The Cliff House, dramatically perched on the sheer rocks at the northern end of Ocean Beach, is one of San Francisco’s iconic buildings. What isn’t widely known is that there have been at least three Cliff Houses, and their history – complete with class tensions, explosive shipwrecks, family feuds, drunken brawls and sexual escapades – is just as remarkable as their setting.
Today’s Portals relates the rollicking tale of the first Cliff House – a clapboard structure built by real estate tycoon Charles Butler in 1863.
The stunning 160-acre headland Butler chose for his enterprise had been used as a potato farm by a man named Chambers, who had since moved to Oregon. Butler tracked him down and bought the parcel, which was known as Chambers’ Potato Patch, for less than it cost Butler to send an agent to find him.
That piece of land now is probably worth enough money to buy the entire potato crop of the world.
As Mary Germain Hountalas and Sharon Silva recount in their affectionate, lavishly illustrated book “The San Francisco Cliff House,” Butler decided to open a seaside resort to attract wealthy San Franciscans – the Battery of its day, but on the ocean instead of the bay.
He was competing with two other establishments – Seal Rock House, just south of where the Cliff House now stands, and the Ocean House, 4 miles down Ocean Beach – and contending with one daunting reality.
That was the difficulty of the 6-mile ride from the developed part of town to the sea – a journey that took intrepid travelers through rolling sand dunes as they fought a constant westerly wind. It was so arduous and required such expert horsemanship that few people made it to Butler’s establishment.
So he and his partner – conveniently a state senator – built a toll road, Point Lobos Avenue, that ran from Bush Street and Masonic Avenue to Ocean Beach.
Undeterred by the steep $1 round-trip fare, the city’s swells and society families began riding out to the Cliff House. Those with blood horses were particularly drawn to a level, fast 1.75-mile stretch that ran parallel to the new road. The Hearsts, Stanfords, Crockers and other well-to-do San Franciscans raced their trotters along this straightaway, which thus qualifies as the city’s first drag-racing strip.
Butler hired an experienced hotel keeper named Junius Foster to run the Cliff House. Foster knew how to appeal to the city’s patricians.
When the well-heeled guests arrived, they enjoyed the superb ocean views from the veranda and looked at sea lions playing on the rocks, while feasting on such high-end provender as frog’s legs, terrapin, fried oysters and crabs, washed down with Champagne and cocktails, which had recently become all the rage. Because only the well-to-do could afford the pricey toll road and the even pricier restaurant tabs, this stretch of the coast was in effect a private beach.
One of the visitors to the Cliff House was Mark Twain. After his first visit, the San Francisco newspaperman sang the praises of the “ocean air that swells the lungs.”
He was considerably less rapturous after his second visit. “The wind was cold and benumbing,” Twain wrote. “It came straight from the ocean, and I think there are icebergs out there somewhere. True, there was not much dust, because the wind blew it all to Oregon in two minutes.”
A good decade
Despite Twain’s blue-fingered condemnation of the drive, San Francisco’s upper crust frequented the Cliff House in such numbers that Butler tripled the size of the building.
The flush times lasted for close to 10 years, but then Butler and Foster’s venture fell on hard times. One reason, ironically, was one of the great improvements ever made to San Francisco: Golden Gate Park.
After the city opened the first public road to the beach, ordinary people began flocking out to the Cliff House and its competitors. The arrival of the hoi polloi led many of the patrician families to abandon the Cliff House. At the same time, the boom driven by the Comstock Lode had turned into a bust, forcing many plutocrats to downscale their lifestyle.
Faced with a precipitous decline in his clientele, Foster decided to appeal to a different market. As Robert O’Brien writes in his 1948 classic, “This is San Francisco”: “As (Foster) saw less and less of the Nob Hill and tallyho set, he welcomed more and more warmly a heavy-spending crowd that liked what it heard about wine, women and song, and wanted to find out if it were true.”
New business model
Foster remade the Cliff House in the tryst-friendly tradition of San Francisco’s numerous “French restaurants,” many of whose claim to Frenchness was not so much their haute cuisine as the fact that they featured private dining rooms and waiters who would not enter unless summoned.
Soon the once-refined Cliff House had degenerated into a wild joint where gamblers duked it out and wenches from the Barbary Coast partied upstairs with horny-handed miners.
It still retained a shred of respectability: O’Brien writes, “Even though the boys from the mining camps drank and scuffled with their doxies in the private dining rooms upstairs, a man could still take his family there in all propriety without fear of getting pushed around or hit on the head with a bottle.”
But the Cliff House was still too disreputable for its new neighbor, a fabulously wealthy engineer and businessman named Adolph Sutro.
In 1881, Sutro had bought a cottage on a bluff just east of the old road house. He didn’t like the Cliff House’s unsavory reputation, so he solved the problem efficiently: He bought it. The story of the Cliff House’s Sutro years will be the subject of a future Portals.
Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Every Saturday, Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past will tell one of those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history – from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach, to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond.
Last week’s trivia question was: What famous San Franciscan died while swimming at Aquatic Park?
Answer: William Ralston, banker and owner of the Palace Hotel. An 1875 bank crash had ruined him, and some regard his death as a suicide.
This week’s trivia question: What did Yankees center fielder Mickey Mantle do the night before the seventh game of the 1962 World Series?
Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The Chronicle. E-mail: email@example.com