Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
If you’ve wandered at 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. Even if you haven’t been to these places, they’ve been photographed and filmed for you. Abandoned Soviet bus stops, deserted old movie theaters, decaying residential streets. They’re fascinating in this like, Planet of the Apes kind of way. So, of course, there’s a German word for it.
Avery Trufelman: ‘Ruinenlust’, the long standing aesthetic obsession with decay.
Roman: Resident germanophile and producer Avery Trufelman.
Avery: It might actually be one of those made up German words- it probably is. But the concept itself is totally a real thing. Ruins inspire wonder, they give the mind this task of reconciling what’s there and what’s not. What once was and what now is.
Roman: People flock to remainders of ancient civilizations. Romans, the Mayans, the Egyptians but people also flock to things that just look like they’re ancient too. That combination of decomposition and romance makes a perfect cocktail of repulsion and allure. And for San Franciscans, this place is Sutro Baths.
Avery: My friend Austin brought me there one night.
So how do you get in? Does the trail just lead right to it?
Austin: Yeah, yeah. There’s steps– there’s a parking lot up there and steps that go down.
Avery: Head to the rocks at Lands End, on the very northwest corner of San Francisco. Walk down a flight of stairs into a grassy slope that hugs the sea. Off to the right is the gaping maw of a cave, to your left is the crumbled foundation of a concrete structure. It looks like a giant Belgian waffle, about 7 feet tall and 50 feet wide on the longest side. Beside the waffle, are two pools of still water with a concrete jetty between them that dares you to walk it’s length. Make it to the end, and you’re at a sea wall, where the Pacific Ocean crashes into the rocks. There is no fence, no guards, only a warning sign that says, “Danger! Cliff at surf area extremely dangerous. People have been swept from the rocks and drowned.”
Austin: What you can see down here are the ruins of the bath houses.
Avery: Have you heard any rumors as to what was what here?
Austin: Strangely no. I mean, other than it’s a bath house in San Francisco, with all that might indicate.
Avery: Well, not the kind of San Francisco bath house he’s thinking of, if he’s thinking of what I think he’s thinking of. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Last time you were here, it was just like– were people wondering about the history of it at all?
Austin: No, it was like 300 punks in a cave.
Avery: Austin had seen a band playing in the cave. They plugged their amps into a generator that they brought themselves. He told me things like that were happening in Sutro Baths all the time.
Roman: And it’s easy to see why. This place has a draw.
Avery: The night that I was there, a group of photographers were snapping shots of the moon.
Is this like a known photo destination?
Austin: I would say, the last three years has been more common, so I think people are finding out about it. I just know that in the like the 30’s it was some sort of bath for people to sit in and just soak. I don’t know if it was hot or cold, or what it was about.
Roman: Ruins have drawn people to them for centuries. Starting in the late 1600’s, a tradition emerged among European men of means to go visit sites of antiquity; Paris, Venice, Rome and learn about the roots of western civilization. Today, lots of people visit what’s left of the old world.
John Martini: People like ruins. It gives us this sense of time passing, maybe a sense of place. Why do people go to ancient Egypt? Why do they go to the Acropolis? A sense of time gone by, a sense of timelessness, and I think also like that urge to try to explain what people are looking at. Anytime you go out to Sutro Baths, I mean there’s people crawling all over the ruins like ants.
Avery: But the thing about these ruins at the edge of the continent, they may look ancient, but they really aren’t at all.
John: You talk to them and they’re all trying to figure the place out. What is this? What are these tunnels do? What’s this thing? There’s a curiosity to it. They know they’re ruins, made them think. If they know the name Sutro Baths, you know there are swimming pools. And that’s about it.
Avery: This is historian John Martini. Martini wrote a book about this place called, Sutro’s Glass Palace. So named because this pool of water used to be underneath an enormous glass structure.
Roman: And it was the pet project of Adolf Sutro. The name Sutro might sound familiar to you, especially if you live in San Francisco. There’s Sutro Tower, Sutro Heights. There’s a Sutro Library at the San Francisco State University, all named after this one German immigrant. He struck it rich by engineering a mining tunnel during the Nevada silver strike in the 1860’s and he turned his money into San Francisco real estate. A lot of real estate. Some historians estimate that at one point, Adolf Sutro owned 1/12th of the city.
Avery: Adolf Sutro was to San Francisco what John D. Rockefeller was to New York, and what Henry Huntington was to LA. Sutro built public gardens, presented free concerts, and built the structure that would eventually become Sutro Baths.
John: Sutro’s original idea was that he wanted to build a giant outdoor aquarium that would be filled by the tides and it would empty at low tide.
Roman: So in 1884 he created a catch basin that refilled naturally as the waves broke in. And then Sutro kept making more and more plans, adding on and on to his aquarium.
John: He built the network of swimming pools, connecting canals, he even built a power house as a free standing building to heat the water. Then when all that was done, then he hires an architectural firm. Assumably it would be like if some crazy self improvement guy built the foundation for an elaborate house, but didn’t know what the house was going to look like. He just built the foundation and he plumbed it. And then you hire an architect to come in and make a building fit on top of what was already there, that’s how the baths were designed.
