Young Ruin

If you’ve wandered around Machu Picchu, or Stonehenge, or the Colosseum, or even snuck into that abandoned house on the edge of town, you know the power in a piece of decrepit architecture. And even if you don’t want to leave your house, the internet is littered with evidence of the human love affair with all things abandoned.

People flock to remainders of ancient civilizations, but people also flock to things that just look like they’re ancient. The combination of decomposition and romance makes a perfect cocktail of repulsion and allure. And for San Franciscans, this place is Sutro Baths.

anothersutro
Photo courtesy of Randy Chiu

At the northwestern edge of San Francisco, right on the Pacific Ocean, is a curious jumble of concrete ruins. You wouldn’t know just looking at it, but this ruin is quite young. It’s what’s left of Sutro Baths, a palatial indoor swimming pool and amusement park built in 1898.

sutro old postcard

Thomas Edison captured it in film.

There was a museum of oddities.

Panorama-SB-for-web
Courtesy of the National Parks Service

And up the hill, was an amusement park along Merrie Way, marketed Coney Island of San Francisco.

Untitled
Courtesy of sonoma.edu

Sutro Baths was built by San Francisco real estate tycoon Adolph Sutro. Despite pouring millions of dollars into its various attractions, Sutro Baths just never made money. In the 1950s, after Sutro had passed away, it was bought by an entertainment mogul, who turned it into “Sutro’s,” an ice skating rink and indoor beach.

You can see Sutro’s in its wacky midlife crisis in the 1958 movie The Line Up.

But Sutro’s still couldn’t turn a profit. It was set to be demolished. But before it could be torn down, Sutro’s caught fire. That was in 1966. It’s been the same ever since. The ruin is now part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area.

It’s also preserved in the 1971 film Harold and Maude.

Or you can just meditate on ruins on with Gregory Whitehead.

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Credit: Sam Greenspan

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with John Martini, author of Sutro’s Glass Palace; Tom Bratton, National Parks Service volunteer and former locker attendant at Sutro’s; and Jill Corral, owner and operator of sutrobaths.com and the @sutrobaths handle.

Credits

Music

“Magic” — Keegan DeWitt
“Schönes Mädchen” — Hauschka
“Red Air” — OK Ikumi
“The Hands of a Clock” — Lullatone
“Nightmare 5” — Eluvium
“Movement III Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise” — Sufjan Stevens
“Zither” — Doves
“If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” — Cat Stevens
“Filtered Light” — OK Ikumi

Comments (20)

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  1. Jay

    I’ve seen the ruins of Sutro Baths dozens of times, and always thought the fire was in the 10s or 20s. I never realized the fire was when I was six!

    That turns it from interesting ruins from the Emperor Norton era, to just another empty lot!

  2. Giti Shorish

    This is amazing!!! The unique architecture near the waves is now a must visit place in world.

  3. Leon

    haha, you are right: it is a made up german word.
    we do have lot of “lust-words” and it would fit so well… but it just doesn’t exist, even though there are so many english websites saysing so, can’t find a single german one…

  4. Thank you for telling this story, great job! John Martini and Tom Bratton are the two of the most knowledgeable people on the baths. One of the great things that still exists there is the sense of discovery and wonder when you come upon it. I think this is something that existed when the building was there and continues with the ruins.Information and more pictures here: http://www.outsidelands.org/sutro_baths.php (your picture of Merrie Way above is actually of the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park… the Firth Wheel was bought by Sutro and moved to Merrie Way afterwards.)

  5. j.s.

    Great show. Like so many others I found myself drawn to the place, felt like I’d discovered an incredible secret and have loved it ever since without ever knowing that much about its history. Was heartened to hear the National Park Service understands the appeal of the place too and wishes to preserve it with minimal intervention. Btw, there’s some good if brief film footage of the Sutro Ice Skating rink near the end of the 1958 Don Siegel noir “The Lineup.”

