San Francisco’s Cliff House: See the famed – and doomed – building through the years

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See San Francisco's famed and doomed Cliff House through the years

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

The first Victorian-era Cliff House

This early version of San Francisco’s Cliff House was destroyed by fire in 1894

The Old Cliff House (San Francisco) in the c1865


A later version of the first Cliff House, after some expansion

Victorian-era Cliff House - Destroyed in 1894

One of several incarnations of the San Francisco landmark, this French Chateau version of the Cliff House — considered by many to be the finest of them all — opened in February 1896. (Read more about the opening celebration below.)

The National Parks Service noted that in its heyday, the Cliff House was visited by presidents Hayes, Grant, McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft.

Although the structure managed to survive the great earthquake of 1906, it dodged one bullet only to be hit by another, and was completely destroyed by fire in September 1907. The Cliff House still exists today, albeit in a much smaller form — so still, the legacy lives on.

The Cliff House & Ocean Beach – 1899

The Cliff House and Ocean Beach (1899)


The Cliff House – 1900

ALSO SEE: 19th century San Francisco skyline: From a brand-new city to busy metropolis

Old Cliff House - San Francisco

The old Cliff House at night (c1900)


The Cliff House and a passing ship, as seen from Sutro Heights (colorized)

The Cliff House and a passing ship, as seen from Sutro Heights (colorized)


Opening of the Sutro Railway & Cliff House (1896)

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, Calif.) February 2, 1896

The new Cliff House opened: The new road to the cliff

Formal opening of the Sutro Electric Street Railway yesterday

Celebrated the event — Waving flags by day and big bonfires by night at Richmond

Handsome appointments and furnishings of the big palace that overlooks the sea

The national colors waved over Sutro Heights and the Richmond district yesterday to celebrate the opening of the Sutro Railroad and the dedication of the new Cliff House.

The opening of the new road was an epoch in the history of San Francisco. It punctuated the time when the domination of the Market-street Railway Company ceased and the rights of the people began.

The fare to the Cliff House, at the extreme western side of San Francisco, was originally 10 cents. Mayor Sutro sought to have it reduced. He wanted all the people to enjoy the privilege of traveling from the ferries to the heights for a nickel. The street railroad company objected, and then began the fight, which was continued with ceaseless energy down to this time.

Cliff House and Sutro Railway opening in 1896 (1)

At the outset, Mr Sutro charged an entrance fee to the grounds of the cliff. This act naturally injured the traffic of the railroad. The result was that a little more than a year ago the street railroad combined to reduce the fare to the cliff to 5 cents. But this was after the Mayor had decided to build a street railroad independent of what he calls the “octopus.”

This road was formally opened to the public yesterday. And there was great rejoicing along the line. The property owners and inhabitants were jubilant over the dawn of a new era. Flags waved from house tops and bunting floated to the breeze. It was indeed a gala day; a day of rejoicing, a day of deliverance.

MORE: Why there are Gold Rush-era ships still buried under downtown San Francisco

The new road is well-equipped. It is an electric line and excellent time is made. There was a great contrast yesterday, exemplifying the feeling of the people between the crowded cars on this road and the empty vehicles of the octopus.

Mr Sutro seemed very much pleased over the opening of the road to which he has given much time and invested a large sum of money. The people along the route lighted bonfires at night as an evidence of the pleasure within them.

Cliff House and Sutro Railway opening in 1896 (2)

There were great crowds at the opening of the new Cliff House yesterday. It is a magnificent building, handsomely proportioned and richly furnished. The reception-rooms, parlors, billiard-rooms and dining-room and observatories all overlook the sea.

There was a band concert throughout the day, given by Cassasa’s band. A banquet was tendered the guests in the large banquet hall at the new Cliff House. Members of the Board of Supervisors, City officials, men of affairs and other prominent citizens were in attendance.

The table extended the whole length of the long room, and the menu included everything worth eating. It was a feast for the gods. In addition to the soup, fish and fowl there were long sentences of white whine, and extended paragraphs of red liquor.

ALSO SEE: The 1906 San Francisco earthquake: Rare pictures & reports made while the fires were still burning the city

Mr Sutro sat at the head of the table. He looked as contented as Caesar after he had carted his own and other people’s fortunes across the turbulent sea. The fact is the Mayor is at home at a luncheon. Having dined with several of the crowned heads and a few of the Presidents, Senators and generals of the United States, he is entirely on speaking terms with the polite requirements and duties of a host.

Of course the Mayor made a speech. He said many nice things about struggling humanity, and excoriated the few individuals who are striving to control the destiny of the great people of California. The Mayor was sarcastic, severe and vicious. He denounced the “octopus” and cried long live the people.

“The building of this little one-horse road,” said the Mayor, “is of little importance, yet it involves a principle. The octopus has long dominated this country, and as great things sometimes grow from small circumstances there is no knowing what may be the end.”


Tourists at Ocean Beach (1897)

Tourists at Ocean Beach (1897)


Old Cliff House and Seal Rocks from Sutro Heights (c1900)

Old Cliff House and Seal Rocks from Sutro Heights (c1900)


Sailors at the beach by SF Cliff House (1901)

Sailors at the beach by SF Cliff House (1901)


On the beach by SF Cliff House (c1901)

On the beach by SF Cliff House (c1901)


Tourists at Ocean Beach by San Francisco Cliff House (c1903)

Tourists at Ocean Beach by San Francisco Cliff House (c1903)


The Victorian Cliff House burning (1907)

Cliff House burning


The third Cliff House (1930s-1940s)

The Cliff House (1930s-1940s)

DON’T MISS THIS: San Francisco’s Victorian marvel: The huge swimming pools at Sutro Baths

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