Cliff House Restaurant
Photograph by Louis Vincent 1960's

Current NEWS -- Labor Day September 2, 2002

Historic Cliff House Claimed Not Historic ...
                                                              believe it or not...

The day after Labor Day 1972 George Kerr Whitney’s Playland-at-the-Beach closed forever. Now, on this 30th anniversary the Cliff House Restaurant that Mr. Whitney also owned is soon to be a thing of the past. 

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area Parks Department (GGNRA) will tear down the south and north ends of the Cliff House building and put on a 8,700 foot addition. Plans for their  renovation begins this September 2002! 

A new building cannot replace history or the nostalgia that our current structure has.

Mr. Whitney purchased Playland in 1928 and then in 1936 he purchased the Cliff House Restaurant. Prior to 1936 the Cliff House sat vacant for 12 years because it couldn't succeed financially -- too much overhead.  It was the insight of George Whitney to make the Cliff House accessible to the average customer.  He said he would sell hotdogs before he would go broke.

The history of George Whitney needs to be acknowledged and preserved because he was such an important part of San Francisco.  He owned everything that is now part of the Sutro Historic District, plus the never-to-be-forgotten Playland.

The remaining treasures of Playland need to be preserved in there current historic places at the Cliff House Lower Terrace.  The relationship between the Camera Obscura and the Musee Mecanique are of cultural importance.  The Cliff House, the Camera Obscura, and the Musee Mecanique work well together as they we're planned a long time ago.

The GGNRA claims that the current Cliff House structure is not historic due to the renovations Mr. Whitney made in 1950.  In the 1993 Sutro District Report the public were included in establishing design guidelines for the Cliff House addition.  The public stated that they wanted to KEEP THE EXISTING CLIFF HOUSE STRUCTURE.  The public did not say tear down parts of the Cliff House and build new.

Everybody knows that our Cliff House Restaurant is historic and that it should be restored instead of torn down. Nowhere in historic preservation does it say to tear down and build new. 

Concurrently, George Whitney’s antique arcade collection named the Musee Mecanique is going to be evicted from the Cliff House lower terrace. There are plans to construct a new Visitor Center at the Merrie Way parking lot north of the Cliff House Restaurant in the future, but -- history will be changed forever. 

There is an online petition with almost 12,000 signatures asking the GGNRA to keep the Musee at the Cliff House.  Take some time and read the comments on the petition.  People are heart broken their Museum is being evicted.  

Eviction of the Musee Mecanique was never discussed in the 1993 Sutro District Report.  The public clearly stated they wanted to keep the Cliff House fun and that meant keeping the Musee Mecanique and the Camera Obscura together at the Cliff House.

The current Cliff House Visitor Center housed George Whitney’s Aerial Tram Ride that ran from 1955-1961. It carried people from the Cliff House lower terrace along the coast past Sutro Baths to Point Lobos and back. That too will be destroyed.

The Camera Obscura is also part of Mr.Whitneys' collection and it was only through public outcry that it became a historical landmark on May 23, 2001. The GGNRA had plans to tear down the Camera Obscura and relocate it in the new Cliff House Restaurant. 

The GGNRA doesn’t seem to understand the historic importance of this area or to listen to the wishes of the public.  AS IT IS -- WHERE IT IS was our chant to save it.

It needs to be acknowledged that our current Cliff House is historic and people need to know the truth about what is going on. I think people will be shocked to see the walls of the Cliff House come down.  Most people assumed (like myself) that the Cliff House was a protected historic building since it is in the Sutro Historic District.  Life never fails to surprise me.  It makes me sad to think of the Cliff House I grew up with gone. We are witnessing an end of an era.

Public meetings are held at the GGNRA Headquarters at Fort Mason. The August and September 2002 meetings have been cancelled. 


This well-known San Francisco Landmark had a very interesting and colorful beginning. In 1858 Samuel Brannan, a prosperous Mormon elder, bought for $1,500 the lumber salvaged from a ship that foundered on the basalt cliffs below the Cliff House. With this material he built the First cliff House.

The Second Cliff House was rebuilt in 1864, with wings added to the original structure. Four years later, Rose' Celeste walked a tight rope from the balcony to the Seal Rocks -- receiving world acclaim. Part of the cable is still on the Seal Rocks. On January 17, 1887, the north wing was blown off when the schooner "Parallel," laden with dynamite, crashed on the rocks below. This structure was later destroyed by fire.

The Third Cliff House was an ornate seven-story frame building, suggesting a French Château. It was built in 1896 by the late Adolph Sutro, "King of the Comstock Mines," who subsequently became Mayor of San Francisco. On September 7, 1907 this building was completely destroyed by fire.

The Fourth Cliff House, built in 1909, was constructed of concrete and steel. Mr. George K. Whitney, owner of Playland-at-the-Beach, purchased and completely renovated the Cliff House and opened it on August 5, 1937.

The Fifth Cliff House, which is the present structure, was completed in 1950. A new dining room known as the Pacific Room (to be destroyed) was added to the spacious Marine Dining Room (saved). On the second floor a lovely banquet room, to accommodate large gatherings, has been added, and is known as the Sunset Room (to be destroyed). The exterior is finished in California Redwood and red brick.

In the splendid surroundings of these beautiful dining rooms or the Sequoia Cocktail Lounge (to be destroyed), whether you come for breakfast, luncheon, dinner or a cocktail, you will enjoy the ever-changing views as seen from its windows. Here you see the surf breaking continually over miles of sandy beach; the Golden Gate Park with its Old Dutch Windmills; ships from all ports of the world entering the harbor of San Francisco through the waters of the Golden Gate; and just a few hundred feet from shore, the famed Seal Rocks with its hundreds of Sea Lions.

Today, with its colorful background, this delightfully situated restaurant and cocktail lounge takes it rightful place among the most famous in the world.


[See the Original Cliff House Menu!]

[ Link to the S.F. Cliff House Restaurant web site.]

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