  6. SD

    The Sutro Baths sound similar to my favorite “ancient” ruins above greater LA, the Mt Lowe Railway and Echo Mtn hotel. It overlooked the entire LA basin and included a multi-story hotel, railway trolleys snaking through the mountains to a tavern, an astronomy observatory, and more. It intrigues me as a spot showing the nearly unthinkable concept of development NOT moving forward (particularly striking in So. Calif). What always strikes me when I’m up there is that it now requires several hours of rigorous hiking to a largely unknown site. Yet had I wanted to visit before the turn of the century before last, I could have hopped on public transportation in downtown LA to Pasadena, ridden a funicular up the side of the mountain, then instead gotten sweaty playing tennis or in the dance hall, or had a beer in the tavern or gambled in the casino. Now it’s all just stone foundations. (And I don’t know that public transportation can as yet again easily get you from LA to Pasadena.) Reclaimed by the same forces that LA foothill civilization struggles with to this day: brush fires, wind and rain storms, mudslides, …

  7. Matt Cool

    In December 2013 I threw a party in the Sutho Baths cave. I set up lights, a generator, and bar, with a live band, and djs. Over 200 people showed up, and had an amazing time. No police bothered us, and we made sure the place was cleaner than when we arrived. It is a stunningly beautiful, and magical place.

    1. Katie

      Hi Matt! I don’t know if you’ll get this notification, but a friend of mine attended this party and LOVED it, and has been searching for the organizer ever since. Wondering if I could help you throw it again :) Let me know! katherine.chabolla at airbnb dot com

  8. Julia

    Years before I moved to San Francisco, I has a dream that I was traveling through hills on a small train that pulled into a station. I walked on a balcony full of potted palms and weird artifacts, and down below there were pools full of people wearing old-fashioned bathing costumes and caps doing synchronized swimming exercises.

    When I finally visited Cliff House and saw pictures of the Baths, the dream made perfect sense. I’ll always love that place.

  9. Anton LaVey admits to encountering a Lovecraftian entity once on a foray he took deep into the caverns beneath Sutro
    Baths. …“Climbing through a dislodged section of
    wainscoting of an abandoned dressing room, I explored far beyond the building’s foundations, so far back I doubt if anyone
    had been there for decades. My flashlight revealed an expanse of muddy ground reaching beyond the beam of the light into
    the pitch darkness. It was as though I had entered a lightless amphitheater. I heard some guttural moaning noises ahead of me
    and smelled a terrible smell. Peering into the murk, I could barely make out a misshapen shadow moving in the darkness
    ahead of me. Then, the rustling or flapping of what sounded like huge wings. I had this overwhelming feeling I’d better get
    the hell out of there. I didn’t stick around to see what it was.”
    -“Secret Life of a Satanist”

  10. LaVey lived nearby and the area had a special significance for him. “The fire erupted just thirty-six hours after Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey had pronounced one of his most colorful curses. LaVey was angry that sleazeball real estate profiteers were planning to buy the land to open up the space for yet another tasteless commercial development. [He] specified that unless at least one small corner of any projected project were devoted to the Devil, nothing would ever be constructed on the site.- A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco”, by Dr. Weirde.

    1. anonymous

      Adolph Sutro was a wealthy San Francisco landowner who was mayor in the 1890s. He has a lot of stuff named after him in town. Example: Mount Sutro, Sutro Tower.

  11. Great episode. Is this the first where you listed the music? I love that, only if to know exactly how much OK Ikumi you feature. ;)

  12. Lynn

    My sister, brother and I took swim lessons as babies (2 thru 7) in the warm salt water pools at Sutros (early 50’s). The salt water made it so buoyant . As preteen and teenagers we ice skated there with many of the ice follies stars. As a young adult I rode horses on the beech below where Sutros had been. It broke my heart to see where Sutro’s had been. It was so much a part of my youth. Lynn

  13. GEORGE LESSA

    MY DAD WORKED AT THE SUTRO ICE SKATING RINK FROM 1955 THROUGH 1957 OR 58. HE PLAYED THE MUSIC MOSTLY RODGERS AND HAMERSTEIN SHOWTUNES, IN ADDITION RAN THE ICE MACHINE. I WAS 7 THROUGH 9 YEARS OLD, I EXPORED EVERY INCH OF SUTRO’S INCLUDING THE AREA WHERE THE POOLS HAD BEEN CLOSED. IT WAS ONE OF THE BEST PERIODS OF MY I LIFE. LATER IN HIGH SCHOOL I READ ADOLPH SUTRO’ S BIOGRAPHY. MY DAD ALSO PLAYED MUSIC AT SKATELAND FOR MANY YEARS AND WAS KNOW AS THE MUSIC MAN.

