The Ruins of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths

Gloomy San Francisco Days are always good for exploring ruins. This week, on a particularly grey and windy day, a friend and I took a stroll through the Sutro Baths in San Francisco…or at least what’s left of them. If I were making a low-budge, post-apocalyptic student film, I would probably use the site as my primary location. It’s been 40 years since the baths burned down, but what remains still has a definite ground-zero vibe. Mysterious pieces of concrete and brick walls jut out of the hillside growth and unusual sand formations. Navigating the site can be tricky—as Maude will surely attest—with pieces of bent, rusted metal and concrete holes aiming to trip up careless explorers. When the Sutro Baths opened in 1896, it was the world’s largest indoor swimming hole — complete with 7 different pools, a private museum and 8,000 seat concert hall.

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Designed by architects C.J. Colley and Emil S. Lemme, the original structure was a cavernous space of metal and glass. Impressive as it was, the operating costs were enormous and the Sutro Baths were constantly beset with financial troubles, resulting in the eventual closure of the facility in 1966. Not too long after, the site caught the eye of a savvy San Francisco developer who had visions of a housing and shopping complex (a plan that sounds all too familiar to current San Francisco residents). Thankfully, the romantic remains were saved when the National Parks Service bought the land in 1980 and incorporated it into the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

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1 reply on “The Ruins of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths”

Very cool piece you have written. And I agree with you that it feels like nuclear winter out there sometimes. I have lunch occasionally with clients at the Cliff House and what always strikes me as interesting is the drastic changes in climate, people, architecture, and vibe you see when you drive from this point all the way back through downtown into Union Square. If you stay on Geary and only divert when you have to, you basically end up at the Powell Street cable car turnaround, which could not be a more different world than the Sutro baths.

Tom Poser

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