George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 8

Whitney Interview Continued:

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Whitney: "Another thing from yesterday that I'd like to clarify is you mentioned Jeremy Ets-Hokin with regards to the Playland sale and so forth. Bob [Frazier] and Charles Knapp -- well, Bob, he's the one that negotiated and got control of my mother and influenced her. Then he got Charles Knapp as a possible financier for the project."


Postcard of the Cliff House Red Room and Music Hall. 1950s? - Courtesy of Christine Miller.

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "That fell through, and he got Jeremy Ets-Hokin involved in it. So he was involved; but it was, from my standpoint, after they had acquired the property. And since they -- we had sold all the stock, we were out completely as a source of getting information about the future operation."

[Begin Tape 3, Side B]

Martini: "So let's talk about the end of the baths. By the mid-1960s, at some point, you made the decision to just close down Sutro Baths."

Whitney: "Once again, it ties to the relationship that Bob developed with my mother. And he had a lot of influence and got her interested and so forth. And, eventually, she sold her interest in the Cliff House Properties, which would have been one half of the stock. And I believe that was the actual sale that we read about in the newspaper. Because the Playland one, I think -- I was too involved in changing the terms and a few things like that, of getting them to sell stock rather than assets.

"But, in any event, we woke up and we had an owner. He was a developer. He was interested in the property that I referred to as the 'back property,' out towards the North Point."

Martini: "The baths area, mm-hm."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"And if you cut the building, it would have been right where the ice-skating rink" --

Martini: "Oh, okay. The building as a separate" --

Whitney: "Yeah.

"So in the negotiation with him, we got him to -- he insisted that the front portion of Sutro Baths be demolished."

Martini: "That was his" --

Whitney: "That was his position in the negotiation.

"And it was -- the handwriting was on the wall. He was a 50 percent owner. He could force the dissolutionment of the corporation and all of these things. So he was working from a position of power equal to what my sister and I had, except that he had experience and we didn't.

"And in the negotiations, I got the -- an extra two years of operations, while they were doing all their planning for the back property, to keep the museum going and the ice rink going, if we wanted. In two years, when their plans were ready to go ahead --or three years or four years or five years, whenever they could go ahead -- we could keep our operation going until then.

"And so we had gotten to the point of the two years had passed, and he'd gotten to the point where he wanted to exercise getting the front part of the building out so he could do the full design of that cove.

"And so we agreed and we spun the back property off to him, and we kept the gift shop and the Cliff House and those attendant operations."

Martini: "So you let him take over the entire structure."

Whitney: "We let him, for his 50 percent, have the back property."

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "But he had the responsibility of the cost of demolition of the old Sutro Baths building.

"And, of course, shortly after they got going on the demolition, the -- very suspiciously, the Sutro building went on fire; and that's when it was destroyed."


Sutro Baths fire, June 26, 1966 - Courtesy of National Park Service, Cliff House Visitor Center

Martini: "Everyone talks -- uses the term "suspicious fire" or "convenient fire."

Whitney: "Yeah. It was -- their -- the construction -- or the wrecking company's main guard or so forth was working in the -- and prowling the building that night, which was not necessary or expected. And that was the night of the fire. And it was -- he was an employee of the wrecking company. But, of course, no one knows what really happened; but that's the -- that was the general suspicion at the time."

Martini: "The baths physically closed down in late 1965. That's when the announcement was made. What happened to everything that was inside?"

Whitney: "Well" --

Martini: "All your collections of collections."

Whitney: "Well, a lot of those had -- my dad had sold off like -- well, he didn't sell off -- remember yesterday, I was telling you about the restaurant that was under the storage shed where the Dore paintings were stored down at Playland?"

Martini: "Yes."

Whitney: "That restaurant was called the Spinning Wheel and had all the spinning wheels on display" --

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: -- "at some point in its development.

"It also had a collection of old-time fighters and boxers, like Fitzsimmons and— all of the turn-of-the-century fighters, the bare-knuckle fighters: John L. Sullivan and so forth, photos throughout.