  14. GEORGE

    SOMEWHERE I READ THAT THE MUSEUM IN SUTRO’S DURING THE ICE SKATING RINK ERA WAS NOT VERY IMPRESSIVE. I DO NOT AGREE, EVERYTHING ABOUT SUTRO’S IN THOSE YEARS WAS INCREDABLE. THE WILD BIRDS OF THE WORLD ARE NOT METIONED ANYWHRE. THE TOM THUMB EXHIBITION, A WHOLE CITY OF LITTLE MECHANICAL GOINGS ON(I REMEMBER WHEN THIS WAS IN THE AREA JUST NORTH OF THE SURF CLUB BEFORE IT WAS TORN DOWN SOME TIME IN THE 50’S). THE ROOM WITH TELESCOPES AND LITTLE MAGNETIC BOATS. THE RIPLEYS BELIVE IT OR NOT TORTURE CHAMBERS WERE ESPECIALLY INCREDIBLE. THE PICTURES OF OLD SAN FRANCISCO ALONG THE STAIRWAYS STILL BURN IN MY MEMORY I LONG TO SEE THEM AGAIN THE MUMMY’S, THE LAST SUPPER, THE TUCKER AUTOMOBILE. THE PALM TREE THAT GREW BETWEEN TWO FLOORS. WHEN THE MUSIC FROM THE ICE SKATING RINK WAS BEING PLAYED IT HAD A HAUNTING BUT BEAUTIFUL SOUND FROM UP ABOVE. IT MUST HAVE BEEN BECAUSE OF THE SIZE OF THE BUILDING. I REMEMBER WHEN AUTHUR GODREY DID HIS SHOW THERE ONCE IN THE LATE FIFTIES, HE WAS ESPECIALLY IMPRESSED WITH THE MODEL TRAIN THAT DISAPEARED IN A SHORT TUNNEL. THE TRAM HAD A BEAUTIFUL VIEW OF THE OCEAN AND SEAL ROCK(ACTUALLY HAD SEALS IN THOSE DAY, LONG BEFORE THEY MOVED TO PIER 39) BUT I WAS MORE IMPRESSED WITH ALL THOSE BROKEN WINDOWS LEADING TO THE REMAINING CLOSED POOLS. IT GOES ON AND ON THE MEMORY CAN ONLY HOLD SO MUCH. SEVERAL YEARS AGO I READ THAT IT WAS A MUSEUM ON STEROIDS AND THAT IT WAS EVERY LITTLE BOYS WILDEST DREAM. I WAS LUCKY TO BE THAT LITTLE BOY FULFILLING THAT DREAM BETWEEN 1955 AND 1958. MY DAD PLAYED MUSIC AT SKATELAND FOR MANY YEARS AND SUTRO’S FOR ABOUT 3 YEARS. SORRY TO SAY THAT SKATELAND WAS A DUMP (ALTHOUGH NICER WHEN IT WAS ATTACHED TO A FOUNTAIN WHICH LATER BECAME BULL PUP, ANOTHER THAT MOVED FROM THOSE BULDINGS JUST NORTH OF THE SURF CLUB BUT COULD NOT BE ENTERED THROUGH THE SKATING RINK). CONVERSELY SUTRO’S WAS A MAGNIFICENT PALACE AND I LOVED IT AND HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO FORGET IT. SURELY I HAVE FORGOTTEN MUCH MORE THAN I REMEMBER, IS THERE ANYONE ELSE OUT THERE THAT HAS SIMILAR OR DIFFERNT MEMORIES. I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR THEM.

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