Avery: From the outside, Sutro Baths looked like an ornate palatial greenhouse. Underneath it’s majestic three-tiered glass canopy, were several different swimming pools, hot water and cold, saltwater and fresh, and there were more than 500 individual changing rooms beneath the sweeping arena style bleachers. And attached to the baths was a museum full of Sutro’s crazy collection of stuff from around the world. Miniature boats, modeled buildings, taxidermied animals, gems, mechanical figures, a real Egyptian mummy, all inside of a glass palace facing the ocean at the edge of San Francisco. Up the hill towards the road was a street called Merrie Way. There was a Firth Wheel.
Roman: Basically a Ferris Wheel.
Avery: Along with a roller coaster and a hall of mirrors and games of chance.
Roman: And keep in mind, Sutro was building at the edge of nowhere on the rocks by the sea, and public transit didn’t go there. And this was a challenge for both construction workers and for customers.
John: It lost money from the day it opened. It was a huge white elephant. It cost Adolf Sutro about a million dollars when it opened in 1894. And you put that today, that’s 37-40 million dollars. It couldn’t make money from charging people 10 cents to get in and/or 15 cents to go swimming.
Roman: It would have had to be packed almost everyday.
Avery: And in an attempt to pack the house, Sutro poured even more money into electric rail lines that led out to the baths. This was a huge boom for the city’s mass transit.
John: At the same time, remember, he owned all the land surrounding it, the people are going to be travelling through, and there were always advertisements for the Sutro Land company where they’re trying to sell land. So he’s doing things for the public at the same trying to make some money.
Avery: But Sutro Baths just never ever made money.
Roman: By the time Adolf Sutro was elected mayor in 1894, he’s beloved baths were still not turning a profit. When he died four years later in 1898, his family started looking to get rid of the property.
Avery: The Sutro family tried for years to sell Sutro Baths. While also trying valiantly to make it turn a profit.
Tom Bratten: In 1934, my father was hired by Adolf Sutro who is the grandson of the pioneer Adolf Sutro. Just about that time, Adolf Sutro wanted to do something to get more people out here.
Avery: If you go to Sutro Baths, you may run in to Tom Bratton.
Tom: My name is Tom Bratton, and now I volunteer for the national parks and come out here once a week and for a few hours and talk to people and let them know just exactly what all these ruins are about.
Avery: Tom’s father was an engineer and he helped Sutro Baths undergo it’s really wiggy midlife crisis.
Tom: They cut off the bottom pool, cut that off from the regular pool. Drained that, scattered sand around on it, put in some tables, ping pong tables and picnic tables, and they called that the Tropic Beach.
Roman: The Tropic Beach was supposed to be a warm sandy place indoors just to hang out even though the real beach was right outside.
Tom: That really didn’t work out too well.
Roman: Which it really is a shame because right outside the beach is freezing and usually foggy. A tropical version isn’t that crazy.
Tom: And so they said, “Well, how about this, we’ll take that tropic beach away, and we’ll put a platform there and we’ll make that into an ice rink.”
Avery: And when Tom was in high school, his father got him a job working at this very ice rink.
Roman: Yes, Tom worked at this place while it was still standing. Which seems impossible given how ancient the ruins look.
Tom: People will really come up to me and say, “Where these really ruins from Rome?” And I say, “Not really.”
Roman: Not at all. Tom’s just being nice.
Avery: By the time Tom was employed there, the name of the place had changed. From Sutro Baths to just Sutro’s.
Roman: The Sutro family had finally gotten rid of this place in 1952 when entertainment tycoon George Whitney bought it.
Avery: Whitney was the boss when Tom Bratton started as a locker attendant. And even more than the Sutro family, George Whitney was really trying to do everything he could to get people to come out.
Roman: So he tacked on more amusements including a ride high above the sea that shuttled between the two cliffs on either side of Sutro’s. He called it the Sky Tram.
Tom: The Sky Tram. This thing could hold about 20 people. It took about 20 minutes to get across. So they didn’t really make a lot of money on it.
Avery: Whitney also thought an aviary might bring in the big money. So he ordered some exotic birds and some cages.
Tom: What happened was, all the birds came in at once before the cages. So they had to- when he called all the employees and says, “Okay, everybody here take home a bird until our cages come in and then we’ll bring the birds back.”
Roman: What a mess.
Avery: But even after the ice rink and the aviary and the sky tram, people still weren’t coming to Sutro’s.
John: The Whitney’s, after struggling for 14 years, decided they were going to sell the property.
Avery: Historian John Martini, again.
John: It was sold to a land developer who began to demolish it. And in June ’66, that’s when the very convenient fire broke out.
Roman: In 1966 a mysterious fire broke out and reduced Sutro’s to a pile of rubble. An arsonist was suspected, but no one was arrested.
