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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 24: Adolph Sutro

Did he own one-twelfth of San Francisco or just a twentieth? Either way, Adolph Sutro made his mark on the city, especially the west side.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jun 21, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 24: Adolph Sutro Outside Lands Podcast Episode 24: Adolph Sutro

(above) Adolph Sutro, circa 1885

Adolph Sutro, 3/4 profile portrait]
Isaiah West Taber


Podcast Transcription

WNP24 – Adolph Sutro

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast for the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: This is the podcast where we talk about West San Francisco history.

David: Just the West.

Woody: Or is it Western San Francisco?

David: Western San Francisco

Woody: History, and it's a beautiful day here in our office in the Parkside / West Portal / Sunset neighborhood.

David: That's right. You know, and when it's sunny out here, there's no better place.

Woody: Really?

David: Well, I don't know.

Woody: There's no better place.

David: I like it out here when it's sunny.

Woody: I just went on a vacation to Los Angeles and I can tell you...

David: That's a better place?

Woody: No! So, there you go. I'm with you.

David: But while you were out there, it was foggy at the beach the whole time that you were there.

Woody: That's true. We had foggy cold San Francisco-type weather in Venice Beach, and I hear it was hot and sunny here.

David: You're just [00:01:00] like, you're like Pigpen from the Peanuts. So, the cloud just follows you.

Woody: No, no. He creates his own cloud. He's full of, you don't understand Peanuts at all. You are obviously out of touch.

David: The Western Neighborhoods Project podcast is in!

Woody: That's right. I want to thank somebody, David.

David: Well, you're quite welcome Woody.

Woody: No, no, not you. I do wanna thank people. I think we should thank people in our podcast.

David: All right.

Woody: I think it's good to be thankful, but we got a great donation from San Francisco Toyota the other day to help support our work. So, I just wanna do a little shout out to San Francisco Toyota for, thanks for the donation because it really does help.

David: They're nice there.

Woody: Yeah. And I also want to mention that we're going to have an encore of our movie night. That's right. Which, if you're listening to this and you didn't get to see our movie at the Balboa, which is called…

David: Secret San Francisco: Adventures in History!

Woody: Yeah. We sold out the Balboa, and [00:02:00] there were people who were very sad.

David: There were lines out the door.

Woody: Right. So, we're going to do it again on, what's the date, David?

David: July 11th. That's a Thursday night, Woody.

Woody: Okay. At 7:00, at…

David: The Vogue Theater, the Historic Vogue Theater.

Woody: Right. So last time it was at the Balboa. This time we're at the Vogue, which is on Sacramento Street, just off Presidio.

David: That's right.

Woody: Near the JCC [Jewish Community Center] is the way I think of it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Also, near the old cemetery land.

David: Also, near the terminal for the Sutro Railroad.

Woody: Is that what we're going to talk about today, David? What are we gonna talk about today?

David: Okay, let's talk about that.

Woody: Let's talk about Adolph Sutro.

David: Adolph Sutro.

Woody: Who was Adolph Sutro?

David: Adolph Sutro was a Prussian immigrant.

Woody: Prussian.

David: Prussian.

Woody: Yes. Okay.

David: Who made his fortune in Nevada by digging a [00:03:00] tunnel.

Woody: What does that have to do with the western neighborhoods of San Francisco?

David: Well, that aforementioned fortune was used by Adolph Sutro to buy up about 12% of the city land.

Woody: I think, now that I've heard that number too, and I think that is an overestimate. I think somebody in the ‘50s or something came up with that. Some historical amateur. I don't think it was that.

David: Like us?

Woody: Yes. So as historical amateurs, we're going to make up a new number.

David: Alright.

Woody: I don't know what the number is, but it definitely was a lot of land.

David: Well, he owned the Rancho San Miguel, which we've talked about before, which is a great big Mexican land grant.

