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Regional Interests

Cliff House Memorabilia Finds Temporary Home in San Francisco — Back in the Cliff House

A collection of memorabilia saved from the closure of the much-beloved Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco has a new home — right back in the Cliff House.

The collection’s future wasn’t always certain.

When the more than 150-year-old restaurant that’s perched above Ocean Beach closed last December, many in the Bay Area mourned. But when it was announced that the eclectic items kept at the restaurant would be sold at auction, the mood swung to alarm. What would happen to those precious pieces of San Francisco’s west side history?

Historians, arts groups and everyday Bay Area folk stepped up to save more than 60 artifacts, raising $180,000 to buy them from the Cliff House’s last operators, the Hountalas family, and showcase them so San Franciscans and people from across the bay can keep a piece of Cliff House history close to home. The collection includes artifacts from the Sutro Baths, an ocean-water swimming pool that once stood at Lands End.

The pieces are now in the care of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a group dedicated to San Francisco’s west side history; Alexandra Mitchell of the ACT Art Conservation group; and John Lindsey, director of The Great Highway Gallery. The items were on display in a small gallery on Balboa Street in the Richmond District (where they remain for now), because a larger space for them hadn’t been secured.

That changed last week.

A totem pole commissioned by George K. Whitney, Jr., former owner of the Cliff House, which the Western Neighborhoods Project recently acquired at auction, in front of the Cliff House in 1960. (Courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project)

Nicole Meldahl, a historian and executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, told KQED the group signed the special-use permit to house the Cliff House collection in the Cliff House again. The collection will live in the former gift shop, starting in September or October and lasting through April 2022, courtesy of the National Park Service. She credited the NPS with going above and beyond to help secure the space.

KQED caught up with Meldahl to find out what the community can expect from the upcoming Cliff House pop-up exhibit and what the future holds for the collection.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez: Was this always a sure thing? Was there any uncertainty?

Nicole Meldahl: It always felt like a sure thing that we would go into the Cliff House because it felt so natural and right. But given that we were working with a federal agency, we didn’t want to announce this until things were certain, and our special-use permit was actually signed. So we just signed the special-use permit [last week] and the pop-up museum is a done deal.

A lot of people donated money to make this happen and were really pushing to see these artifacts saved. And you yourself are a historian with a special love for San Francisco west side history. How did it feel when you finally signed the permit this week?

I absolutely left my body, traveled up to the history god, who shook my hand. And then I traveled back down to earth when I signed the special-use permit.

On the left, a luncheon menu for a banquet held at the Cliff House in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to San Francisco in May 1903. On the right, the Cliff House banquet room set for the visit, where the menu can be seen at each place setting. (Image illustration by KQED, photos courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project)

You’ve had this collection housed on Balboa Street for a while. What would you say is the bonus of looking at it in the Cliff House itself?

Oh, gosh, there really is no substitute for experiencing history in place.

When you’re standing out by the cliff and you’re looking out over the ocean, and you feel that ocean breeze and you look at the Cliff House and then you pan to the right and see the ruins of the Sutro Baths, it’s sometimes hard to imagine what could have been here before, but we’ll be able to show you that. And we’ll be staffing the office with former National Park Service rangers and folks who are deeply connected to this part of San Francisco and this specific place. So we’ll be able to give you an experience that will be interactive and entertaining, but also educational.

Tell me about a standout piece or two. 

My favorites change in the collection all the time. But the fun pieces for me are ones where we can show you a photograph of them in situ, in the Cliff House, decades and decades ago.

So, for instance, we have a wonderful photograph on our website of what was called the Redwood Room in the Cliff House in the 1930s. And there on the wall is a massive ship’s wheel with an etched mirror in the middle depicting two shipwrecks, and allegedly the wheel is from one of those shipwrecks. We’re still tracking down some of the stories connected to these pieces to verify the history.

But another one that I’m super in love with because I’m a total nerd for presidential history, is we have a presidential luncheon menu from when Teddy Roosevelt visited San Francisco in 1903. And it’s beautiful. It has a golden poppy on it. So it’s got deep, California relevance and some of the menu items are really funny, like the “essence of chicken,” because food was wild in 1903. But we also have a photograph [on our website] of the banquet hall set up for this luncheon. And you can see the individual menus at each setting.

So it’s incredible to me that this thing is so rare. It’s connected to history that connects all the way throughout the country. And we have a photo of it! So it feels like these pieces are really coming home.

On the left, a ship’s wheel allegedly from the tanker vessel Frank H. Buck, which wrecked off Lands End in the 1930s. The ship’s wheel once hung in the Sequoia Room at the Cliff House, which can be seen in the photo on the right. (Image illustration by KQED, photos courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project)

You can track down some pieces using photos, but what other methods do you use to hunt down the history behind these pieces?

Well, you know, we are trained historians here at Western Neighborhoods Project. But what’s been interesting specifically about the Cliff House history is we’re trying to separate lore from fact — especially with the Whitney family, who owned and operated the Cliff House for many years. They were wonderful salesmen who didn’t let the truth get in the way of a good marketing ploy. So we’re really trying to separate those. But at the same time, the stories are almost as interesting as the verifiable history.

When we hear these stories, we try a variety of things. We look through old newspapers to see if there’s any reference to them in there. We look through archival resources held by places like the San Francisco [Public] Library and the Bancroft [Library at UC Berkeley]. We look through photos. Photos are such a wonderful resource to see change over time in any given place.

For example, a piece that we were able to save is this little stool that used to be in the Sutro Baths, and it’s stamped “A.S.” on the bottom of it for Adolph Sutro. And he actually acquired that stool from the 1894 Midwinter Fair that was staged in Golden Gate Park. He had a habit of just going to these auctions after major events and he would buy anything he could see.

I remember in one of your Outside Lands podcasts that Adolph Sutro went to Egypt and bought a collection of books, and stamped them all with his initials, right? He did this all the time? 

You’re remembering that correctly. And it’s funny — when we went down to see the auction pieces before it had gone off to get a bearing on what was there, I saw a little stool. I thought, “I know exactly what this is.” I walked over and I said, “Do you mind if I pick this up?” The auctioneer said, “Yes,  no problem.” So I picked it up and I said, “Can you tell me if it’s stamped ‘A.S.’ on the bottom?” And John Lindsey went, “Oh, my God, it is.” And they looked at me like I was the most genius person on the face of the planet, which was hilarious.

On the left, an original stool from the Sutro Baths that is stamped “A.S.” for Adolph Sutro underneath the seat. On the right, an image of similar stools in use at Sutro Baths. (Image illustration by KQED, photos courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project)

So this really is an ongoing, everlasting project that requires lots and lots of financial support. So donations are appreciated.

So these will be in the Cliff House temporarily, but what does the future hold for these historical pieces?

Right now we have pieces on display in our office and gallery at 1617 Balboa Street, and of course, you’ve got the Cliff House pop-up coming.

But really we have to send these pieces on the road after both of these exhibitions close, because one, we have a teeny-tiny office, because we’re a teeny-tiny nonprofit and we can’t afford to store these things permanently. And two, we want these pieces to be seen by the maximum number of people. So we want them to get out there and get on the road. So tell them to email me at nicole@outsidelands.org if you have ideas on places for us to display these in the future.

Copyright 2021 KQED