Avery: And then Sutro’s was just never rebuilt.
John: Eventually, the last owner sold the land to the National Park Service in 1980. So it’s part of a big national park area.
Roman: Sutro Baths is right inside Golden Gate National Recreation Area. And when the government finally bought it, it was seamlessly included into this big National Park Area. It’s not a national park itself, and it doesn’t look like it belongs within the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy at all. It just looks like a bunch of ruins.
John: Sometimes ruins are more evocative than if the site is restored because there’s more of sense that this is the real deal. Even though these are only 45 years old, they have the same attraction that urge- try to explain what people are looking at.
Roman: So unlike other ruins, remains of Sutro Baths are less than 50 years old, they’re part of the National Park. Since 2012, they do have their own tiny museum and gift shop on site, right along Merrie Way where the midway used to be. The street sign is still there. And yet the ruins are still pretty dangerous. And to many people, still mysterious.
Avery: So at this point, you may be wondering how to get out to the baths, or about parking availability, or maybe if you can go hold your photo shoot there. Jill can help.
Jill Corral: People write to me with, “Can I have my wedding there? How can I get there? Can I film my movie there?” I answer all their questions.
Roman: Jill Corral runs sutrobaths.com.
Jill: And I don’t say like, “Oh I’m just this random chick in Seattle-”
Avery: From Seattle.
Jill: You know, I just respond to their question. Like, “Yes. Is your wedding party smaller than 30 people? Sure you can have it there.”
Avery: Jill snagged sutrobaths.com in 2000.
Jill: I couldn’t believe that the domain was available when it was.
Roman: If you contact Sutro Baths on Facebook or Twitter, those accounts are also run by Jill, in Seattle.
Jill: I love it when people ask me, like, “How much does it cost? Can I get in?” It’s just like, just go. It’s never closed.
Avery: And unlike Tom Bratton, or John Martini, who actually both experienced Sutro Baths when it was a functioning building, Jill first encountered the place as a ruin.
Jill: I was flown out to San Francisco for a job interview, 1997. My main mission was to touch the Pacific Ocean that day before my interview. I went down there and I stumbled on this just insane playground of concrete and metal sticking out of the ground. I didn’t know what the hell it was, it was just pretty much the closest to a magical place I’d found as an adult. And I fell in love. I think I will toss my ashes there after I die. Well, I won’t, someone else will.
Avery: Jill actually did bury her two pet lizards there. They’re in the cave.
Roman: The story of Sutro Baths didn’t exactly shape history. Yes, it helped expand San Francisco public transit. Yes, you can see the ruins briefly in a scene in the movie Harold and Maude. But ultimately, it was a strange glass complex at the edge of the ocean that was destined to fail. And amusements and attractions were constantly added and removed throughout it’s life.
Avery: But in a city as rapidly gentrifying as San Francisco, in a country as young as the United States, these ruins are an anomaly.
Jill: I respect people’s desire for it to be like this mysterious unknown thing. But when I hear tourist talking and this thing they’re wondering like I have been known to walk up to them and tell them like there used to be this giant beautiful, magical thing here. Like, you have to know about it. Always read the plaque, right?
Roman: You got it.
Avery: In addition to research and what the baths were, Jill keeps tabs on how they’re changing.
Roman: Ruins seem static. Like a fixed ending. But of course, they’re not.
Jill: I have watched it continue to fall apart. There used to be a deck that you could go and read on by the cave. And then it just crumbled into the sea, sometime around 2005. It’s still living and dying in slow-mo.
Roman: Which is a process the parks are actually trying to stop, according to Tom Bratton.
Tom: As far as the national Park’s go, they want to make it so that it’s not going to deteriorate anymore than it already has. If it deteriorates any more, you’re not going to be able to tell what it really was.
Roman: Tom speculates they might do this by adding more signs. Maybe stabilizing some of the decaying structures. But not too much more.
Tom: Well, what the park’s really don’t want to do, they don’t want to make it look like a box to kind of go inside and look at the ruins and then come out again.
Roman: But recently the young ruins have become something else entirely.
John: Nature’s reclaiming the site.
Avery: The ruins continue to evolve.
John: The old swimming pools themselves have become partly silted in, it’s become a wetland. Migrating birds love the site.
Avery: And recently, an otter appeared swimming in Sutro Baths. The public dubbed him Sutro Sam.
Roman: Sutro Baths continues to be a machine for generating new San Francisco folklore.
Avery: Today, Sutro Baths, is pretty much back to where it started. All that remains is the foundation. Including the original catch basin that Adolf Sutro built before ever imagining a swimming pool, a tropic beach, a carnival midway, an ice skating rink.
Roman: So after all the years of building this palace of wonder after adding games and rides and oddities, trying and failing to draw the public out to this strange place by the ocean, all Adolf Sutro, or George Whitney had to do was let it burn down and crumble into ruin.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman, with Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced in downtown Oakland, California out of the offices of Ark Sign, an architectural firm who values collaboration so much, they could have even worked with Adolf Sutro.