Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 488: Cliff House Camera Obscuras

Arnold Woods is joined by Robert Tacchetto, the owner-operator of the current Giant Camera at the Cliff House; Gary Stark, creator of the Cliff House Project website; and John Martini, former National Park Service ranger to talk about the Cliff House Camera Obscuras and to update the damage suffered during recent storms.
by Nicole Meldahl - Jan 13, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 488: Cliff House Camera Obscuras Outside Lands Podcast Episode 488: Cliff House Camera Obscuras

(above) Third Cliff House, circa 1955

Third Cliff House and autos on Point Lobos Ave, viewed from Sutro Heights. Redwood moderne exterior Cliff House. Camera Obscura (later Giant Camera) at left center.

Podcast Transcription

488 - Cliff House Camera Obscuras

Arnold: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, Podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I’m Arnold Woods. And you may have noticed you did not hear Nicole introduce herself. We have postponed the second part of the San Francisco State Strike podcast, so that we can instead talk about a recent event that has really saddened us.  And also, Nicole is on assignment this week doing actual deadline work for us. We wanna make sure she's back for the second part of the strike podcast. What we will be talking about this week is all the recent storms and the significant damage that they've done to a west side landmark. We are, of course, talking about the Giant Camera, which is the camera obscura on the back patio of the Cliff House. We'll get into that in a bit, but it also got us to thinking about the history of camera obscuras in San Francisco.

We wrote an OpenSFHistory blog [00:01:00] post about that last weekend. One of the prior camera obscuras was also at the Cliff House, specifically Adolph Sutro’s grand Cliff House, that was completed in 1896 and burned down in 1907. However, there is a good deal of mystery surrounding the Sutro camera obscura, and a lot going on with the current camera obscura. So, we thought this would be a good time to have a discussion about both of the Cliff House camera obscuras. And to help figure this all out, we brought in not one, not two, but three guests this week, with a lot of knowledge about the Cliff House and the camera obscuras there. First, we've got Robert Tacchetto.

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: Who is the longtime owner and operator of the giant camera at the Cliff House. Welcome Robert.

Robert: Hi. Thank you Arnold.

Arnold: Good to have you here. Next up we have Gary Stark, who created the magnificent Cliff House project website that focused primarily on the Sutro Cliff House. Hello Gary.

Gary: Hello.

Arnold: And [00:02:00] finally we have with us former National Park Service Ranger and longtime Western Neighborhoods Project contributor, John Martini, who spent a good deal of his career at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Hello, John.

John: Hello, everyone.

Arnold: So, we should have a good discussion today with all these very knowledgeable people here. And I think a good place to start is to explain exactly what a camera obscura is and how it works. And maybe, Robert, you can tell us this.

Robert: Okay.

Arnold: Because you're actually operating one.

Robert: Yes. It is a pinhole in a dark room where the light rays hit the pinhole and it produces an inverted image in the back of the wall. But the cam, Giant Camera is called a pyramid camera obscura, where the image comes down and is projected off the table, up to your eyes.

Arnold: Right. And in the case of yours, I believe it, it gives a 360 degree view because it moves around.

Robert: Correct. The mirror rotates.

Arnold: Excellent. [00:03:00] And in fact, the oldest known written description of a camera obscura is one by Leonardo da Vinci, written in one of his notebooks at 1502. But the basic principles of camera obscuras remains the same today with some technological advances that have been, happened over the centuries since then.

And the first known camera obscura in San Francisco was located at Woodward’s Gardens in the Mission District. It was apparently located near the balloon ascension ride there. But we've not found any images from Woodward's Gardens that identify it. We also know there was a camera obscura at the Haight Street Chutes in the late 1890s.

Then of course, there's the Cliff House. Before we get to the current Giant Camera, let's go back in time a little bit to another camera obscura there. After the first Cliff House burned down in 1894, Sutro built back, both larger and grander. Included in the new design were four round turrets in each corner of the building on the fourth floor. And Gary, I believe you've seen the [00:04:00] blueprints for the Sutro’s Cliff House and you've got at least some portions of those blueprints on the Cliff House Project website. What is your understanding of what those turrets were gonna be used for?

Gary: Well, I mean, it, it's pretty obvious that there's a call out on one of the towers that they were going to have one there. And the, the problem I've had is, in all my research, even though we have this receipt that John Martini found of the purchase of the camera and all that, I've yet to ever find any further evidence that it really was in that tower. I mean, you could say, some people look at that top and say they do see a lens there. And that might be true. I mean, I don't necessarily doubt that, but the thing that has always been suspicious to me is there's not a single clipping I found so far, that says that it was in operation, you know, advertising it. Whereas if you look at one, like the one at the Chutes, you would see weekly advertisements to come to see it and everything.

