The Peculiar History of the Cliff House in San Francisco
Senator John Buckley and C. C. Butler originally built the Cliff House in 1863. At first, it was difficult and very expensive to get there because it was situated on the rocky hills of Land’s End overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A road, Point Lobos Avenue, was built enabling a stage coach to bring visitors from San Francisco.
The Cliff House became an exclusive resort for wealthy guests such as U.S. Presidents and the Hearst family.
By the end of the 1870s, the resort was losing money and allowed gambling and alcohol in order to interest new patrons. Unfortunately, the new customers were not the same caliber as what the resort was accustomed to, and the Cliff House was no longer considered respectable.
Adolph Sutro, the soon to be mayor of San Francisco, bought the Cliff House in 1883. He began renovations and hired new staff with the intention of returning the resort back to a respectable family-oriented setting. Sutro also commissioned a railroad to improve accessibility. Having no luck managing the restaurant himself, he leased it to a wholesale liquor company, Sroufe, and McCrum. By 1885, it was leased out to J. M. Wilkins with instructions to bring families back to the resort.
In 1887, the schooner Parallel ran aground on the rocks below the resort, and a load of dynamite in the ship’s hold exploded, destroying the north wing of the building. The damage was repaired, and the Cliff House remained in operation until Christmas day in 1894 when a chimney fire destroyed the entire building.
Sutro rebuilt the Cliff House, spending $75,000 to create a replica of a French Chateau, and the venue reopened in February of 1896. Guests could take advantage of the observation tower built 200 feet above sea level, looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
The new resort stretching on eight floors consisted of restaurants, a photography studio, an art gallery, reception rooms available for lease, a gem exhibit, several private dining rooms, and many bars. The house had returned to its previous status as a venue for the upper class and hosted Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley as well as residents.
After the death of Adolph Sutro in 1898, the Cliff House was again leased out to John Tait. It, fortunately, survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake during renovations and was scheduled to reopen in September of 1907 but caught fire again and was totally destroyed.
In 1908, Sutro’s daughter Emma Sutro Merritt took over the property and rebuilt the resort with fireproof concrete and steel. It was a smaller building that blended in with the landscape rather than taking over the ocean view. It reopened in 1909, still catering to the well-to-do.
During Prohibition, the resort’s patronage fell, and the resort closed in 1925. It was sold to George and Leo Whitney, the owners of a nearby amusement park. The Cliff house was, again, remodeled and re-opened in 1938. The operation continued, and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area purchased the Cliff House in 1977.
The Cliff House, now at 1090 Point Lobos Avenue, was restored back to the 1909 design with modern skylights and a new wing named for Adolph Sutro. The present managers, Dan and Mary Hountalas, have been running the Cliff House for the past thirty-five years, offering fine dining, a stylish bistro, and party rooms.
Reservations can be made for Sutro’s restaurant and the Sunday all you can eat and drink champagne brunch buffet in the Terrace Room, but the Bistro is always first to come first served. The resort is very popular among locals for holiday parties and wedding reception and those who just want to relax and enjoy the beautiful ocean scenery through the floor to ceiling windows featured in Sutro’s restaurant.