Cliff House History

historic photo of bathers on Ocean Beach with Cliff House in background
Scene at Ocean Beach showing the second Cliff House, circa 1900

photo courtesy of Gary Stark


The Original Cliff House (1863-1894)

After the Gold Rush, San Francisco's population exploded and the city's downtown area got very crowded with new buildings and neighborhoods. Real estate developers, eager to make more money, saw Lands End and its unparalleled beauty as a new place to develop. They constructed the Cliff House in 1863 as a fashionable resort for the wealthy. The modest one-story wood-frame structure was skillfully situated on top of the cliff overlooking Seal Rocks, providing breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific Coast line.

During the mid-19th century, trekking out to Lands End was expensive and took several hours by horseback. To help people travel to this faraway place, a private company constructed a brand new road called Point Lobos Avenue. Eventually, a horse-drawn stagecoach made the trip every Sunday from downtown San Francisco out to Lands End. Because only wealthy citizens could afford to travel all the way out to the remote resort, the Cliff House was considered a very exclusive place. For many years, the guest register bore the names of three U.S. presidents as well as prominent San Fran¬cisco families such as the Hearsts, the Stanfords and the Crockers. However, by the late1870s the Cliff House had declined in popularity. In an effort to attract new customers, the managers offered gambling and alcohol and as a result, the resort became shabby and unrespectable.

In 1881, Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire, philanthropist, and later mayor of San Francisco, bought the Cliff House from the original owners. He had plans to re-establish the restaurant as a wholesome, family-friendly venue and for next few years, he remodeled rooms, hired new management and lured families back to the restaurant. Sutro also began construction on a railroad that would transport more people to this seaside attraction. Unfortunately, a very tragic event happened on Christmas Day, 1894 when fire destroyed the original wood-frame Cliff House.

historic image of the original Cliff House
The original Cliff House, constructed in 1863



Victorian Cliff House (1896-1907)

Within six months of the devastating fire, Sutro had plans for a new Cliff House and after spending $75,000, he proudly opened the second Cliff House in 1896. The new building was a grand, eight-story tall castle-like structure with turrets, decorative spires, fanciful roof dormers and an observation tower. The new resort, designed specifically for dining, dancing and entertainment, had several private dining rooms, parlors, bars, and kitchens at the ground level. Private lunchrooms, a large art gallery, a gem exhibit, a photo gallery, a reception room, panoramic views from large windows and an open-air veranda were all located on the upper floors. Although this elegant building survived the 1906 earthquake, sadly, it was no less fire proof than the first Cliff House. In September 1907, fire once again destroyed the Cliff House.

historic image of the second Cliff House
View of the second Cliff House from the Parapet at Sutro Heights, circa 1900



Neoclassical Cliff House (1909 to the present)

After Sutro's death in 1898, his properties were managed by his daughter Emma Sutro Merritt. A year after the destruction of the second Cliff House, Mrs. Merritt obtained approval to construct a third Cliff House. Because so many of the city's wood-frame buildings burned after the 1906 earthquake, builders began to construct San Francisco's new buildings in fireproof steel-reinforced concrete. The third Cliff House, constructed in concrete, was designed in a streamline, classically inspired architectural style; the building settled into the landscape rather than dominating the ocean view. Open to the public in 1909, the Cliff House carried on the tradition of sumptuous dining rooms and elegant entertainment.

World War I and the Great Depression took their toll on the Lands End area and the Sutro family sold the Cliff House in 1937 to other operators. During the 1940s and 1950s, the owners modified the Cliff House several times. In 1977, the National Park Service acquired the property to become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service rehabilitated the historic Cliff House in 2005 to return it to its original neoclassical design. Architects added an adjacent Sutro Wing to improve access to ocean views, allowing diners and visitors alike to continue the long tradition of enjoying the magnificent Pacific from the Cliff House high above Seal Rocks.

historic photo of the third Cliff House
The third Cliff House, circa 1920

photo courtesy of John Martini


Learn More

colored map of Lands End

Vestiges of the Cliff House

This digital guidebook highlights important stories, landscapes, events, artifacts and geology of the Cliff House.


To celebrate the Cliff House's 150th anniversary, the July 2013 edition of Park E-Ventures has published an article entitled "The Cliff House and San Francisco's Long History of Dining Out".


Additional Sites of Interest

San Francisco's Cliff House Restaurant-San Francisco Memories
This website supplies historical information and accounts of San Francisco's Cliff House, and images of the building, including some in 3D.

San Francisco Public Library
Historical images of the Cliff House and Sutro Baths in San Francisco can be found.

California Heritage Collection, The Bancroft Library University of California, Berkeley
This is an online archive of images and texts illustrating California's history and culture, including the Cliff House and Sutro Baths in San Francisco.

American Memory, Library of Congress
A website of primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States, including print, photographs, and films of San Francisco's Cliff House and Sutro Baths can be found at this site.

California Historical Society
An online guide to images and articles about California history, including the Cliff House and Sutro Baths is available here.

Western Neighborhoods Project
This website features images and articles provided by current and past residents and visitors about San Francisco's western neighborhoods, including information about the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights, and Adolph Sutro.

Last updated: September 13, 2023

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