But, and, and at some point, well just the last few years, I think it all went digital, right? So, the broadcast all went digital?

Woody: Yeah.

David: They had to redo all the stuff.

Woody: Apparently they still need it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Which is kind of funny to me.

David: Still need to broadcast. Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. But it's like people had to have their TV. So, it was just gonna go and, and it's actually, let's talk a little bit about it. It's got, like I said, it's got three legs. It's got, it's 977 feet tall.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Which is giant. It's got 3.5 million pounds of steel.

David: Yep.

Woody: And it's embedded in 15 million pounds of cement. This thing is giant.

David: That’s not gonna fall over.

Woody: No. That's what they say. An earthquake, it's gonna be fine.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And it's got an elevator. You can go up to the top.

David: It’s like eight minutes. [00:13:00] It's got a tiny little elevator.

Woody: Really? Eight minutes?

David: It's got a tiny 2 by 3 foot elevator.

Woody: Have you been to the top?

David: That's, it's on my bucket list, Woody.

Woody: Okay.

David: Christina Moretta, of the San Francisco Public Library, told me she could get me up, up there.

Woody: No way!

David: Yeah.

Woody: All right, Christina.

David: I'm calling her out. She'll never, she doesn't listen to our podcast.

Woody: How does she get in there?

David: I don't know. She says she knows a guy.

Woody: I also heard, and I don't know if you know this is true, but I heard the land is still owned somehow by Sutro descendants.

David: I don't think that's true.

Woody: I wouldn't think that either, but somebody told me that and I was like, really? Somebody's still getting rent on that, but…

David: And do you think that they could, they would tear down that, that mansion today, if it was still there?

Woody: I don't think they'd, I still have a hard time believing they'd build that tower today. I think we're a little more…

David: Yeah.

Woody: Watchdoggy about stuff like that. But David, I might be being too negative about the tower. Because I can tell you a lot of people have started to claim [00:14:00] it and really sort of fetishize it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: As a symbol of San Francisco.

David: I see t-shirts with it on it. And I see people with tattoos. I see…

Woody: Neckties.

David: I see haircuts with it.

Woody: Did you?

David: Yeah, I did. I saw someone with it.

Woody: It’s, it’s painted on all sorts of stuff and even is like, you know, our office, there's a, a place where you can get waxed, right?

David: Yes.

Woody: Called the Tidy Shoppe.

David: Yes.

Woody: Which is like two stores from us. It has little Sutro Tower iconography on their sign.

David: Right. I thought you were gonna say that you could get like a wax job with the Sutro Tower.

Woody: No, I wasn't gonna say that.

David: That's something I made up.

Woody: Although you probably could.

David: Yeah, I could.

Woody: It looks like a giant barbecue fork, but this…

David: The Sutrolean wax.

Woody: Right. A lot of hip businesses like to put the, our sound guy really likes this idea, the wax with the Sutro. Anyway. Hip businesses, you know, kinda like retro modern.

David: All those, all those $30 t-shirt shops.

Woody: Yeah.

David: They [00:15:00] all have Sutro t-shirts.

Woody: Right. It's on the side of little, like food trucks.

David: Yeah.

Woody: It's just a thing now, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: People are claiming it. It's sort of like how Oakland claimed the shipping container dogs.

David: Right.

Woody: You know, it's sort of like industrial. It's cool. And a throwback and, and not the classical beauty of some of the other stuff.

David: So, can a person go up to Sutro Tower?

Woody: A person can. We can't. But people do like.

David: Yeah, but it's not public.

Woody: No.

David: I mean, you have to, you have to go through a gate. You have to be allowed in and all that. There's still…

Woody: Barbed wire.

David: Stuff going on there.

Woody: Yeah. It's probably a terrorist target.

David: Thank you for mentioning that.

Woody: I’m just saying it probably is, you know. So yeah, it's definitely secured and I don't think you can easily get in. But I have to say, if you were going to say, what is the tallest structure in the city, you know, and you'd think, oh, Transamerica Building. Nope. Sutro tower’s bigger here.

David: Well, I mean, it's not hard to figure that one out. Really.

Woody: [00:16:00] Because it's only 128 feet taller, but it's on top of the mountain.

David: Okay. I mean, I guess the difference is, is that there, it's on a, it's on a mountain top.

Woody: All right. We're done with this. We're not gonna talk anymore about Sutro Tower.

David: Okay.

Woody: I'm just, I'm just so disgusted with it when I think about it. How did that thing get built? What was the idea there?

David: You didn’t do anything.

Woody: I was 8!  I was 7! But listener, I'm sure there's a lot of you out there who enjoy Sutro Tower. I apologize. And, and David, I think we should put something on the website, even though it pains me to do it, about Sutro Tower.

David: Well, you know what? Well, I…

Woody: Don't we have pictures of the mansion at least?

David: We do have pictures of the mansion. And I wanna say that, so the mansion, though it was demolished, had two lions that sat out in front, you know. That were, were reminiscent of the lions at Sutro Heights, I think.

Woody: Kind of like framing a stairway or a tree or something.

David: Yeah. They're on each side of the stairway. And I understand, and I'm [00:17:00] embarrassed to say I haven't seen it myself, but I, those lions, or at least one of them, is still, was installed outside the Midtown Terrace Community Center. Which I haven't been to.

Woody: On Clarendon.

David: I need to get over that and look at that.

Woody: I've been there. I don't think I noticed the lion.

David: Yeah, I think it is there. I was told.

Woody: Huh. Well, I think we should put up a picture of the mansion, cause that's an interesting thing.

David: Yeah. And, and, and I've, I've seen some great construction shots of the tower, so we'll see if we can get some of those and put those on the website.

Woody: Okay. What is the website?

David: The website is outsidelands.org Woody. And if you go there, you can read all about the history of the west side of San Francisco, see amazing, thousands of amazing photos, historical photos, and you can become a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project. Which means that you'll be supporting our efforts to preserve and share the history of San Francisco, West side of San Francisco that is.

Woody: Even Sutro Towers.

David: Even Sutro Towers. [00:18:00] It’s right in the middle.

Woody: Well, that sounds great, David. I hope everybody does follow your advice and join the Western Neighborhoods Project.

David: Everybody will follow my advice this week.

Woody: This week. All right. Well, I hope to see you next week, David.

David: I hope so, Woody.

Child: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded at Studio Trilogy in San Francisco, California.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org.

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