Arguably the most famous relic of San Francisco from the 19th century, the Sutro Baths was not just a place to swim — it also once had SF’s largest indoor skating rink.
In a time not all too far long ago (when compared to the universe’s utter vastness and endless entropy), San Francisco housed the largest collection of indoor swimming pools… anywhere in the entire world. Replenished by the pull of the sea, the Pacific Ocean was capable of filling all seven of the pools in Sutro Baths with a collective volume that was estimated to be north of 1.6 million gallons of water.
(Fun fact: Sutro Baths also had one of the deepest public swimming pools in the world as well; its most plunging water holes could take swimmers down 20 feet.)
Sutro Baths, 1966
People think the June fire destroyed the Sutro Baths, but demolition was already in progress and the place was mostly empty. #sfhistory (came across this clip in my files recently) pic.twitter.com/JdWzFXmtaV
— David Gallagher (@DavidGallagher) April 17, 2023
Because of the varying depths and lengths of the pools, each had a specific temperature. And when the indoor pool later expanded to include a bathhouse, a trip to Sutro Baths became synonymous with hyperlocal rest and respite — made better by the Queen Anne revival style architecture that permeated the iconoclastic glass house.
Developed in 1894 by Adolph Sutro, the same man who was also behind the Cliff House — heard of it? — the world-famous water attraction saw thousands of patrons daily, capable of housing 10,000 warm bodies inside at once. According to the National Park Service, “the Baths” at its peak had 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for rent.
Much like all too many inflated ventures in San Francisco, the Baths never became a commercially successful business for Adolph. When he died in 1889, the Sutro family took over ownership of the bathhouse… only to watch a laundry list of problems — the Great Depression, the 1906 earthquake, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, increased health and recreation restrictions imposed by the City — slowly devolve the space.
By 1964, demolition of the precious gathering area was set in order to make way for planned high-rise apartment buildings — though not before a fire would rampage the Baths in 1966. That fire was said to be arson; the developers of the planned project later collected the insurance money… and abandoned the project, altogether.
Eventually, the Baths were completely demolished after being effectively hollowed out by the aforenoted blaze, which left only the Bath’s structural components intact.
Recently, we got a glimpse of the final moments of the Bath’s glorious external structure before it came crashing down, thanks to an upload from David Gallagher on the Bird App.
“People think the June fire destroyed the Sutro Baths, but demolition was already in progress and the place was mostly empty,” Gallagher, who was once attached to the nonprofit OpenSFHistory, captioned in a tweet containing a four-second video of the Baths collapsing into the ground. It’s unclear where the clip was originally sourced from, but, nevertheless, it resurfaced to our collective delight.
Albeit brief, the video shows the prominent glasshouse crumbling as the skeleton underneath it gives way; like over boarded human knees, poles to the left and right of the glasshouse cripple to the ground. There’s an assumed construction worker in the foreground looking at the scene in awe, before scrambling as the ruble slumps closer to him. A tall palm tree narrowly avoids becoming mulch, as well.
At some point, the swimming pools were closed and an ice skating rink was built. pic.twitter.com/rsOi57Nu7T
— David Gallagher (@DavidGallagher) April 18, 2023
Gallager later wrote that “the ruins continue to captivate people” to this day, before hinting at the somewhat right of passage it is to learn about the folklore surrounding the Baths: “The discovery of its history is kind of a rite of passage for San Franciscans and visitors alike.”
We couldn’t agree more — in both senses. And this flickering glimpse into the final upright moments of the Baths will linger with us for some time as we continue to decay on this mortal coil.
Feature image: Screenshot via an image from a video uploaded to Twitter.