“...to see a scene like this one, and know that what you see is permanent, that it will remain, that (in …an expanding urban area) that it has been saved-- this is nearly unheard of.” -- John Hart, Wilderness Next Door
Ocean Beach at the western edge of San Francisco has experienced an array of flavors: from the Victorian elegance of the original Cliff House, to the three-story glass-walled bathhouses built by former mayor Adolph Sutro and rimmed with art he collected from around the world, to the jostling mid-century boisterousness of Playland at the Beach. Today, the area of Land’s End and Ocean Beach are protected under the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and serve mainly as running and strolling paths for those seeking the sounds of the ocean and the cool of the fog.
There was a time when the peaceful western edge of San Francisco was in doubt. In the 1950s, the Sutros sold the crumbling ocean-water baths to the Whitney family. George K. Whitney Jr. sought to develop high-rise hotels, an “Ocean Beach Riviera”. Such proposals continued throughout the 1960s and 70s.
In 1977 the Park Service acquired the historic Cliff House above Sutro Baths and its 3.66 acres for $3.7 million. According to Amy Meyer in her book New Guardians for the Golden Gate: “Getting the Sutro Baths into the park was much more complicated.”
Cliffside Properties, Inc., a holding company of a New York investment company, owned the coastal land on which the baths once towered. It claimed the nearly four acres were worth $9.4 million and that it intended to build a 698-room skyscraper hotel on the site. A Park Service appraisal valued the site at $1.6 million.
National Park Service Director Bill Whalen visited San Francisco, and announced that the Feds had no intention of paying the exhorbanent price posed by the developers. During a visit to San Francisco, he announced at a luncheon that he would volley the problem back to the city. Activists Amy Meyer and Ed Wayburn settled in for a drawn out fight, wondering if the land was now outside of the park.
Meyer writes in New Guardians: “…we asked the San Francisco Planning Commission to rezone the site. In May 1979 commission president Toby Rosenblatt proposed that the area be given special consideration… By April 1980 nothing had happened, so the commission voted to control and guide any development…by reclassifying the site as a ‘special use district’.”
Cliffside Properties took the Park Service to court but lost the case, and in 1980 the Federal Government bought Sutro Baths for $5.5 million.
Where to learn more: There’s a great “what might have been” article about the history of Land’s End, Ocean Beach, and the Cliff House here: http://oceanbeachbulletin.com/2011/01/25/before-now-whitneys-unbuilt-plans-for-the-cliff-house-and-lands-end/