And so that's [00:05:00] why I, I'm not saying there wasn't one in that big building, but I'm saying I, it, I really lack evidence to really confirm it ever got there. And by the way, I just the other day found another clipping from about a month after that building opened where Sutro was talking about having one on Merrie Street, you know, Merrie Way, whatever, his midway. So that may be also, maybe John Martini can speak this probably, but that may be evidence he was rethinking where he would locate it. I don’t know.

Arnold: And we'll get in, we'll get into whether or not it was actually used, but can you tell us what the blueprint showed as to where it was going to be?

Gary: I think it, it was, the blueprint showed the northwest tower, although the tower that looks like if it was there would've been the southwest one. That seems to be the one that has that cone on the top that looks like it might have had a lens there. So, even if it was in that clip, it seems like they might have moved which tower it was in. [00:06:00] So maybe John Martini can speak. I don't know.

Arnold: And in addition to the cone at the top, I believe there's other evidence that that tower, the southwest tower might have been the one where it was, and I think that's a, there was a ladder going up to the top.

Gary: Yeah. Yeah. You can see a ladder in some pictures. Even a rope lassoed around the top. So, it, it's very possible they were there and cleaning it and trying to keep it working or something. And, like I keep saying, I'm not saying there wasn't one, it finally there, it's just that the evidence, it just is not there during that whole tenure, whatever period that it was really ever there in operational. That's what I'm saying.

Arnold: Right. And, and John, Gary mentioned it, but you found some evidence of Sutro at least bringing a camera obscura to the area. Can you tell us about that.

John: Yeah, when I was going through the big box of Sutro estate papers that are at San Francisco Public Library with, [00:07:00] with John Freeman, we came up with a document, a receipt that was, it simply said that $5 was paid for placing the camera obscura in the gatehouse by the lumber yard at Sutro Heights. And signed Mr. Harrison, who was Sutro's foreman. Date on this was August 13th, 1894.

I tend to think that this is another one of the objects that Sutro picked up when the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park closed in July of 1894. We know from photographs and from documentation, newspaper stories, he bought all kinds of stuff, light fixtures, stools, rides that were on Merrie Way, like the mirror maze, and the haunted swing. This appears to, to me, best guess is this is something else he picked up from the [00:08:00] Midwinter Fair. Couple of holes here are, there's no real story or documentation of a camera obscura at the Midwinter Fair. But the Midwinter Fair was so vast it could easily have been at one of the many concessions.

The other thing is, is what happened to it? Sutro was famous for collecting things and then putting 'em into storage. He may have bought this, remember at the time that he bought it, the first Cliff House, the one perched on the edge of the cliff, the one that looked like a real roadhouse, it was still standing. Did he buy the camera obscura looking towards a future day. And then when the first Cliff House burned down and the chateau Cliff House was built, did he install it in the tower. And this is where I would defer to Gary. A lot of unknowns. All we know for sure is that Sutro bought himself a camera obscura mechanism. [00:09:00]

Arnold: Yes. Speaking of that receipt that you found, in looking at it and Gary's got a picture of this receipt on the Cliff House Project website, it seems weird to me because it seems to be written on a slip of paper for the Gordon and Gordon Company that apparently manufactured cereals.

John: Yeah, it's like they, they, they, they picked up a loose scrap of paper and just turned it into a handwritten receipt. But I recognize the signature down there of, or the name of Mr. Harrison. That was E.O. Harrison. He shows up all over Sutro project papers as a foreman during the days when they were first constructing the outdoor Baths and the aquarium, to eventually becoming the manager of Sutro Baths when it opened in 1896.

So that, that, that sounds right. The gatehouse near the lumber yard. There [00:10:00] was a lower gatehouse on Point Lobos Avenue, kind of directly across from what’s now, Louis’ Restaurant. And there was an industrial area down there for, for the Sutro Heights and the laborers that included a big stable for workhorses, several shop buildings, a couple of boarding houses. It's not really well documented, but that would make sense. It was delivered down to the lower gatehouse, where there were storage facilities.

Arnold: And you mentioned that maybe the possibility that it was purchased at the, from the 1894 Midwinter fair, although we have no documentation that there was a camera obscura there. My own speculation was that he had purchased the Woodward's Gardens’ camera obscura. The auction for that was held in April of 1893. But the problem there also is, I looked over all the [00:11:00] newspaper reports about that auction and they talk extensively about all the taxidermied animals that Sutro bought, but there's zero mention of the camera obscura being bought there. But he bought, Sutro bought so many things from the Woodward’s Gardens auction, it stands to reason that he may have purchased their camera obscura. In any event…

John: And, and all the records were burned in 1906, there's our cop out to everything that we can't answer. There's just a lot of unknowns. We really do rely on the records in the boxed Sutro papers that exist at the Bancroft Library, San Francisco Public Library, and elsewhere, and newspaper accounts. They were pretty good about talking about all the things that Adolf was purchasing. There's extensive articles about his purchasing, following both the closure of Woodward’s Gardens and the end of [00:12:00] the Midwinter Fair.

