The first Cliff House was opened in 1863 by C.C. Butler and Senator John Buckley. The restaurant was housed in a modest building perched on the cliff at the end of Point Lobos Road. Under Captain Junius Foster, the establishment became a destination for the city’s wealthy and high profile visitors.
The Cliff House was remodeled in 1868 to include a promenade and two wings. After this it became a favorite meeting place of politicians—as well as more undesirable elements of the population. High society customers were scared off by the disreputable clientele and soon the Cliff House became known for indecent behavior.
Adolph Sutro bought the Cliff House in 1883 and unsuccessfully tried to revamp the restaurant himself. In 1885, he leased the restaurant to J.M. Wilkins who restored the Cliff House’s reputation, reclaiming its place as a tourist destination and respectable establishment for tourists and locals alike.
On Christmas Day 1894 the Cliff House was burned to the ground by a chimney fire. Its rebuild, in an extravagant Victorian style, cost Sutro $75,000. Sutro’s doll house version of the Cliff House appeared in countless photographs, drawings, postcards, and souvenirs. It became a world famous tourist attraction that also remained a favorite among locals.
On 7 September 1907, only eleven years after Sutro’s death, the Cliff House was once again destroyed by a fire. It was yet again rebuilt, this time by Sutro’s daughter, Emma Sutro Merritt. In contrast to Sutro’s extravagant Victorian building the third incarnation was built in a comparatively simple neoclassical style.
The Cliff House was bought in 1937 by George and Leo Whitney, then owners of Playland at the Beach. The Whitney Brothers transformed the Cliff House’s exterior several times during their 40 year tenure. They repainted, installed redwood paneling, commissioned murals, and set up bright neon signs.
In 1977 the Cliff House was acquired by the National Park Service and became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). It was remodeled in 2004 in an understated modern style that emphasizes the natural beauty that surrounds it. The Cliff House remains both a famous San Francisco tourist attraction and a popular haunt for locals.
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