Woody: Right. That was in the center of San Francisco and was over 4,000 acres. Yeah, that was the old Mexican land grant. So, he owned that. He bought that in like 1881, something like that.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And he owned a lot of these sand dunes in what is today the Sunset and Richmond district.

David: That's right. And, of [00:04:00] course, we all know Sutro Heights. And the former site of the Sutro Baths, so he owned all of around Land's End and all that.

Woody: Right. I went to Sutro Elementary School for kindergarten. His name is plastered all over this darn city.

David: And now there's a bust of him in City Hall, I believe.

Woody: A bust?

David: A bust. A statue.

Woody: Yeah. Because, and I think the reason his bust is in City Hall, and that was a multi-year effort to get that put in there, was because he was actually mayor of San Francisco for two years in the 1890s.

David: Right. So, he's got his fingers all over the city.

Woody: Yeah. Now, when did, do we have some data on our website about the timeframe we're talking about here? I know that, like I said, I think Sutro bought a lot of this land in the 1880s. He dug the tunnel, or he didn't personally dig it, but created the tunnel for the Comstock Lode, the big silver strike [00:05:00] in Nevada, right?

David: That's right.

Woody: And that was in the 1870s. And it seems that when the tunnel was funded and this whole idea of digging this tunnel was to reach these mines down below ground for ventilation purposes, to drain water from a lot of the works in the mine and also as sort of an escape tunnel, I guess, is the way he marketed it.

David: Right.

Woody: So, he raised a lot of money. There were a lot of shares, kind of raised, and then right when the tunnel was gonna happen and was going on, he seems to have cashed out his share in all this.

David: Right. Well, I think that part of it was, didn't, didn't he charge a fee for tons of rock that came out the door of the tunnel?

Woody: He had a lot of financial interest in this tunnel. It was his baby, and I know he traveled to Washington, D.C. to get it to be created and was just trying to raise money.

David: And, and it's still there, right? You can go see the, you can see the portal of the tunnel up in the…

Woody: I wonder if there's anything inside. I wonder if anybody [00:06:00] goes in there for any reason anymore. Well, somebody maybe will tell us, somebody will maybe tell us.

David: I think he cashed out just as the Comstock Lode was running out.

Woody: Right.

David: So, there was no more rock coming out of the door, so…

Woody: Right. But he was a smart man. He raised the money, had his IPO, and then took off with the cash and bought a lot of land in San Francisco. But he's not your basic San Francisco millionaire. He's kind of different. He's not like some…

David: He was a populist.

Woody: He was, and he had money in mind. And he had making money in mind. But he also balanced that with a lot of, sort of public works and public good projects.

David: Right. So, my understanding is, is that he came out to Land's End.

Woody: Right.

David: Saw the Cliff House. Saw…

Woody: Which was kind of disreputable at the time.

David: Yeah. Saw the hill above it. And said, "I like this place."

Woody: Right.

David: And so, he bought what became Sutro Heights from the owner [00:07:00] there,

Woody: Samuel Tetlow.

David: Tetlow,

Woody: I believe. Tetlow's Cottage up there.

David: And he built his own mansion up on the hill there.

Woody: And that's funny, you say mansion, but it, he again, you know, he wasn't like Crocker or Flood or these guys up in Nob Hill building these Victorian monstrosities that were just giant.

David: Right.

Woody: He just kind of expanded the cottage to a relatively reasonable size.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. But we also think of him, he had gardens up there, you know, topiary and all sorts of…

David: The park that's there now is not so far away from what the grounds looked like.

Woody: Right.

David: I mean, there was a lot more planting. It was a lot more ornate, a lot more statues.

Woody: Yeah. He seemed to like, like Greek statues, copies of Greek statues,

David: Copies of Greek statues.

Woody: Yeah. And there's a couple of them are still up there and they've been doing archeology. And we talked about, we had a history minute on our site about, they were kind of unearthing the old conservatory building that was there and the tile floor.

David: Kind of a hot house.

