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George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 6

Whitney Interview Continued:

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[Pause in tape; change of dates]

Martini: "No. I just did a test. You're sitting just close enough.

"This is Wednesday morning, August the 14th, and we're resuming the oral history with Mr. George K. Whitney, Jr.

"Last thing we were talking about yesterday was -- talking about the Sky Tram and the pros and cons on that, and the -- getting a little bit into moving people.

"What I'd like to do is kind of go to the next major part of the Whitney acquisitions, which was Sutro Baths and ice-skating rink and museum."

Whitney: "Yeah. I'm -- I'm very hazy about the date that my dad acquired the Sutro property or the Sutro Bath building and so forth.

"It must have been at a time when I was off on another project or something. And it's -- but I think in some of the stuff that you've got or will get, you can pin down the exact time on that. Maybe you've got it already."

Martini: "It says in 1952, I think September '52, that there was a title change from Adolph Sutro, probably the grandson" --

Skates at the Sutro Baths ice rink. Postcard view from 1940s. - OpenSFHistory file wnp4.0335

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "to George K. Whitney."

Whitney: "Well, that -- see that would be just a couple years after this article" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "in the Saturday Evening Post, and it's probably why there's no mention of it in that article"

Martini: "None at all."

Whitney: "Okay. Then that -- that would be right, and that would be the sequence."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "He had the Cliff House before he had the Sutro, and that would be about right. Because I was up here in Seattle on the Seattle Fair at that time."

Martini: "19-" --

Whitney: "That's why I don't know that much about it."

Martini: "Did you -- you must have gone in there and visited while the Sutros were running, in the '30s and '40s?"

Whitney: "Oh, yeah. I -- I was free to go there any time I wanted, as far as my parents were concerned, when I was quite young."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "Go up and swim and -- long before the ice rink went in."

Martini: "What -- what were your impressions of that place, when you were young, going in there?"

Whitney: "The big impression was the smell of the interior, tied in with the— all the cedar wood that was in there. The sea air, the hot sea air" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "that was in the thing.

"So you got this sort of high humidity interior."

Martini: "From the heated pools?"

Whitney: "From the heated pools.

"And that created a -- not an unpleasant smell at all. It was not a -- a humid smell. It was more of a natural smell, as if you were out on a hot ocean, you'd get the smell; and if you were in a cedar forest, that you would get. And it was these two predominant ones welded together made the smell in there.

"But it was -- it was -- that building was a fascinating building."

Martini: "Yeah?"

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "What made it interesting, aside from the smell?"

Whitney: "Well, the fact that it was all steel and glass; and then in the interior, all basically wood. And when it was built, to think that they engineered it and made it that big and open, it was -- that was more intriguing to me than the fact that it had seven pools, although they were the fun things. But it was a -- from a structural standpoint and from an architectural standpoint, a very interesting building.

"And then to go from the upper level down to the swimming level, you went through the tropical gardens, where the main staircase coming down had a -- had palm trees that were 30, 40 feet high, growing inside. So it was a -- that was where the tropical gardens, that -- the water smell and so forth."

Martini: "He had a museum in there. Even before your family got involved, there were artifacts on display there?"

Whitney: "Oh, yes. He had -- he [ed: Adolph Sutro] was a collector himself, and he had a very extensive Egyptian collection of mummies and funereal types of artifacts and all those sort of things in there; and a complete conglomeration of things. There was no rhyme or reason to the whole operation.

"Other exhibits in there that Sutro had were stuffed animals and quite an extensive rock collection, right alongside the Egyptian mummies and" --

Martini: "It was -- the photographs, it looks like it was rather a hodgepodge."

Whitney: "Oh, it was very much a hodgepodge, very much a hodgepodge. It was more organized after my dad got it, because his friendship with the curator of the DeYoung museum in Golden Gate Park was such that the curator and my dad exchanged things back and forth for exhibit. And with his interest in my dad, because they were good friends, he did a lot to help to better display the things in there.

"And then there were a few attractions that were put in there that were strictly my dad's showmanship. And it -- it's a little -- a little hazy in my memory right now as to what they specifically were, but they were -- there was a deal where there was a stage and a diorama; and it was way in the back. And I forget what it was exhibiting."

