The Night San Francisco’s Cliff House Burnt to a Cinder

An Illuminated Cliff HousePhoto: T. Imai

San Francisco’s Cliff House was quite the landmark in its day. No other name could have been more apt, for the Victorian Chateau that loomed over the crashing sea clung to the perilous rocky outcrop upon which it perched. The striking, seven storey landmark was built by the entrepreneur, Adolph Sutro (the 24th mayor of the city) in 1896.

Since 1858, four different buildings have occupied the site that overlooks Seal Rocks, but Sutro’s version has undoubtedly been the grandest (and to some, most vulgar) to grace this north-western corner of San Francisco.

Housing numerous restaurants, art galleries, parlours and games rooms, the expensively decorated (but reasonably priced) surroundings accommodated not only presidents, authors, royalty, artists and war heroes, but also ‘Great throngs of San Franciscans [who] arrived on steam trains, bicycles, carts and horse wagons on Sunday excursions’.

Called ‘the Gingerbread Palace’ by some, the vast mansion was overlooked by Sutro’s own estate above on Sutro Heights. But Sutro himself would only enjoy the view for a brace of years before succumbing to death in 1898.

The San Francisco Examiner – September 8, 1907:

“Many persons and events had contributed to make the Cliff House a familiar and a pleasing name throughout the whole of Christendom. Princes, presidents, prima-donnas and peasants, all had graced the hostelry during its long and busy life. The rich and the poor, the high and the low of all the earth, or so many of them as lived or sojourned in the city by the Golden Gate made the Cliff House their one chief pleasure place. Between its lower balcony and its lookout tower there was little of human interest that did not occur and recur. Its midday lunches and its midnight suppers included men and women in every walk of life, in every civilized country there are those who can tell a hundred tales of interesting things that happened out there where the sea dogs bark and where the evening sun slips down behind the waves.

The Cliff HousePhoto: Unknown

“No man of any consequence has ever visited San Francisco, without being taken to the Cliff House. The hotel register would make a catalogue of illustrious names. General Grant on his return from his trip around the world, was banqueted there. The Princess Louise, the Marquis of Lorne, President Hayes and President Harrison tasted of its good cheer and others before counting.”

Despite its precarious position, the Cliff House managed to survive San Francisco’s infamous 1906 earthquake with little repair needed but, as The San Francisco Examiner reported almost a year and a half later, the grand edifice was destined to enjoy a short life. During the evening of September 7, 1907, a fire broke out that would devastate the entire building.

The San Francisco Examiner – September 8, 1907:

“The Cliff House is gone! The far-famed hostelry San Francisco’s boast – the world’s acclaim – is leveled to the ground. Its tower and its turrets, the open balconies and its secluded apartments, with all their wild romance and their historic significance, are now a heap of blackened ruins.

“In less than two hours of yesterday afternoon, the glinting white walls that for more than eleven years had defiantly challenged the angry ocean and the furious tempest, were caught up by fire and devoured to the last little splinter.

“It was just past four o’clock when it was discovered that the Cliff House was in flames. James M. Wilkins who had managed the hotel for many years, and who had been the host of the old Cliff House that was burned on Christmas Eve of 1894, was standing on the south balcony of the main floor with Watchmen Owen Mulvaney. They were looking down along the far stretch of beach, dotted here and there with lounging idlers and romping merry-makers.

“Suddenly, a puff of smoke came up through a small square hole that electricians had cut in the flooring of the balcony.

“Up to that moment, all that Wilkins had seen was that little puff of smoke issuing through the hole in the veranda. But the fire, starting as it did on the bottom-most floor of the hotel, had spread with frightful rapidity. And while Wilkins was yet tugging at the telephone, the whole north wall of the building came crashing in, and Wilkins was enveloped in smoke and flames.

“Wilkins ran towards the nearest exit, as he thought. He struck a solid wall. Then he thought of a window near the telephone booth. He reached the window and was beaten back by the flames. Turning, he fled into the bar room. That, too, was filled with smoke. Wilkins was choking now. He held a hand to his mouth and staggered out into the main corridor. There the smoke was denser and the heat greater.

“Wilkins could go no further. He made one last plunge into the darkness and fell to the floor unconscious. Just then Captain Kelly of Chemical Engine No. 8 led his men into the burning building. They fought their way inch by inch, and they came at last to the unconscious form of Wilkins. Fireman Fred Klatzel took firm hold of the helpless man and dragged him out into the open air, where he was revived.

“A moment after the daring rescue of Wilkins, all of the firemen were driven from the hotel by the flames which now enveloped the whole structure. There was not the last chance of saving the hotel from total destruction.

“In an effort to save the stables and the great Sutro Baths, the firemen ran their engines and their hose down into the very face of the fire and stood to their task against blistering heat. The north wind favored them, and they saved not only the baths but also the stables which caught fire a score of times.

“Looking down into the seething roaring cauldron from the parapet of Sutro Heights, the burning hotel took on the aspect of an inferno. Seen from the southern stretch of beach, the darting, snapping flames seemed to be dancing out in maddened efforts to catch and destroy the buildings that lay smiling far beyond their reach. Far out by the famous Seal Rocks, the crew of the lifesaving station bobbing about on the waves in their little boat, had an entirely different view of the fire. To them the swaying structure seemed always toppling towards the seas. But that was an illusion, for after the flames died down for lack of something to feed on, it was seen that the whole giant frame of the hotel had crumbled in upon itself, and that the ashes of its timbers lay heaped on the great flat rock where the proud walls had lately reared.”

Thankfully, the building had been mostly vacant before the blaze:

“At the time of the fire the Cliff House was unoccupied. It was being refitted and remodeled by the Cliff House Company, a corporation that had leased the property for a term of years. The work mapped out by the new lessees had progressed so far that they expected to reopen the hotel within the next thirty days. It was their intention to make the Cliff House a much finer and more pretentious place than it had been before.”

The restaurant still exists now and still bears the name ‘Cliff House’. Still balanced precariously overlooking Seal Rocks, this fourth incarnation is a little more befitting of its surroundings.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4