Arnold: Gary, I believe there's one other piece of evidence on your website about the possibility of the camera obscura at the Sutro Cliff House, and that was something from a famed local photographer. Can you tell us about that?

Gary: Wait, I'm not sure I know the evidence you're talking about.

Arnold: There's a, a brochure, I guess. You mentioned it on your website. Local photographer, Isaiah Taber.

Gary: Let’s see. Oh, I see. Yeah, right. He, he, yeah, there is. He says the, he had a quote and one of the things he wrote saying, the attic is used chiefly as a means of approach to the rooms and the turrets, three of them filled up as private dining rooms, and the fourth containing the largest camera obscura west of Chicago. So, there's that little bit of evidence. You're right.

Arnold: [00:13:00] Do we know when that brochure was published? I don't know if you know.

Gary: Yeah, I mean, I probably do. I, let's see, I think, I think that was January 4th, ‘96, I believe. Let’s see.

Arnold: So that may have been like right around or right before the Cliff House, the new Cliff House opened, Sutro’s Cliff House opened.

Gary: Let’s see, yeah. Oh, actually, no, let's see. That was, that was, that brochure was published in 1895. I don't have a exact date on that, just 1895.

Arnold: So, it, it would've been before than Cliff House actually opened then.

Gary: Yeah. So that's kind of a more of a preview of, I, it would have to be really, I think so. I, I, I would still say that's not hard evidence that was really there.

Arnold: Right.

Gary: I would say that could have been somebody looking at the blueprints still, I think, but I don't know.

Arnold: As you mentioned, [00:14:00] we've found zero evidence of any advertisements ever for this camera obscura at Sutro’s Cliff House, correct?

Gary: I well, I don't know of any further evidence. I sort of forgot the one you just mentioned, but yeah, I do have that on that page as well. And, you know, the truth is there's a lot of that Cliff House that's a mystery, really. So, it's not terribly surprising. I mean, most of those rooms, we have no pictures, and all you have is what it was theoretically intended for from the blueprints, but you know, much of that is not obvious. It was really ever much because you just, I don't find evidence of really of its use, you know, once it was built, frankly. So, it's a lot of mystery there.

Arnold: And that's always been kind of a funky thing to me. And I don’t know if either you Gary or you Joh, know the reason why, but there’s very little photo evidence of what was inside Sutro’s Cliff House. Do we have any [00:15:00] idea why?

John: I always chalk it up to the technology of the time. Taking photo interior photographs usually took a fair amount of technology. Might even involve using flash powder to illuminate the large interiors we found, and, and Gary can tell me exactly, but maybe a half dozen photographs including those Theodore Roosevelt banquet photos of the interior of Sutro’s Cliff House. And I believe we found two photos of the previous Cliff House interior. That's not a heck of a lot, but when you think of how many 1880s and 1890s building interiors do you find, and it's a, it's just not a lot. Cameras were slow. They were cumbersome and people tended to take pictures of, of exteriors more than interiors.

Arnold: You’re not kidding there, cause there are [00:16:00] so many photographs of the exterior of that Cliff House.

Gary: You know that that really is one of the mysteries is why there aren't more photographs because I, I agree it's early in photography, but it's not too early cause obviously they were able to take interior photographs back then. And really there was a lot of pretty famous people that dined and visited that Cliff House. So, you would think it'd be more than just one of those presidents that got a picture taken there. And one of the little theories I've had is, who knows, maybe Sutro had a no photography rule and that's would limit the pictures. But I've searched on that and I've never found, I've found zero evidence to back that theory up. So, it, I, I'm, I'm still a little surprised there aren't more, and that's always the big thing I'm forever watching for is some old photo album, photo album that finally fills in a lot of those gaps. But I'm still waiting.

John: Like that photo that turned up within the last year of the banquet for James Phelan.

Gary: That, that’s literally one of the best interior [00:17:00] photos, because not only is it interior, but you can see a view back inside one of the turrets from the inside and you can see how just amazing ornate those rooms were. So, all the more reason I wanna see photographs of the rest of that place.

Arnold: Yeah. You know, funny thing in, in this Taber photography brochure that talks about the Cliff House having the largest camera obscura west of Chicago and that language mirrors the Haight Street Chutes when they were advertising their camera obscura. And they advertised it as the only camera obscura west of Chicago. I don't know what camera obscura was in Chicago, but apparently it was pretty famous.

Gary: There, I think there were actually quite a few of those across the country. And one thing about truth in advertising was not really a thing back then. The people, just declared they were professors and all kinds of silly things. It was kind of a wild and crazy time.

