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Historic photos capture former glory of Adolph Sutro

November 17 2016
November 17 2016

Very few San Franciscans alive today ever saw Sutro Heights in its full glory, festooned throughout with statues representing the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome.

The outcropping sits 200 feet above sea level, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, as well as the current version of the Cliff House and the Sutro Baths ruins. It was named for Adolph Sutro, the 24th mayor of San Francisco, serving office from 1895 until 1897. He was a successful business man who built the Sutro Tunnel through Mount Davidson to drain the water from the mine shafts of the Comstock Silver Lode.

In a 1933 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, his daughter, Dr. Emma L. Merritt, recounted his acquisition of the property.

"Father and I were riding in Golden Gate Park in 1879, in a buggy of course," Merritt told author Thomas J. Bellew. "As we neared the ocean beach he pointed to a hill toward the north and said, 'I have been living in San Francisco since 1850 and have never been up there. Let's drive up and take a look.' Father was so much struck with the superb position of the hill that within 15 minutes after we began to admire the place he had made Semuel Tetlow an offer to purchase. The business was completed within 24 hours.

The Tetlow mentioned was one of the driving forces behind a toll road from the city to coast near the current location of Geary Boulevard. Over the years he expanded the dwelling beyond Tetlow's cottage.

"Sutro proceeded to enlarge the gardens and beautify the grounds. He laid out a grand driveway paralleled with palms and studded the grounds with cypress pine and eucalyptus. From Antwerp he brought a ship load of statuary, copies of masterpieces, and distributed the figures along terraces and parapet and tree-lined walks. The gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome were most in favor, with a winged griffon here and a deer there, and a most delightful set of little men and women taken from Dickens spread over the lawn near the residence," the Chronicle reported in 1933.

He would eventually open the grounds to the public in exchange for a small fee that helped pay for the upkeep.

At one time, you would have been able to peer at Playland at the Beach amusement park. The original house belonging to Adolph Sutro was demolished after Merritt's death in 1938. The parapet, a gazebo, and vestiges of statuary are about all that is left structure-wise. The gardens, mature trees and parapet still attract many visitors.

Many of the photos in the above gallery, which include rare images of the houses interior, and photos of his staff, came from the extensive Wyland Stanley Collection, which depict early San Francisco. Stanley was a one time San Francisco Chronicle staffer. I hope the photos give you some sense of the area's former glory.


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