The Sutro Baths: Ruins of a Lost San Francisco Landmark

The Sutro Baths were built in 1896 in the Lands End area of Outer Richmond, San Francisco. (Image: via Wikipedia. The Sutro Baths were a late 19th century wonder of San Francisco)

Nestled beneath the Cliff House on the west wide of San Francisco, California, lie the remains of a vast saltwater swimming pool complex that was every bit as grand as the Parisian Piscine Molitor. The opening of the Sutro Baths on March 14, 1896, marked the arrival of the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. But 70 years later, a ferocious fire would burn the Outer Richmond landmark to the ground. Today, all that remains are a series of tantalising ruins.

The majestic Sutro Baths were once the world's largest indoor swimming pool but burned down in 1966. Their concrete ruins can still be seen today beneath the Cliff House. (Image: ParaGreen13. The abandoned Sutro Baths ruins today)

Named after their owner Adolph Sutro, a successful San Francisco entrepreneur and the Bay City’s former mayor, the Sutro Baths incorporated six saltwater swimming pools and one freshwater pool in an area roughly 500 ft long and 254 ft wide. The complex boasted 30 swinging rings, seven water slides and a sprung diving board. According to J. E. Van Hoosear, its Victorian structure was comprised of 600 tons of iron and 100,000 square feet of glazing.

Ruined: the abandoned Sutro Baths on the west side of San Francisco. (Image: Xaven)

The remarkable 19th century complex, situated in the Lands End area of Outer Richmond, was filled by sea water at high tide, which flowed directly into its swimming pools and was capable of recycling 7,600 cubic metres of water in just one hour. At low tide this process was assisted by a powerful turbine, which drove a water pump built into a nearby cave.

(Images: Fred Hsu; Lincoln Adler)

In addition to its seven pools, the complex also housed a 2,700-seat amphitheatre, an ice rink, more than 500 dressing rooms, a museum crammed with art, artefacts and curiosities of the age, and two railway termini. The Ferries and Cliff House Railroad ran along the cliff tops, offering stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge as it wound its way to its downtown terminal. The eponymous Sutro Railway, meanwhile, operated electric trolleys between downtown and Golden Gate Park.

Illustration showing the terminus of the old Sutro Railroad (Image: Ed Bierman. Illustration showing the terminus of the old Sutro Railroad)

But despite the grand vision of its affluent founder, the Sutro Baths struggled financially. As the decades passed, high operating costs and constant maintenance took a heavy toll of the 19th century wonder. When the 1960s dawned, the writing was on the wall. And in 1966, just as the majestic iron and glass structure was in the throes of demolition, a fire broke out which smote its ultimate ruin.

(Images: Mark J. Sebastian; Beyond My Ken)

Long abandoned, the crumbling ruins of the landmark Sutro Baths make for a haunting echo of San Francisco’s past. And with 7,600 cubic metres of concrete poured into the foundations, its remains are unmistakable beneath the old Cliff House. Both the building and the abandoned salt water complex below are now protected landmarks in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and are administered by the US National Park Service.

The abandoned Sutro Baths, still a tourist destination even in decay, at sunset. (Image: Tvol. The abandoned Sutro Baths at sunset)

They may be a relic of San Francisco’s past, but movie fans can still catch a glimpse of the Sutro Baths in all their former glory. Just pick up a copy of the 1958 crime drama The Lineup, in which Eli Wallach and Robert Keith are instructed to deliver a heroin shipment to the Sutro Museum. Today the abandonment is a popular tourist destination for fans of both film and social history.

(Image: Brocken Inaglory)

Related: 12 Abandoned Lidos & Paddling Pools of the UK (Including Those Recently Restored)


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