Historic Photo: Cliff House, San Francisco, 1901. A building with a fascinating story.

cliff house 1901 pd

This antique chromolithograph from 1901, published by the always-dependable (for this blog, anyway) Detroit Photographic Company, may look like a matte painting from an old horror movie. One expects Bela Lugosi to come down the beach in tuxedo and cape. The shot is dramatic, but the place it depicts it not a fantasy. It’s the Cliff House, in San Francisco, which is now in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s still there, though it doesn’t look like this today.

The Cliff House has a fascinating history. A house was first constructed here in 1858, just as San Francisco’s first big boom was ending, by a Mormon businessman who used timbers from a ship that had wrecked on the rocks below to build the house. This lasted only five years. In 1863 a second building was constructed, which became a popular destination for Sunday travelers, for the Cliff House served food and was a place to rest horses. Eventually it became world-famous and travelers came from everywhere to dine and have their pictures taken in the spectacular surroundings. This version of the Cliff House burned down in 1894 and was totally destroyed.

Two years later the owner, a mining magnate named Adolph Sutro, rebuilt the Cliff House in the weird neo-Gothic form you see in this photograph. Although the most spectacular and famous incarnation of the restaurant yet, this version lasted only 11 years, burning down again in 1907. After that, Sutro’s daughter rebuilt the next version of the place which opened in 1909. It is this version that has survived, more or less, for the past 106 years. After the federal government took historic preservation interest in the property, it was extensively refurbished in 2004 and restored to its 1909 appearance, but it’s still a working restaurant (two, actually) and a prominent landmark in the San Francisco area. Here is what it looks like today.

cliff house 2010

I love these old photos like the one at the top of this article. They show us fascinating and unusually detailed glimpses of the past that we might not otherwise see.

The 1901 photo of the Cliff House is in the public domain. The modern photo was taken by Brocken Inaglory and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.


  1. I love the old photo and how Cliff house looked in 1901, why did they change it, it is beautifully eerie and looks macabre and cloaked in mystery, What a wonderful photo, would love to see Bela walking on the beach in his tux and cape with no shoes and his pants rolled up.

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