Modern Ruins on the Pacific at San Francisco's Sutro Baths

Slate’s design blog.
May 1 2014 12:00 PM

Modern Ruins on the California Coast

Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in 2013.
Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in 2013.

Courtesy of Emily Mills via Flickr

Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.

This week's edition—about San Francisco's Sutro Baths—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.

If you’ve wandered around Machu Picchu, or Stonehenge, or the Colosseum, or even snuck into that abandoned house on the edge of town, you know the power in a piece of decrepit architecture. And even if you don’t want to leave your house, the Internet is littered with evidence of the human love affair with all things abandoned.

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People flock to remainders of ancient civilizations, but people also flock to things that just look like they’re ancient. The combination of decomposition and romance makes a perfect cocktail of repulsion and allure. And for San Franciscans, this place is Sutro Baths.

Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in 2011.
Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in 2011.

Courtesy of Randy Chiu via Flickr

At the northwestern edge of San Francisco, right on the Pacific Ocean, is a curious jumble of concrete ruins. You wouldn’t know just looking at it, but this ruin is quite young. It’s what’s left of Sutro Baths, a palatial indoor swimming pool and amusement park built in 1898.

Postcard of Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in the 1910s.
Postcard of Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in the 1910s.

Courtesy of Ed Bierman via Flickr

Thomas Edison captured it on film:

There was a museum of oddities. And up the hill was an amusement park along Merrie Way, marketed as the Coney Island of San Francisco.

Remains of Sutro Baths in 2005.
Remains of Sutro Baths in 2005.

Courtesy of Dawn Endico via Flickr

Sutro Baths was built by San Francisco real estate tycoon Adolph Sutro. Despite pouring millions of dollars into its various attractions, Sutro Baths just never made money. In the 1950s, after Sutro had passed away, it was bought by an entertainment mogul, who turned it into “Sutro’s,” an ice skating rink and indoor beach.

You can see Sutro’s in its wacky midlife crisis in the 1958 movie The Lineup:

It’s also preserved in the 1971 film Harold and Maude:

But Sutro’s still couldn’t turn a profit. It was set to be demolished. But before it could be torn down, Sutro’s caught fire. That was in 1966. It’s been the same ever since. The ruin is now part of the Golden Gate Recreational Area.

Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in 2010.
Sutro Baths, San Francisco, in 2010.

Courtesy of Kevin Goebel via Flickr

To learn more, check out the 99% Invisible post or listen to the show. In this episode, producer Avery Trufelman spoke with John Martini, author of Sutro’s Glass Palace; Tom Bratton, National Parks Service volunteer and former locker attendant at Sutro’s; and Jill Corral, owner and operator of sutrobaths.com and the @sutrobaths handle about San Francisco’s Sutro Baths.

99% Invisible is distributed by PRX.

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