Arnold: Oh, [00:18:00] I'd have to think though, that if the Sutro Cliff House was actually using a camera obscura there, they may have taken exception to the Haight Street Chutes advertising itself as the only one west of Chicago.

John: In reading period newspaper articles, you also find that Adolph Sutro was his own best PR agent. And frequently he would tell reporters that he was going to build, for example, a giant resort on the tip of Point Lobos that would rival the Hotel Del Coronado. And the newspapers would duly report that Adolph Sutro was in the process of building a giant hotel on the tip of Point Lobos. He hadn't even broken ground, he hadn't done anything. But he was always talking in these superlatives of what he was going to do, or maybe in his fervid man, imagination [00:19:00] what he was about to. and it got reported as a fait accompli. Another great example would be that he, he purchased the, what was called the electric tower from the 1894 World's Fair that was in the center of the, the fairgrounds.

Arnold: Bonet’s Tower.

John: And he said it was gonna be erected on Merrie Way. And the newspapers, you know, said Sutro’s in the process of reerecting the electric tower. You know, no, it, it didn't happen. And it takes a long time to sort out what Sutro's dream is from what actually became brick and mortar.

Gary: He was clearly a man of grand ideas. Even if it his salt food wasn't the best.

Arnold: Yeah.

Gary: Yeah. But by the way, on those interior pictures, you, anybody wants to, can see every one of those on the Cliff House Project website. There's a link at the very top. Literally it says interiors if anybody's interested.

Arnold: Yeah, I, and I'd also note that all, all this [00:20:00] evidence we're talking about, about the camera obscura there can be found on the Cliff House Project website. So go to cliffhouseproject.com. Enjoy all the links there. Yeah. There's a huge number of links and a huge amount of information on it that Gary has accumulated over the years. Let's engage in a little speculation here. Gary, what's your best guess as to what happened with this camera obscura at the Sutro Cliff House, if anything happened?

Gary: I, I think it went across, over to the Chutes maybe, or something like that. I just don't, I honestly don't think it was there or Merrie Way. I, you know, I just, that's my guess, but until I know better, that's my guess I'd say.

Arnold: And how about you, John?

John: I, I wouldn't even speculate because there's, it's so grey whether or not it was installed in the Cliff House itself. And there, there's virtually no evidence it was [00:21:00] installed anywhere on, on Merrie Way. There were only about a half dozen attractions up there. None of which say camera obscura. If it existed, if Sutro owned it, I can't guess where it went.

Arnold: Yeah. I mean, I, I think, I tend to believe that, you know, he had the intention to have this camera obscura in the Cliff House, and then for whatever reason, they just never added it to the structure. It seems like a lot of that Cliff House went unused for whatever reason. And so, I don't know what he, he may have kept it in storage. I, I'd never seen anything in the, in newspaper articles about him selling it to Charles Ackerman who owned the Haight Street Chutes. So, I don't know if that was the one who went over there, but maybe it was, who knows? But I, best guess is that it never got used at the Sutro Cliff House.

Gary: You know, I can [00:22:00] tell you I spent a lot of hours searching through the newspapers, trying to figure this one out. And if anybody else has something, I don't, I'd sure be interested.

Arnold: Yeah. Contact us at podcast@outsidelands.org if you've got anything to add to this discussion about that camera obscura in Sutro’s Cliff house. But this, of course, brings us to the current Giant Camera that is still at the Cliff House. And John, I'll ask you to begin by just giving us a little bit of history about that structure when it got built and everything.

John: Sure. I always defer to the National Register nomination for the Giant Camera that was prepared by the National Park Service when they were looking at rehabbing the Cliff House and the environs in the early 1980s. And they, it's online. You can download it from the National Register of Historic Places. And essentially [00:23:00] it says that the structure was constructed specifically at the direction or at the permission of George Whitney, Sr., who was the scion of the Whitney family who owned the Playland at the Beach. And they owned the Cliff House and later they owned Sutro Baths. When the Cliff house was being extensively remodeled during 1949-1950, plans were drawn up for a, a camera obscura. Gary has one sheet of the plans online at his website and show it being constructed on the back terrace.

There's various websites that have speculated that it might be earlier than 1949, maybe 1946 or ‘47. I tend to think that those are more hearsay and I rely, one key piece of evidence is the extensively documented [00:24:00] 1948 aerial flight over San Francisco thatt's online at David Rumsey's website. And it's August 1948, and there's not a trace of a Giant Camera on the back deck of the Cliff House. First time it shows up in photographs is during the rehabilitation remodeling of the Cliff House that took part in 1949-1950. And it shows up as a nautically themed little building. Basically, a big box, appropriately for a giant box camera, with railings along the roof and exterior ladders. And the, the drawings even showed cute details like running lights and life preservers, and it was called the Camera Obscura. Essentially it was an outpost of Playland at the Beach. Like all the various attractions at Playland, which George Whitney already owned, never one to pass up the opportunity to [00:25:00] turn a nickel on his properties, he allowed the private developer to build the camera obscura. Where I get grey, is whether or not the first builder owned the building and had permission from Whitney to build it on his property, or if Whitney granted him, you know, a, a postage-stamp sized piece of land and actually transferred title to him. That's an unknown I haven't been able to suss out. But it, I go with it, it first appears during 1949-1950.