Woody: Yeah. For [00:08:00] plants. But this is the way Sutro works. So, he kind of said, "I'm gonna have this great private garden, but it's not gonna be private. I'm gonna make it open to the public."

David: Right.

Woody: And so, people could go onto his grounds and view all the plants and the statues. And he just had some rules, like I think you couldn't picnic. Something like that.

David: You could just stroll around and enjoy the views.

Woody: Right, right. So he was, he was that kind of balance between, you know, profit, but also public, sort of.

David: And in the public interest and also in his own interest. He had a grand idea for the cove just north of the Cliff House.

Woody: Right, which was called Naiad Cove, or maybe he called it Naiad Cove.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. That idea seems to have changed. We talked to John Martini a little about that. But at first, he wanted to have some sort of aquarium.

David: Right. Just wanted to catch, catch the marine animals in tide pools.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And create a tide pool.

Woody: Yeah. And then that kind of grew and kind of got out of hand.

David: Well, yeah, it did. It turned into a giant swimming pool, that was open to the [00:09:00] public. A museum for all his collections. As we said, he liked to collect things and make, you know, copies of statues and things.

Woody: He had an amazing library too,

David: Right.

Woody: I mean, he collected old works and newspapers and a lot of that is, it was funny, this is one of the tragedies of the 1906 earthquake and fire, is they had moved, he had a lot of his library downtown in, the Montgomery Block building, which is where the Transamerica Building was.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And the fire was getting closer after the 1906 earthquake and fire. And so, they moved at least half the collection, trying to escape the flames. But, irony of ironies, the Montgomery Block survived and the stuff they moved burned up.

David: Oh.

Woody: Where they moved it to. I know. I always hate that story. But he had a great library, which is still kind of intact in some ways. It's the California Sutro Library at San Francisco State.

David: Mummies!

Woody: And there's mummies there that he had collected that he used to have on display in Sutro Baths.

David: Right.

Woody: Real Egyptian mummies. He also fixed up the Cliff House. It was [00:10:00] kind of disreputable at the time. And he kind of made it a little bit more family-friendly and built, when it burned down, a ridiculous version of the Cliff House in 1894.

David: The giant birthday cake, Victorian.

Woody: It's like eight stories tall.

David: And you said that he wasn't like the other millionaires who build enormous buildings, but yet...

Woody: Yes.

David: The Cliff House was a public building, though. It wasn't like the mansions on Nob Hill.

Woody: Right. It's nutty. If you go on our website and you look at the second Cliff House building, it's just like teetering on the cliff.

David: It's probably the best-known version of the Cliff House. There are so many pictures of it and…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Everyone wishes they would still rebuild it.

Woody: I wonder what it'd be like. I don't know; that thing is gigantic. And it's funny, some people didn't like it, of course, because it kind of imparted itself on the view out there.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But so…

David: There was a Cliff House. There was Sutro Baths. And he wanted the public to get out there, right?

Woody: Yes. And the way they would [00:11:00] normally get out there is there was a transit line that was kind of run up the line by the Southern Pacific.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That ran out Lincoln Way.

David: Right.

Woody: And then kind of dead-ended where Playland would eventually be, down at Balboa and Great Highway area.

David: Right. And people have to walk up the hill from there.

Woody: Right. But Sutro didn't like it because they would have to transfer from downtown and pay another nickel essentially. So, it'd be 10 cents to get all the way out to the beach.

David: That's robbery!

Woody: That's what he thought. Yeah, Sutro thought that was too much. Well, I mean, he had a financial interest in this. He wanted people to come out and pay a little dime or something.

David: Right.

Woody: To go into Sutro Baths, but he didn't want them to have to pay 10 cents, to pay that extra money.

David: Octopus. I think it was United Railroads at that point, or...

Woody: It went through so many different...

David: Anyway, it was somehow connected to the...

Woody: The Southern Pacific.

David: The Southern Pacific.

Woody: Which was a big sort of force in politics at the time, too. So, what did Sutro do?

David: He built his own railroad.