"And when they lost interest and then Dad had this spinning deal, he ended up getting a concessionaire in; and they used the spinning wheels as the general motif" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "for the restaurant."

Martini: "What about all the big things that he had in the Sutro museum? I'm thinking of the big collections of carriages and bicycles and all of those things. They had to come out of the building" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "because you had mentioned nothing was in there when it burned."

Whitney: "Yeah. No, we lost nothing. We were -- we had vacated the building completely."

Martini: "Did you sell everything or storage, I guess, is my question."

Whitney: "No, no -- well, there was a considerable amount of stuff that was in that warehouse over the Spinning Wheel" --

Martini: "Above the Spinning Wheel; gotcha."

Whitney: -- "like all the Dore paintings and so forth.

"But a lot of other things -- we sold off some of the auto collections individually, like the Tucker. Carriages usually went to people who would buy five or six of them to augment their collections, and the same thing with the bicycles. Somebody wouldn't have a model like we had. And in the course of time, we'd sell that, too, to them; and then somebody, maybe, would buy the remnants of the ones that were on display.

"And, of course, a lot of the items in the Sutro museum had been originally loaned from or borrowed from the DeYoung museum. They went back. It was a little -- a little hard to -- since there was no adequate paper trail, to know what they actually owned or had sold or had gifted or that had traded. So it was kind of a problem that we had in it.

"But I -- and I gave the Egyptian to the University of San Francisco, so that took care of a big portion of the displays."

Martini: "I'm sorry, San Francisco State University" --

Whitney: "San Francisco State, yeah."

Martini: "Yeah. Oh, okay.

"So I know that several years later, there was a very large sale that Marilyn Blaisdell helped you put together."

Whitney: "Yeah. But that was" --

Martini: "That was different from" --

Whitney: "Yeah. That was after the Cliff House had been closed."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And we were out of the restaurant business, and it was right at the time when Danny Hountalas and I were working out a deal for him to take over the restaurant. And he wanted new equipment and so forth. So that was -- that was that first auction."

Martini: "That was" --

Whitney: "That was more of a walk-in sale, rather than an actual auction."

Martini: "It got a lot of media attention, though, when that happened."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "So the -- when we go back to when the baths were demolished and burned" --

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: -- "the site was clear; it was still Cliff House Properties' lands?


Sutro Baths still apparently under some construction. This photo dates from after the fire that destroyed the Cliff House in December 1894. - Courtesy of Mary Hountalas.

Whitney: "No. Because we had given half of the Sutro parcel to Bob."

Martini: "To Bob."

Whitney: "And we had the front; we retained ownership of the gift shop on down. So the property had been split in ownership. There was this overlapping period where we had the right to use the building. He had a right to eventually demolish and so forth. And that dividing line happened to be exactly where the ice rink ended."

Martini: "I think something -- now this makes sense.

"In many of the concept drawings that I brought with me, that came from your collection, the ones dated in the early 1960s show the entire cove being developed; and then in the later ones, show only what you're describing."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "So this -- this is -- reflected what you had control of."

Whitney: "We started our planning before Bob ever got into it, when my mother was still half owner. And so some of the plans and ideas will reflect that time."

Martini: "Like this one I'm showing you" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "that's a reference; it's a Cliff House Properties file name."

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: "It shows the entire cove with high-rises actually at the" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "at the north end of the cove."

Whitney: "Yeah. This would have been when my mother was still in the operation of ownership. And then later on, when it shows that -- these kind of projects shortened up, like this one (indicating)" --

Martini: "Cliff House Properties 11."

Whitney: "Yeah. This is right -- this line that went right across here (indicating), you know, right in there" --

Martini: "That was the dividing line."

Whitney: -- "that was the dividing line.

"And it just so happened that that line was picked because the ice rink was on one side, and we could keep operating during the planning stages, when Bob had the back property."

Martini: "Oh, okay.

"Now, we have to address -- what was the purpose of this giant development that was going to take place where the baths were located? What was the market idea?"