Martini: "There was -- was that the Last Supper, the waxwork Last Supper with the" --

Whitney: "I don't think -- I don't recall it ever being displayed up there, but it could have been; and that could have been it. That would be a pretty good guess.

Martini: "From looking over the paperwork and talking, it looks like the Sutros, or their estate, were running the baths up until very early 1950s. And they appear to have tried some changes, too. They put a -- sort of an Art Deco-looking façade on the building in the 1930s" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "based on the photographs.

"But I know that -- and they're the ones that put the ice-skating rink in, correct?"

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: "Did you know much about the economics of -- of -- before your family got involved, was Sutro Baths, was it a struggling concern or was it making money?"

Fleishhacker Pool in 1931, turned into the San Francisco Zoo parking lot seventy years later. - San Francisco Examiner

Whitney: "Well, it was making money until the city put in -- built the Fleishhacker pool and all of the municipal [pools]. And this was a trend throughout the country, that they started a -- a lot of municipal areas would put in a big city or county swimming pool. And there was no tax on it, where there was still an amusement tax on the privately owned ones. And, of course, the business just fell off in the private ones because there was a price differential."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And that was one of the basic demise of the swimming end of Sutro."

Martini: "When they put the ice-skating rink in, did that bring a new flock of interest in the place?"

Whitney: "Ice skating is an extremely strange type of operation. When you get involved with the Ice Skating Association and everything, you lose control of everything. They --they want to run your business and the time that they can have the ice and they -- their desire is to get more time for them to practice."

Martini: "Oh, you mean like the skating groups?"

Whitney: "Yeah, the skating groups or the professionals. Primarily more the professionals and the instructors that set up the teaching and so forth. That all -- they just moved in and took over. And you couldn't -- you couldn't deny 'em, because they were the source of anything good about the ice rink getting out. They could kill a story faster than anybody."

Martini: "Was Sutro's the first rink in the city?"

Whitney: "No. There was one down on the other side of Golden Gate Park on the equivalent of 48th Avenue. I don't know what it was called."

Martini: "Way up by the beach."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "I think a family ran it or something."

Whitney: "Yeah. It was in the -- right down at the foot of the Sunset."

Martini: "Did -- do you know, did the Whitneys -- Whitney Brothers see the Cliff House -- see the Sutros as competition, friendly competition, or just another neighbor?"

Whitney: "Oh, I -- I don't -- that's a little hard for me to guess on that, because I don't -- I don't recall whether my uncle was in or out of the business when my dad acquired -- I think he had retired actively or was in the process of retiring. So his interests were confined to the maintenance shop building and so forth" --

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: -- "down there -- at that time."

Martini: "Do you know if getting Sutro's was part of your dad's grand design when he" --

Whitney: "Yeah" --

Martini: -- "you know, looked at the" --

Whitney: -- "it was strictly my father's design."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "Those kind of decisions were strictly my dad's.

"I have some notes written by my uncle, which are a little more, probably, fair to himself about how -- what he contributed over and -- in the business end of things" --

Martini: "Right. Yeah, yeah."

Whitney: -- "which, over the years, we come to give that credit all to my father and the artistic end to my uncle."

Martini: "You -- you know a lot about the building yourself, and most people have never seen the baths. And they've got a bunch of questions that people wanted me to ask you.

"Start with those two oval exterior ponds that were outside the baths on the east side? You said -- you mentioned that you stocked those with trout at one point?"

Whitney: "Well, that was just a personal thing with my brother-in-law and myself, just to see what would happen. But there was -- those tanks were all filled with spring water. There was a spring there on the hillside, and so there were catch basins for that; and then it was drained off -- I don't know whether that water was used in the freshwater pool or not."

Martini: "It was for the use of the bath structure, though, in some way."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "They must have used a lot of fresh water for laundry and boilers and everything else in there."

Whitney: "There probably was more -- I think there was one -- at least one of the pools was a freshwater pool."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "I know the ice -- the ice-cold one was."

Martini: "That was the one they called the Plunge, I think, here. It was a very small tank off by itself."