Woody: That's right. I'll just build my own little streetcar / steam [00:12:00] engine line to get out there.

David: And the eastern terminus of that railroad was right about where we said the JCC is today.

Woody: That's how we got started on this.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Wasn't it?

David: Somewhere around, I mean, I don't know if it's exactly right there, but it's somewhere right near there.

Woody: Yeah. Like California and Presidio, roughly. Because that was sort of the edge of town in a lot of ways. A lot of the transit lines sort of dead-ended about there.

David: The California Street cable car used to go right to that corner.

Woody: Yeah. The reason a lot of these transit lines stopped there was there were these massive cemeteries kind of blocking the way.

David: That's another podcast, Woody.

Woody: You're right. You’re right. Anyway, so yeah, he built his own street car line and you could get on it and transfer from a regular line downtown, and so, you wouldn't have to pay the extra nickel, and the families could come out.

David: Right. He made an agreement with the other transit companies.

Woody: Yeah. So, his mark is all over the city. We talked about Sutro Baths, we talked about Sutro School, which was named for him. He was mayor for a couple of years.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Ran on a very populist, platform.

David: You [00:13:00] know, something that I think of Sutro for, are all the eucalyptus trees on the hills. On Mount Davidson and, and all over. He planted all those as well. Not him himself, but…

Woody: Right.

David: He planted, he had school children plant them. He owned all those peaks. And he had planting parties because he loved nature.

Woody: And again, he was very big, thought big. So, his idea was that he didn't just plant these trees because he wanted 'em forested, but he had this whole botanical garden idea that he was gonna plant these rarer sort of plants underneath the eucalyptus. And the eucalyptus would be thinned eventually.

David: Little did he know that eucalyptus is like the world's biggest weed.

Woody: Just took over, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: So yeah, so we talk of Sutro Forest, which is above UCSF and the Inner Sunset. That forest used to run all the way through where Laguna Honda is, all the way over to Mount Davidson, all the way down to Ocean Avenue.

David: Over Forest Hill.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Which [00:14:00] is why it's called Forest Hill, I guess.

Woody: Yeah. All of that was covered in Sutro's forest at one point.

David: Now, I read something that he had another house on Mount Sutro, pretty much right exactly where the Sutro Tower, oh, we forgot to mention the Sutro Tower. Anyway, right exactly where Sutro Tower sits.

Woody: I think that was his son.

David: They had another house.

Woody: I think that was his son or grandson that had that.

David: But they still owned the land, and they built this other kind of country mansion up on the hill that was fairly inaccessible.

Woody: Yeah. It was, and there's pictures of, they tore it down.

David: Like in the ‘60s almost.

Woody: It might have been the ‘50s even, because before Sutro Tower was erected, and that probably has to be the most attractive San Francisco landmark on the skyline, don't you think?

David: There are a lot of people who like it. There are a lot of people who fetishize that big pitchfork.

Woody: I, I think, oh yeah, okay. We, we won't get into that. But anyway. There was an earlier radio tower, like a KGO tower.

David: Oh yeah. KGO had a broadcast tower there.

Woody: So, they tore down [00:15:00] that Sutro house up there, I think in the ‘50s before they built Sutro Tower. Yeah. There's another thing his name is on and…

David: One of my favorite places in San Francisco is also owned by Sutro at one time.

Woody: Which?

David: Mount Olympus.

Woody: Mount, did we talk about Mount Olympus on a podcast?

David: I don't know.

Woody: That could have its own podcast, but yeah, he had a, this is totally Sutro-like, right? So, he has this little hill, which is kind of above the Haight between the Haight and Cole Valley.

David: It's like above 17th and Clayton or so.

Woody: Yeah. On your way to the Castro, you go by it. And he put a statue…

David: Depending on your direction, Woody.

Woody: Well, where I'm going. So, he put a statue up there: The Triumph of Light. And…

David: Right. It was kind of barren. It was before the trees were planted. I think they put it up there. If you could, you can, there's a plaque up there. You can still almost read. It's all sandstone and kind of decrepit, but it says…

Woody: The pedestal's still there.

