The Sutro Bath ruins on a foggy day in 2007. A poster from the 19th century depicting what Sutro Baths once was.One of San Francisco's best known urban ruins, the Sutro Baths were a 19th century swimming pool complex built by mining engineer and former populist mayor Adolf Sutro. Burned to the ground during demolition in 1966, the remains of the foundation can be viewed at the foot of the Cliff House in the Land's End district.

Built by Architects C.J. Collewy and Emil S. Lemme at a cost of $1 million, the Sutro Baths opened to the public on March 4, 1896. The world's largest indoor swimming complex; the structure covered nearly two acres of land and included over 100,000 sq. ft. of glass, 600 tons of iron, 3,500,000 board feet of lumber, 10,000 cubic yards of concrete and a 700 ft, 750,000 cubic foot breakwater .

The centerpiece of the complex were the seven swimming pools, heated to varying temps, and surrounded by a variety of trampolines, flying rings, slides, swings, toboggan slides, and diving platforms. During high tides, water would flow directly into the pools from the nearby ocean, recycling the 2 million US gallons of water in about an hour. During low tides, a turbine water pump, built inside a cave at sea level, could be switched on from a control room and could fill the tanks at a rate of 6,000 US gallons a minute (380 L/s), recycling all the water in five hours.

The Sutro Baths also featured amphitheater and promenade seating for 8,000, 517 private dressing rooms, a theater, several restaurants, a museum of natural curiosities and Egyptian artifacts, an adjacent amusement park called Merrie Way, and a dedicated streetcar line called the Ferries and Cliff House Railroad.

After Sutro's death on August 8, 1898, his heirs struggled to keep the Baths afloat in the face of steep operating and maintenance costs. When grandson Adolph G. Sutro took over, the Sutro Baths' were renovated along a south seas tropical theme, some of the pools were removed, and ice skating, dancing, ping-pong and basketball were added. On September 1, 1952 the Baths were sold to George Whitney, owner of Playland-at-the Beach, for $250,000. Under Whitney, the swimming pools were removed and the Baths became an ice skating rink. The Baths were permanently closed in 1966, burning down during demolition shortly thereafter.

The baths are featured in a scene in Harold and Maude. Harold is walking around the ruins with his military uncle, pretends to assault Maude, and she pretends to fall through a hole in the ruins to make Harold's uncle think he's too bloodthirsty for military school. Interestingly, the ruins are in considerably better shape in the movie than they are now (the movie was produced in 1971).

Both the Sutro Bath ruins and the adjacent Cliff house are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and are operated by the US National Park Service. 

Photo 2007.

Final moments of the building

Sutro Baths burns down - June 26, 1966 from Richmond SF Blog on Vimeo.