Arnold: And you, you mentioned the, the guy who built and operated, what was his name?

John: I do not have that in front of me.

Robert: It was Floyd Jennings.

John: Sounds right.

Arnold: Floyd Jennings.

Robert: And he made it look like nautical look.

John: Right.

Robert: Up on top, it was like the pulling up an anchor on a boat. You know, you, you walk in a circle.

John: It, it looked like a windlass. Yes.

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: And you, me, you mentioned the 1948 aerials. [00:26:00] Many of those, if not all of them, are also on our OpenSFHistory website. And you mentioned the historic registry thing that you can find online. I linked to that in our OpenSFHistory blogpost article last weekend about the camera obscuras. It got remodeled in later in the ‘50s. John, can you tell us about that?

John: Yeah. When I interviewed George Whitney Jr. The son of the senior George Whitney, he had, there was a cross pollination between the Whitney family, Playland at the Beach, Cliff House, and Disneyland. The Walt Disney imagineers, they had all these great ideas for giant Cinderella’s castles and Tomorrowland and Frontierland and all that. What they didn't have was the nuts-and-bolts information of how do you run an amusement park? Where do you put [00:27:00] ticket booths? How do you, how do you move lines of people? So, George Whitney Jr. worked extensively with the Disney people in the mid-1950s on Disneyland, and he came back, and I'm sure his father was also closely observing, and they came back with some ideas that they could apply to the Whitney holdings in San Francisco. One of which was, take that camera obscura and, hey, let's, let's make it look like a giant Brownie camera.

And they actually remodeled the exterior. They put a couple of bulges on the, the north and south sides. And glued a couple of huge winding knobs on it. So, it was reminiscent of the type of Brownie cameras that everybody owned in the middle of 1950s, you know, took, you know, 120 roll film. It was very cute. Great idea.

Another idea, one that didn't last quite as long was the overhead aerial ride called the Sky Tram. [00:28:00] So, these things came from working with the Disney imagineers and the Giant Camera ended up looking like a giant Brownie camera. And part of it's, the reason it's on the National Register of Historic Places, is it's a fantastic example of what's called Duck architecture. And Duck architecture gets its name from a styles in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, where buildings were built to represent what they did. If you can imagine like driving through Southern California and there's a giant orange that's actually a vending stand for orange juice. Or there was a, a place on the east coast that was a giant hotdog that sold frankfurters. And the idea of the Duck architecture, there was a place, I believe it was in New Jersey, where it was it giant duck and they were selling ducks and chickens and eggs out of the thing. [00:29:00] So Duck architecture is a building that is designed to look like what it does, and the Giant Camera looks like what it is it, it's a giant camera, the camera obscura inside.

Arnold: And it's basically looked that way ever since.

John: Correct. Ever since I, I don't think anyone's got a solid date, and I'll defer, but I believe it's about 1957, it pops up with the thing. And we'll probably talk about that. One thing that the recent wind damage did was it peeled off one of those 1957 embellishments and it revealed the original camera obscura name on the side of the building.

Arnold: We'll get to that.

John: Oh, sorry.

Arnold: That's okay. So, at this point, we get Robert into the picture. And so, Robert, I guess when did you become involved with the Giant Camera?

Robert: In 1995.

Arnold: And, I guess, how did, how did that happen?

Robert: Well, I, my, my father [00:30:00] passed away and I took it over for him.

Arnold: So, your father owned it before then?

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: When did he purchase it?

Robert: In 1993.

Arnold: Okay. So, he had it a couple years and then…

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: And you've had it ever since.

Robert: Right. He loved it so much, he just hung around and then picked it up.

Arnold: And do, do you know who he purchased it from?

Robert: Gene Turtle. The Gene Turtle was the partner of Floyd Jennings. Both of them built that building actually.

Arnold: Okay. And so, you actually operate it yourself.

Robert: Correct.

Arnold: Maybe give us a little insight as to what that involves.

Robert: Just maintaining the building. I have to climb up on the roof every day and clean the lenses and mirror. Then I have to open up the, the front doors and greet the customers. And then I give a little tour inside.

Arnold: and I know…

Robert: It's pretty amazing inside of it. Everyone should come down.

Arnold: I [00:31:00] know from us operating our museum up in the former Cliff House, the windows up there get dirty very fast.

Robert: Yeah.

Arnold: So, I imagine the same is true of the lens there.

Robert: Correct.

