Anniversary of fire refocuses attention on Sutro Baths


It is one of those places San Franciscans hardly think about, and if they do, they take it for granted -- the remains of the Sutro Baths at Ocean Beach.

That there are ruins at all is a bit of a fluke. If history had gone according to plan, we would see apartments or condos there, now. But 45 years ago this week, there was a giant fire there. It destroyed the building, but saved the place in its own strange way.

"It was doomed, it was going down the fire was just the final touch," James R. Smith said.

Smith is an author and expert about San Francisco's lost landmarks. He and former restaurant owner Jim Hontalas are two of the ever-more-rare people who actually remember the splendor that once stood.

"It was wonderful; you could spend all day in there for 10 cents," Hontalas said.

"It was like an old Victorian home expanded a thousand times," Smith said.

Back in 1895, Mayor Adolph Sutro spent $1 million of his own money on the gift to the city. He built the Sutro Baths as a populist palace. Thousands of people came every day.

"It was the first time people had leisure time, they wanted something to do," Smith said.

The Sutro Baths were four stories tall, with grand staircases, museums and seating for 5,000 people to watch swimming exhibitions.

"It had a hot pool, a medium pool, a cold pool and a diving pool that was fresh water," Hontalas said.

For decades, the place thrived. But time and circumstances took their toll, as they almost always do.

By the early 1960s, the Sutro Baths had closed. A developer bought the land and began tearing it down for apartments. But he found it to be a dangerous and expensive process, which made the fire that destroyed it all the more suspicious.

"It just enveloped the interior because there was so much wood, there was no way to stop that fire and no one wanted to," Smith said.

No one ever proved arson, but the talk alone refocused people on the old bath house. It went from derelict to burned darling, almost overnight.

"Because to see it torn down was one thing, to see it to burn down, it became a shrine," Smith said.

Those apartments never came to pass. The city turned these ruins over to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and that is how they will forever remain -- as urban archeology, slowly eroding amidst salt, rust, the relentless surf and endless waves of tourists.

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