San Francisco, 1898.
Adolph Sutro, the German-born silver baron, real estate developer, and onetime mayor who helped shape the landscape of late-19th-century San Francisco, left his name on several sites across the city, from the forested slopes of Mount Sutro—now home to the University of California’s local campus—to Sutro Heights, his former estate in the Lands End area. A noted philanthropist, he also gifted San Francisco with what was once the world’s largest natatorium, the Sutro Baths. Opened in 1896 right on the Pacific Ocean, the 1.2-hectare glass-enclosed facility was a marvel of its time, with six tide-fed pools fitted with toboggan slides and rope swings and a promenade that alone could accommodate more than 3,000 people. It was enough, one contemporary writer noted, to “rival in magnitude, utility and beauty, the famous abluvion resorts of Titus, Caracalla, Nero or Diocletian.” Complete with a museum of curiosities, the aquatic playground was designed for the entertainment and “healthful recreation” of ordinary San Franciscans, who showed up in droves. Alas, the bathhouse struggled to keep up with its operating expenses, and sometime after the Great Depression it was converted into an ice-skating rink. Then, in 1966, the facility burned down to its concrete foundations. But it hasn’t been forgotten. Now protected as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the seaside ruins of Sutro Baths provide hikers and sunset seekers a curiosity of their own to ponder.