Arnold: So that's why you have to basically go up there every day.

Robert: Every day. And then I have to go up there twice a day. Then close it.

Arnold: And do you, have you had employees helping you out there?

Robert: In my early years, yes. When the, Mechanique museum was down on the lower terrace also.

Arnold: And, other than I guess cleaning the lens and making sure everything's in proper working order. Any other kind of maintenance stuff that is done?

Robert: Well, I have to maintain the table cause that's the where the image bounces off of.

Arnold: And talk to us a little bit about that. Cause it's not, it's, it's not a flat table,

Robert: It's a concave table and it's painted flat white, so it's like a projector screen. So, as it being a concave, it gives it the three-dimensional feel. So, [00:32:00] it looks like it's really there.

Arnold: And anything else you've added to the premises?

Robert: It just added a few holograms on the side of the wall.

Arnold: Holographic pictures.

Robert: Right. It's also holographic museum.

Arnold: Right. And it's been a couple years since I last went there. I believe when I went there, it was only $3 to go in.

Robert: Yeah. It's still $3.

Arnold: That is such an amazing deal. And you get in there and you as, as you're looking down into this concave table, the image is slowly turning around to get…

Robert: It's rotating 360.

Arnold: So you get views of the ocean, Ocean Beach, for the Cliff House.

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: It's really amazing to see.

Robert: Well, there’s a magnification of 12 times, so it puts you right there at the water. So that's what's really amazing,

Arnold: Right. In the, John mentioned it briefly, but in the early 2000s, the Giant Camera was threatened because there was plans to [00:33:00] remodel the Cliff House.

Robert: Correct.

Arnold: And there was talk about removing it.

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: And a campaign happened to save it. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Robert: We had a little campaign to prevent the move, from removing it. And so, it was nominated onto the Register of Historic Places. So that's how it was saved.

Arnold: And John, I don't know, were you any part of the NPS’s working on adding it to the Register of Historic Places?

John: No. I was working I believe at the Marin Headlands at that time. But I was like leaning over everybody's shoulder and, because I love the Cliff House, Sutro, Giant Camera area. And I remember that there was a bit of surprise that came out as they did their homework and they really look into the history of these, of the structures, is that the Giant Camera [00:34:00] has significance for the technology of the camera obscura, because of its association with vanished Playland at the Beach. It's like I said, the last vestige of, of Playland and its attractions. And thirdly, because of its architecture. And it made it under the National Register of Historic Places. Surprisingly, the Cliff House, right next door, didn't make it when it was nominated, because the Cliff, Cliff House has been so altered over the years from its original 1909 appearance. It was a working building. The interior was gutted and rebuilt several times. The ex, parts of the exterior were torn off when new additions were put on. And the Cliff House, well, it's, it's historic to us. It didn't meet the criteria to go on the National Register of Historic Places, but Giant Camera did.

Arnold: You were about…

Robert: Well, I thought it was because of that room that [00:35:00] extended onto the south side of the building. They removed that, that extended outside the, the main structure of the building.

John: With the, the, the camera obscura?

Robert: No, the Cliff House.

John: They, they, oh yeah.

Robert: They removed that room there.

John: The Cliff House had several additions.

Robert: Yes.

John: That were put on to the 1909 original. One was the, there was one at the south end that jutted out maybe 25 feet. And there was the, the entire third floor didn't exist historically. That was the old long lamented upstairs at the Cliff House or the omelet room. So yeah, it had, it had sprouted under the Whitney's, quite a few appendages to the original 1909 building that survived up until the time the Whitney's purchased it in 1936, ‘37.

Arnold: And, in any event, the Giant Camera is a [00:36:00] historic landmark now.

John: Sure is.

Arnold: And this brings us to the unfortunate present. Robert, what can you tell us about what happened to the structure in the recent storms?

Robert: Unfortunately, on the storm on January 4th, the side of the building, the fake facade there, that looks like the camera part, blown off, and then it tore up the roof there. So, that part has gone and half the roof is lifted.

Arnold: And we, in the OpenSFHistory blog post last weekend, there's a picture of some of that damage. Also, Amanda Bartlett of SFGate did a story about it, which includes more pictures. Was there any damage to the inside of the building?

Robert: No. Luckily, all the equipment is safe.

Arnold: So, it's…

Robert: It’s operational.

Arnold: Excellent.

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: And I, John mentioned it briefly earlier, one thing that happened as a result of the siding coming down is, it has revealed [00:37:00] the original Camera Obscura sign that used to be…

Robert: Correct.

Arnold: On that south side of the building. Gary, let me just check in with you cause I know there's pictures of, on your website of the original, before it was being even called the Giant Camera, when it was called the Camera Obscura, which I think indicated that they came out of the Frank Mitchell collection. Can you tell us anything about those pictures of how it originally looked and where you got them, if you know.