David: Pedestal. A giant pedestal. And they dedicated it on Thanksgiving Day, 1884.

Woody: But he loved doing that. He loved, we're gonna put a big statue. And [00:16:00] it actually had The Triumph of Light was like a little Statue of Liberty-type thing. It had a light.

David: It had a light in it.

Woody: And I heard, this is probably rumor or urban myth, but that it actually threw off mariners coming into the Golden Gate.

David: Yeah.

Woody: They'd see it and they didn't know exactly where they were.

David: Oh, I think we talked about it in our hills of San Francisco podcast.

Woody: Oh yeah. That's where we talked about it. So, we won't go over all that again. What happened to Sutro? Did he, did he live forever?

David: He died.

Woody: Oh, no. Now, the other great thing about Sutro is, and this kind of says something about him, his daughter was a physician, a doctor. Dr. Emma Merritt.

David: She wasn't just some aristocracy.

Woody: Right. She went out and earned her living, and she got a medical degree, which was pretty unusual at the time for women. And she was around when Sutro passed away. I mean, she was kind of the person running things, I think, up there.

David: Right.

Woody: And he passed away at his house up on Sutro Heights.

David: August 8th, 1898, [00:17:00] he died.

Woody: And that was, he had just been mayor of San Francisco for, just a couple years before.

David: Right.

Woody: But it seemed like he had a little senility and was kind of running down at the end there. But he wanted the park, he wanted his land to be a city park. And I think Emma Merritt, his daughter, went into a lot of negotiations with the city and it took a while, but eventually his land up there…

David: And she lived in that house until she died. That was part of the agreement. Right?

Woody: Right, right. And a lot of his land started being sold in the 1910s. All those residence parks we talked about.

David: Right.

Woody: Where St. Francis Wood and Forest Hill, all those were all Sutro's land at one point and had been distributed after he died in the 1910s and turned into those fine neighborhoods. So, what's his legacy? Sutro Tower? I hope Sutro Tower is not his legacy.

David: His name is all over everything. I mean, we continue to enjoy the Sutro Baths ruins as part of the GGNRA.

Woody: Golden Gate [00:18:00] National Recreation Area.

David: Right. Sutro Heights Park is a great place to go. And you can picnic there now.

Woody: Right. No problem.

David: Some people get married there, Woody.

Woody: I got married there, David!

David: You did?

Woody: I got married there. And our guest, former guest, John Martini, got married there. We got married in the same setting.

David: If you got married at Sutro Heights Park, send us a message.

Woody: You know what was great about getting married up there, other than getting married? It was foggy. Just what I wanted.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. Sutro, what I think his great legacy is, this is kind of a way to think about being a very wealthy person and balancing this sort of making money with the public good, because he really did have that in mind. You can tell.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And, that's it. That's it for this week, I think.

David: Yep. I don't have much more to say. If you have something to add about Adolph Sutro, please write us a message. And I know there's more than five of you, so…

Woody: There are a lot of people listening to us. Our servers are like red [00:19:00] hot over there from all the action that's coming in.

David: It's the best seven bucks a month we ever spent.

Woody: That's right. Yeah. And if you are not a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project, I would encourage you to be one. You go to our website at outsidelands.org, and at the top it says, "Become a Member." And you could join for a mere, oh, $30. And you get our newsletter, you get invited to our walks. You get to feel pretty-highfalutin' because you're in the "in" crowd.

David: You get to support amateur historians like us. No, wait, you get to actually support us.

Woody: No, you don't support us, you support the organization. Do we make any money, David?

David: No. We work on a volunteer basis, Woody.

Woody: I can't believe that. Yeah, so, but we do have rent and we do have expenses and that sort of thing, so you will support us for that. Thank you so much. I'll see you next week, David.

David: All right, Woody.

Woody: Okay.

Learn more about the Western [00:20:00] Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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