Whitney: "Well, it was a fairly decent tank, but small, right at the foot of the main entry. And then, of course, there was another raised tank way back in the northwest corner of the L-shaped tank, which was used for diving."

Martini: "Was that a salt tank or was that a freshwater tank?"

Whitney: "All the rest of those were saltwater."

Martini: "All the rest, just the ice-cold. Okay.

"When your family took it over, looks like one of the first things they did was decide to close down the pools and just focus on the ice-skating rink."

Whitney: "Could be."

Martini: "Yeah.

"The -- were the -- the building was a big barn. The pools were aging. Was it -- was it an expensive facility to maintain? Did it take a lot of time and money?"

Whitney: "Well, labor costs at that time were starting to escalate quite a bit, especially maintenance, unions and so forth. And then you had this fact that you're -- you're in competition with free swimming by the city. So the business just fell off tremendously.

"So it just wasn't getting enough to pay for itself, pay for -- of course, the saltwater was free because it came from our own catch basins, but the heating of it was quite expensive."

Martini: "Talk about the catch basins for a bit. Do you know how that system operated, with the waves filling up the baths?"

Whitney: "Well, there was one kind of using the native rock around there and creating more of a hole in the ground. The waves would come in from the Golden Gate and splash up and go into the -- this first catch basin, which became a -- it was primarily the catch basin. Then the water flowed into the next one, which was the first settling. Get the sand that would come over with the waves a chance to settle out so that the water would keep working towards the boiler would be getting clearer and clearer and so forth. And then it went through, in the boiler, some type of filtration system so that when it went into the pools, it was sand-free, of course, debris-free."

Martini: "Inside -- out there near the catch basin" --

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: -- "there's a number of tunnels that go through.

"There's one tunnel that went down into the rock" --

[Begin Tape 3, Side A]

Martini: "This is the George Whitney, Jr., interview, Tape Number 3; August 14th, 2002.

"The last tape snapped off. We'd just started to talk about the underground chamber and the tunnel."

Whitney: "Yeah, the tunnel that went down into a chamber. That was to be a pumping room. I don't know if it was ever used as such. I don't even recall when I've gone in there, if there was any machinery left over. You've probably been in there since I have; and whatever was there is still there, I'm sure."

Martini: "Nothing."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"And then the other tunnel, which was more like a lateral tunnel, that went to another little, small cove. And they -- they picked up a lot of rock and debris to help build the wall of the catch basin and so forth. Because most of the rock had been -- that was left was semi-structural from the building; and this was a new source. And since Sutro was a tunnel builder, he loved building tunnels."

Martini: "So he dug the tunnel for construction material."

Whitney: "Went -- went through to this other cove and then collected the rocks in there and brought them back" --

Martini: "Oh, okay."

Whitney: -- "which were then used in the catch-basin walls and so forth."

Martini: "People -- people are constantly fascinated by it, I think, probably because it goes and comes out the other side" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

This photograph, taken in 1951, shows the size of the bridge-shaped wave motor. It was estimated at 60 feet long. - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Martini: -- "favorite route.

"On the -- there was a big rock on the other side of that tunnel that had some strange wave machine on top of it. Do you have any memory of that?"

Whitney: "Only it sitting there as a relic."

Martini: "As a relic."

Whitney: "And I have no idea when it was done and had no particular interest -- I knew that it was an experiment that didn't work. It was a pipe-dream type of experiment.

"And the main thing is -- the main interest that I had out in that area was when the Ohian went on the rocks, which was right close to there. So, you know, we went down a few times and went aboard and" --

Martini: "Really?"

Whitney: "Yeah, right after it had wrecked. I ended up with a Bridgestratten Lou engine, which I ended up building a go-cart way back."

Martini: "That must have been pretty hazardous to get out onto a ship" --

Whitney: "It wasn't very safe or prudent. It was semi-dishonest, also."

Martini: "You didn't -- I guess somebody, some insurance company, probably had rights to that wreck?"

Whitney: "Oh, yes."

Martini: "Well, you were young and it was" --

Whitney: "Yeah. I was -- I was just young enough to get away with -- think I could get away with it."

[Whitney Interview continues…]

George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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