Gary: I honestly, I can't. I, I have that picture. You're right. But I think that was a, that came from the Blaisdell, of the Blaisdell photograph or something, but so, I don't have, I don't have, unfortunately, I don't have much to contribute on that. But Can I ask a question of Robert, by any chance? Were you in there when all that crazy one was happening or were you not?

Robert: No. That happened during the night.

Gary: I see.

Robert: So, I walked up in [00:38:00] the morning and saw the damage.

Gary: I, I just gotta think, you’ve experienced a lot of things being on that edge there all those years.

Robert: Oh yeah.

Gary: You must have more stories than anybody.

Robert: Lots of strong winds.

Arnold: And what can you tell us right now in terms of the status of the insurance claim on it?

Robert: Well, I haven't talked to the adjuster yet, so we're waiting on that. But I'm kind of thinking this is a time to refurbish the whole building. Because we could have lost a landmark if that storm was a little bit tougher. So, and I think I'm a, a firm believer in global warming. And I think there's gonna be more severe storms and more frequent.

Arnold: So, in, yeah, so in addition to fixing the damage, get kind of shored up some too, so that this doesn't occur in the future.

Robert: Correct. With some strong [00:39:00] composite materials and…

Arnold: And we don't know whether or not insurance would actually pay for those kind of, I guess, potential upgrades.

Robert: No, they won't.

Arnold: So, there may be some fundraising that becomes necessary?

Robert: Yes. I hope there is a little fundraising here.

Arnold: And podcast listeners, if and when Robert needs to do this fundraising to restore the Giant Camera, we will let you know about it on our social media channels and likely also in an email blast, cause we wanna see the Giant Camera come back to its full glory and maybe even better. And we hope that Robert gets whatever support he needs.

Robert: Right.

Arnold: To accomplish that.

Robert: Thank you.

Gary: By the way, I, for one, think it's worth $5 a ticket. I'm just gonna go on record right now and say there's an increase you need.

Robert: But it’s tough. You’re selling something that's people see with their own eyes outside, so it's a tough thing.

Arnold: It is such a unique look at what's outside though. So, it is definitely [00:40:00] worth…

Robert: Correct.

Arnold: More than worth the $3 that people pay to go in. In any event, I wanna thank you all for being here and this leads us now to our Say What Now portion of the podcast. And, for this week, typically in a lot of these interview podcasts, we ask a bunch of questions about sort of somewhat related stuff. And, but what I wanna do is ask each one of you the same question, and that is, whether it's the Cliff House or Giant Camera-related, if you were gonna bring back one feature from either Cliff House or Giant Camera or Camera Obscura there, what would it be? And I will start with you John.

John: I would bring back the Redwood Room. Sometime was called the [00:41:00] Sequoia Room. The bar that was attached to the north end of the Cliff House. It was removed during the 2000s remodeling. But that was a, to me, a great room with the back bar was redwood logs, complete with the bark and engraved mirrors. I believe we got one of them in the Western Neighborhoods Project, right? For the, in the auction.

Arnold: We did.

John: And, it's personal, because back in the days when the Cliff House was essentially closed and just the bar was open, it's right when I came of age and I spent a lot of evenings in that bar drinking. I think they were 75-cent Irish coffees. Sitting in front of the glass windows looking out at the breaking surf at night. It was, yeah, I'd bring that back.

Arnold: Thanks John. How about you Gary?

Gary: Well, I'm gonna cheat on your question a bit, cause I would go up the hill a bit. And what I really wanna see 'em bring back is Sutro [00:42:00] Heights with all the statues and everything. I think they need to re-erect that gate. I know, it would be a huge effort. You just need to get somebody rich to contribute to this. But when I was there last, it was looking kind of ragged. Homeless people are sleeping and everything. I think they need to put, make it fenced in, and I would love to see 'em bring back all those statues. It would just be beautiful. So that, that's, that's what I would like to see come back.

Arnold: Oh.

Gary: And by the way, I've been, with an eye to that, I've been collecting pictures as much as I can of all the statuary, all different angles. So, when somebody's ready to do it, I'm ready to jump on it. I'm ready to help 'em figure it out. So…

Arnold: Yeah, and we have plenty of those pictures also on our OpenSFHistory website. Robert, how about you? What would you bring back?

Robert: Okay, this is for the Camera Obscura. I wouldn't mind seeing it back to his original box-like shape.

Arnold: Excellent.

Robert: Yes. Well, and this is, I think it could be possible if we refurbished the building. [00:43:00] We will see that first and then put the camera part back on.

Arnold: And we're kind of at a unique time here, because with the damage that happened, it's going to require some work to refurbish it. So maybe have some control as to what gets happened there.

Robert: Right.

Arnold: The Cliff House, the, I know Park Service, I think is still talking about potential tenants there, but there's gonna be some remodeling going on there. So, there there's, uh, endless possibilities that could happen here.

