Anymore, I won’t deny, it’s a bit hard to find something while traveling that truly captivates my imagination and kindles my love of history.
It’s not that I don’t find the world absolutely breathtaking, it’s just that there’s a perfectly normal thing called “habituation,” meaning that when you see enough of the beautiful world, you eventually sort of get used to it. The miraculous wonder of a plane taking off loses its power just a little bit; the awe felt when gazing on a historic relic or building becomes slightly less notable; and the gilded frames and bedposts of yet another palace just don’t seem to sparkle quite the same.
It’s why so many of us keep going: we’re constantly looking for that new miracle, awesome experience, or sparkle. We get addicted to the new, and if we don’t keep looking, the lucky pennies we pick up along our many roads seem to lose their shine.
I was lucky enough to find a new penny on a trip to San Francisco, with the help of my best friend. She’s been all over this beautiful globe of ours, and she knows what I love — this makes her the perfect guide for finding places I may never have heard of or thought to visit. Sutro Baths on the Pacific Coast near the Golden Gate City was just such a place.
Pictured above in both historic photos from the San Francisco Public Library, and some I took in accidentally the exact same spots (no really, I didn’t know at the time that I would be quite so accurate in my reproductions!), Sutro Baths was a privately-owned establishment opened to the public during the heart of the Victorian era (1896). Unlike now, it wasn’t common then for men and women to turn up in speedos and bikinis, so there were a variety of amenities to help make this a cost-effective, healthy option to entertain and help the physical fitness of hoards of working class San Franciscans.
To achieve such a goal, the complex itself had to be equally impressive. Using the power of the ocean so close at hand, the Baths were constructed with one fresh-water and six salt-water pools, 30 swimming rings, nine spring boards, seven slides, three trapezes, two diving platforms, 500 dressing rooms, and much, much more. You could even borrow a “bathing costume” for the occasion, if so inclined (to be fair, this was back in the day when it might not have been practical for everyone to own even one swim suit). There were also museums and attractions, just to keep one’s mind stimulated as well as the body. Basically everything you needed to enjoy the experience was available, and tailored to the whole family.
Understandably, it was a glamorous experience. Unfortunately it was also plagued by a series of unfortunate circumstances before an untimely end in 1966.
First, designer and funder Adolph Sutro passed away in 1898. Then after a series of World Wars put stress on the economy, the Great Depression took what disposable income might have been spent on even at such an affordable price as General Admission, 10¢. To try and “diversify the portfolio” and thus increase the “return on investment” for the Sutro family who ran the Baths after the Late Sutro’s absence, the baths were intermittently turned into ice rinks. Understandably, this wasn’t any more appealing given the historical context.
Finally, one day in 1966, the complex caught fire during the process of demolition. At the time, the City of San Francisco had planned to put in high-rise apartments in the same place, but that plan was abandoned, to the good fortune of those of us with weird historical fascinations.
Now, as you can see from my photos, the Sutro Baths ruins are open to the public. As part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area, the ruins are protected but are free to visit and surprisingly fun to explore. Unlike many areas protected by the National Park Service, you can actually climb and wander among the Sutro Baths ruins; while I was there with my best friend we were somewhat usurped in our exploration by a local theatre troupe. It’s the kind of place that captures the essence of San Francisco’s fascinating history, and will stand out unique the world over in your memory if you have the chance to immerse yourself in both the past and present of Sutro Baths.
Learn More about Sutro Baths:
- Sutro Baths, from the San Francisco Public Library
- Cliff House & Sutro Baths, from the National Park Service
- Sutro Baths, from Wikipedia
- Sutro’s Glass Palace: The History of Sutro Baths by John A. Martini
- San Francisco’s Ocean Beach by Kathleen Manning & Jim Dickson
- Lonely Planet San Francisco by John Vlahides