Whitney: "After the World's Fair in Brussels, I -- I retained Al Beach to come out and go to work for me and help me come up with concepts of development of the property. Al Beach and I were close personal friends by that time, and I had great trust in his integrity and so forth.

"So a lot of the work that you see in these photos of the model, that's foreshortened and everything, is work that Al Beach got -- got made for a particular presentation. Al had worked and spoke Japanese fluently. He'd worked in Japan. He knew the Japanese business way. And it was right at a time when the Japanese were buying up the United States and all the hotels in Hawaii and everything. They were going land crazy here in this country for a period of time when their economy first took off. And we thought it was an opportunity.

"So we -- the model was done for that presentation. And he and I went to Japan and made the presentation to the people that ran the Otani Hotel, big name. And if I'm not mistaken, there is an Otani Hotel now in San Francisco or somewhere on the west coast here. But it was the thought of getting a partner to help in the financing of developing the deal."

Martini: "Okay. So were these going to be -- there's several different variations. Was it going to be purely hotel/resort or was it going to be" --

Whitney: "Well, we were trying to do, then, within it, a lot of the showmanship of my father. And this also was right at the time when we had -- still had collections. And it was the thought that they could be used and so forth.

"And our negotiations in Japan went very well, except that I made a typical American counteroffer or countermove; and the Japanese dropped the project, just bang."

Martini: "Really."

Whitney: "And Al Beach and I talked about it a lot, and it's -- I made a statement as an American would make about his business. And what I was trying to do was justify the value that we had put on the property for this so that we could find an offsetting value for the work that they would do, so that you could then work out the split and all that sort of stuff. And the statement that I made to them about the value of the -- or trying to justify the value just fell flat, and they couldn't grasp what I was talking about. Because I was using the word value and they were using the word value, but one didn't match the other.

Martini: "I understand negotiations with the Japanese, you have to be very careful" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "with intonations and inflections of words" --

Whitney: "Oh, everything, yeah.

"And it was just -- I take 100 percent responsibility for that failure."

Martini: "All these proposals, none of them show the old landmark buildings of the Cliff House or the baths. Did you have any thoughts or feelings that you were actually going to be demolishing what are now, in retrospect, real landmarks?"

Whitney: "Oh, yeah. I would have loved to have kept the Sutro building going, get the pools out of it; convert the building to a gigantic arboretum, with all the tropical plants and trees. It was so -- so big that you could make an indoor natatorium -- it would be terrific. And then to exploit areas for cocktail lounges and restaurants and do -- do a development of the interior so that there was -- it would be like an indoor Disneyland, but -- not so much rides, but with the possibility, where it would work out mechanically, we'd consider putting something that would -- in the amusement park, we'd call a dark ride" --

Martini: "Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah."

Whitney: -- "type of things.

"Wouldn't put the merry-go-round, but would put something that we could do— people passing dioramas and so forth."

Martini: "And I guess, from what you're saying about when the Bob faction took over, that idea was no longer viable because he wanted it gone."

Whitney: "Of course, he was -- he was -- I don't know what they were doing, other than their planning, on this property here. But when they got to the point where they could see what they wanted to do, they knew that they had to get rid of the front part of the building, which gave us the problem in here (indicating).

"Because, see, the property that we would end up with, our line of demarcation would be right across here (indicating); that this would be what was in, but" --

Martini: "Through the north-south line."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah. Just about where -- about where the entrance to the old baths building was."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah. Yeah."

Whitney: "Well, it -- a lot of the ideas and so forth were all pretty much at the same time, because the economy was booming. I had the help of Al Beach, who was quite imaginative and helpful and knew, physically, what to do and where to head to get answers to technical problems that had arisen that, basically, we knew nothing about. And we could get, then, to a source of information. And he had the ability to trace things down like that, but he didn't do the direct negotiations when we got to that point. That became mine."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And that's why I was open to making the beautiful mistake with the Japanese."

[Whitney Interview continues…]


George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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