Robert: And also, what about the name? The Cliff House name?

Arnold: Well, I believe the is still owned by the Hontalas family, so it depends on whether or not somebody purchases it from them. Once again, thank you all for joining me on this podcast. We've gotten a great deal of information about the camera obscuras at the Cliff House, including the current Giant Camera. And we really, really hope that the funds become [00:44:00] available for you to fix it up to how it should be.

Robert: Yes.

Arnold: Thank you, Robert.

Robert: I think we should. Thank you.

Arnold: Thank you, John. Thank you, Gary. It is now time for listener mail. And first, as always, you can send us listener mail by sending an email to podcast@outsidelands.org. You can also hit us up on our social media, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We post the podcast to those places. You can comment underneath. We will see it and, in fact, that is what happened this week. After our 18th Avenue Christmas podcast, which is episode 484, we had several people post replies to our Facebook post about it. Linda noted that her family always drove around the neighborhoods to look at the light displays. Thanks Linda. We know a lot of people who did that. Meanwhile, Denvid posted about some other holiday displays, writing [00:45:00] quote, “by the ‘70s, 17th Avenue had joined in the lighting, so you could walk around two blocks there. In the ‘60s, we went to the Marina along the green, where they had lighted houses on one side and lighted boats on the other. Sometimes we would go down the Peninsula to Chestnut in South San Francisco for two cul-de-sacs of light magic. We still take a drive every year. This year LA was going to take us on a fire engine tour of lights, but we were physically unable to take the tour. Whatever the future brings, we hope to keep seeing the Christmas lights each year.” End quote. Thanks for bringing us more Christmas lights places Denvid.

And we'll get into now the membership, benefits of becoming a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project. You get quarterly Membership Magazine. You get discounts on events and other exclusive perks. And you get the enjoyment of supporting the great work we do and make available for free, which includes OpenSFHistory.org. It includes the Cliff House [00:46:00] collection that we bought at the auction. It includes this podcast that we make available for free for people to find every week. We're up, up to 488 episodes now, so there's a lot of history you can listen to online.

And that brings us finally to announcements. It is a new year and a time for new things, which is good because we're preparing all sorts of fun things for 2023.  That's right, you get more of what you love from the WNP next year. Things we have in the works include history walks from our friend John Martini, who joined us tonight, and Richard Brandi. Collaborative events with our friends at the Global Museum at San Francisco State, and with the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Perhaps the Cable Cart Museum, thinking about something with them, something with Manny's in the Mission and more that we can't even announce yet.

Things we're gonna celebrate this year include the hundredth [00:47:00] anniversary of the Alexandria Theater. The 50th anniversary of the Helen Crocker Russell Library. We’ll also be showcasing new exhibitions in the front windows of our clubhouse here on Balboa, with a brand new rotating OpenSFHistory exhibition series curated by Nicole, that is inspired by Ansel Adams and features highlights from the collection alongside a local photographer each quarter. Nicole will be heading a panel discussion on the problems of and potential for public monuments, that will feature Ralph Remington, San Francisco's Director of Cultural Affairs at the California Association of Museums in March. That's, which will also be when we begin our public program series. So, look forward to announcements on that. I'd also mention Woody LaBounty’s movie theaters of the Richmond District. I believe it's happening January 29th at the Four Star Theater. Tickets are already on sale for that. Look for those. [00:48:00]

And although you can no longer get a 2022 tax deduction for a donation, you can nail down an early 2023 tax deduction, by making a donation to support our work preserving and sharing west side history. We need your help to survive. You can donate by going to any page on the outside lands.org website and clickity, clickity, clacking on the big orange donate button at the top of the page.

There's also numerous volunteer opportunities with the WNP if you're interested in helping out. Send an email to wnpoffice@outsidelands.org. I would like to personally thank the people who've already volunteered to help out with our podcast transcription project. You know who you are. Transcriptions are slowly but surely being added to all the podcast pages.

And we end with our preview for next week. And remember that San Francisco State strike that we ended last year talking about? I won't promise that that will be next year, but that's the plan for next week. So, join us next week [00:49:00] and good night, everybody. Thanks again to John, Gary, and Robert for joining us, and please support the Giant Camera whenever the fundraising happens for that. See you next week.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 338: The Hot House at Playland (Repodcast)

    Continuing the Playland theme to dovetail with WNP's 2022 Gala event, we revisit a beloved purveyor of "Mexican" food, the Hot House. Located along the Great Highway, the Hot House was an early innovator of thematic dining. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast May 14, 2022)
  • Podcast # 90: Park and Ocean Railroad

    Beginning in 1883, steam trains rumbled down Lincoln Way, cut through Golden Gate Park, and delivered hundreds of Sunday visitors to Ocean Beach. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Sep 27, 2014)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History