Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ruins of a Golden Era - the Sutro Baths of San Francisco

I wish I could travel back in time to San Francisco and see the Sutro Baths in 1896. Millionaire Adolph Sutro designed the Sutro Baths in 1894 to provide thousands of San Franciscans an inexpensive recreational swimming facility. The 3 acre glass and steel bathhouse, located at Lands End, contained seven pools complete with diving boards, slides and trapezes. 

The engineering of the bath was so marvelous I can only describe it by quoting from the following article:

PG&E  magazine, September 1912.
J.E. Van Hoosear, Industrial department

Tier upon tier of seats rise to the galleries, while at their base are the swimming tanks. The water for these is supplied by an ingenious use of the ocean waves. A basin scooped out of solid rock receives the water that dashes over the top, thence it is conducted to a settling tank; by numerous small canals it makes its way into the various swimming tanks, of which there are six in all, the largest containing the sea water in its natural state, the others being heated to different temperatures to suit the varying requirements of visitors. As stated, the Baths are filled by the ocean itself. Should, however, the tides be so low as to necessitate pumping, preparations have been made for this, and the water can be forced in at a rate of 6,000 gallons per minute by means of a large turbine pump placed at sea level in a cave-like excavation hollowed out of the solid cliff and heretofore driven by means of a steam-engine which is now about to be replaced by a 35 horse-power 2-phase motor which can be controlled from the switchboard room and can be operated at any time, day or night, to suit the tides without previous preparation in the way of getting up steam. 

The baths were very popular in the 1920s but unfortunately, they were never profitable. Over time they became less popular due to the Great Depression, reduced public transportation and new public health codes. in 1966 a (suspicious) fire destroyed the Sutro Baths, and now all that is left are the ruins. They have been part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1973.

My family and I visited the Sutro Baths last weekend as part of a day trip to Lands End. They are definitely worth exploring. Though the glamour is gone, as you walk around the concrete ruins you can imagine the way it used to be. 

There is even a short tunnel that used to house the turbine pump Mr. Sutro engineered to pump water into the baths. These days, the tunnel leads to a beautiful view of the shoreline.

A friend of mine was a boy in the late 1940s and remembers swimming in the Sutro Baths. He said they were starting to show their age even then and not many people were using them, sometimes only 20 people at a time! But he loved swimming there - listen to him describe it in his own words (and please excuse the sound of dishes in the background). 


For more on the fascinating history of the Sutro Baths, including Sutro's "pleasure grounds" on Merrie Way, follow these links: 

If you go:  The Sutro Baths are part of Lands End, which lies at the northwestern corner of San Francisco. There's a new visitor's museum, and beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge along the Coastal Trail (which calls for a blog of its own). 

Directions: Best to google it!
Lands End Lookout
680 Point Lobos Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94121
(415) 426-5240 

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