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    Survive, Prosper and Thrive: San Francisco’s Historic Cliff House


    Like San Francisco and the LGBT community itself, the Cliff House is a survivor. It has overcome natural disasters, establishment threats to its free spirited ways and many other challenges. If the Cliff House has a theme song, surely it is the Gloria Gaynor disco anthem, “I Will Survive.”


    2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) and thanks to the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, there is renewed emphasis on identifying and celebrating places and important events associated with our community for inclusion in the parks and programs of the NPS. Thus far, The Stonewall Inn in New York and Chicago’s Henry Gerber House (birthplace of the first gay civil rights organization in the nation, The Society for Human Rights) are now designated as National Historic Landmarks. San Francisco’s own Cliff House, however, which is part of a designated NPS national recreation area, is often left out of such discussions, but it has been intertwined with queer history since its earliest days.

    Looking Back

    The first Cliff House, built in 1863, was a favorite of at least three U.S. presidents and prominent families such as the Hearsts, Stanfords and Crockers. But it also drew an early following from the Barbary Coast, a red-light district centered on a three-block stretch of what is now Pacific Avenue in San Francisco. The district featured dance halls, concert saloons, bars, jazz clubs, variety shows, brothels and some of our city’s earliest gay residents.

    In the decades that would follow, the Cliff House too gained a reputation for the “scandalous behavior” of its visitors. Consider that its location, perched at Land’s End above the Pacific Ocean, provided the ultimate getaway for gay lovers and others who could meet in relative privacy at the then modest structure.

    Adolph Sutro, former mayor of San Francisco, built his estate atop nearby Sutro Heights overlooking the Cliff House location. He later purchased the Cliff House in 1883. Sutro leased the building to others, who worked to renovate the building. In 1887, however, the Cliff House experienced the first of a series of disasters that could have easily closed the place forever.


    A Cliff House Mini Timeline

    1887– The schooner Parallel, abandoned and loaded with dynamite, ran aground the rocks at Land’s End and blew large sections of the Cliff House to smithereens.

    1894– The patched up Cliff House is destroyed by a kitchen fire.

    1907– After an extensive rebuild, and after having survived the great earthquake of 1906, the Cliff House burns to the ground.

    1918– Rebuilt yet again, the Cliff House is shut down due to military orders that held “all establishments within a half mile of military installations are to halt the sale of liquor.”

    1937– The owners of the beachside amusement park Playland purchased the Cliff House. It was extensively remodeled yet again, and reopened in August of 1938.

    1977– The Golden Gate National Recreation Area acquired the Cliff House in 1977. It is now part of the largest urban park west of the Mississippi River.

    The Modern Cliff House

    cliff houseCurrent Cliff House proprietors Dan and Mary Hountalas, in conjunction with the NPS, have overseen more remodeling and restoration. Hountalas family ties to the Cliff House go way back. The family has been a part of the Ocean Beach community since 1906. The Cliff House connection began more directly in 1941, when six-year-old Dan started selling peanuts to visitors. As he grew older and continued working at the site in the food and hospitality business, Dan witnessed the aftermath of yet another major fire in 1966. The fire was so damaging that it leveled the Sutro Baths, leaving behind the familiar ruins that are seen next to the Cliff House to this day. Still other challenges followed.

    Dan and Mary persevered, though, and their efforts speak for themselves. The most recent renovations saw the addition of the energy efficient Sutro Wing, which now houses an amazing two-story dining room with stunning panoramic ocean views. The ceiling of steel beams recalls the Sutro Baths architecture, establishing a connection between the past and the present. Skylights and grand picture windows accentuate natural light in all public spaces; spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean are emphasized in both the neoclassical design of the restored 1909 structure and the soaring modernist space of this latest wing.

    Today’s Cliff House management team includes many out and proud members of our community. Executive Chef Kevin Weber, who is Director of Food Operations, Restaurant Manager Bob Kovacs, Procurement Manager Arthur Bradley and numerous others have themselves celebrated important life occasions at the beautiful site. They note that 20–30 percent of all wedding receptions and related events there are now for LGBT couples. Many such couples enjoyed some of their first dates at the Cliff House, which seems to spark romance.

    Why is the location still so popular? There is even more to the Cliff House than its history, dreamy views and delicious food and drinks. The site is supposedly haunted by a few ghosts, including that of the handsome LGBT 1920’s movie star Rudolph Valentino, who was a breathtakingly attractive and single dancer at the Cliff House before his days on the silver screen. Other gay stars—some out, some not—are in the mix of celebrity photos on the walls of the Cliff House’s Bistro section located in what was previously the main dining room. Additionally, photographers affiliated with the Harvey Milk Photo Center continue to find inspiration at the Cliff House, particularly at night, when the sunset views give way to moonlight over the rocky shore and foam-capped waves.

    During this centennial year of the NPS, when President Obama and others will kick off a second century of stewardship of America’s national treasures, San Francisco Bay Times staff have observed that our city’s own historic Cliff House should also be recognized as one of the crown jewels of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.