Under the Cliff House, down by the Seal Rocks ...
By Christine Miller (Jadite30@aol.com)
arrive early on a windy Sunday morning at the little building below the
Cliff House. No, not the Musee Mechanique and not the small,
camera-shaped hut that holds the Camera Obscura. I’m here to open up the
Cliff House Visitor Center.
The visitor center used to be the home of the Sky-Tram,
a little tram that took people back and forth between the Cliff House’s
lower balcony and the other side of the Sutro Baths cove. Most of the
folks I have met who remember it say the Sky-Tram was just slow and
rusted enough to be ... kind of boring.
building itself is not considered historically important and will not be
spared in the upcoming and long-overdue Cliff House Restoration Project.
It will be demolished in mid-September. Since 1978, it has been home to
the assorted staff members of the National Park Service, the Golden Gate
National Park Association, and a group of loyal, long-time volunteers
who take care of the place. I was one of the latter, but when departing
personnel created a staffing gap, I took the job of filling in three
days a week during the visitor center’s last two months of life.
visitor center will close its doors for the last time on September 3.
The Musee Mechanique, old Seal Rock Gift Shop, and the Pronto Pup will
follow. It is sadly ironic that the closure of the Musee will correspond
to the 30th anniversary of the closure of Playland-by-the-Beach.
It is bitterly ironic that only now do they appear to be finishing
construction on the condos that replaced Playland.
10:00 a.m., I open up for the first of the hundreds of visitors who will
come through our doors. They will come from all over the world. They
will be deposited here by tour buses that routinely take people out to
the Cliff House. “Why did the bus bring us here?” one will ask
me. I try to explain why a tour bus would bring them here. If that
doesn’t work, I change the subject to, “Where are you from?
For some visitors to Land’s End, Ocean Beach will be
their first experience with the Pacific Ocean. Others will be returning
to the area after many years and they will remember how much fun the
Land’s End area once was and how NOT FUN it is now in comparison.
Some will take the oral history questionnaire that the
Park Service offers, fill it out, and send it back. Others will want to
tell me about what they remember but then leave it at that. Some will
remember with great clarity and others won’t remember much at all. Some
will have entertaining stories. A few will come back looking for very,
very specific things that they once saw at the Sutro Baths or at
Playland and then be startled when told just how long ago those things
were taken away.
This morning, I sit behind the counter and wait. Next
door, at the Musee Mechanique, someone drops fifty cents into the
coinbox of Laughin’ Sal, and the portly mechanical lady springs to life
and peals into a shrieking, helpless laughter that is amplified and
piped outside to attract the attention of visitors. People will continue
to drop coins into her coinbox all day long. All... day... long....
I keep the doors of the visitor center closed to block
her out, but despite that, every entering person lets in shrieks of
maniacal laughter from next door. “Geez, doesn’t that laughing drive you
crazy?” asks a visitor. All day long they will ask me that
question. All... day… long...
On weekends there are the visits from Laughin’ Sal’s
lone groupie. He stands outside the Musee’s front window, watching her
with an open-mouthed stare, and worries about what will happen when the
Musee has to move in September.
A little bit after 11:00 a.m., people will come into the
visitor center to complain that the Giant Camera isn’t open yet. I have
to explain to them that it is run by an independent operator and I have
no control over what they do. I tell them that I don’t know of any
reason why they wouldn’t open up today.
They watch me say all of that and wait for me to get to
the part where I walk over and open the Giant Camera. When that doesn’t
happen, they head back outside to wait. People will continue to come in
to ask until the doors finally open over there. It’s annoying, but then
it’s hard to stay angry at a Giant Camera.
I spend the bulk of my day answering the most often
asked question. One that comes from there not being a single seal
anywhere near the Seal Rocks.
“So...where are the seals?” they ask me. Answer: The sea
lions (not seals) moved to Pier 39 around 1989 and they rarely come back
here. They get a comfy wharf and treats and love over there. (Note: Sea
lions are smart.)
The next most common question is if I can make change.
“Look,” I tell them, “See that museum of coin-operated machines next
door? Those people have a LOT of change over there. I have practically
none, so if you really want change for that twenty, here’s what ya gotta
do: Go next door to the Musee, go in the front door, go to the left, go
to the door with the red buzzer, the red buzzer will ring a bell that is
really loud, but don’t be scared, press it anyway, and then ask
the guy who answers for change. They won’t mind, the folks over there
are real nice.”
Then again, sometimes it is just easier to make change.
Above us, the Cliff House is humming along, as it has
been almost continuously since 1863, when the Point Lobos Toll Road was
built to bring people out to dine at the westernmost edge of San
Francisco. The renovation project will partially restore the
restaurant’s exterior to its original neoclassical design. Today’s Cliff
House was built in 1909 to replace the Victorian Cliff House, a massive
chateau that was lost to a fire in 1907. The Victorian Cliff House had
replaced the much-beloved first Cliff House, an unpretentious-looking
roadhouse that had a colorful lifetime from 1863 to 1894.
only the restaurant and the Giant Camera will be left at the cliff. In
two to three years there may be a new visitor center and museum for the
Musee Mechanique. However, they would be located farther up the street
in the Merrie Way parking lot area.
At the end of the day, the place is filled with people.
I don’t shuttle them out the door as quickly as I used to.
Monday morning, I come back and open up. I sit on the
stoop of our back door with the million-dollar view all to myself and
eat my breakfast. The visitor center is being demolished to build an
annex for the restaurant. Someday soon, people will sit where I am now
in a lovely new dining room. They will enjoy the views and eat their
breakfast and then they will ask their server, “So ... where are the
seals?” All day long they will ask that question. All... day... long...
1864, Mark Twain braved cold and fog for an early morning visit to the
first Cliff House. He was not impressed: “The impressive solemnity of
such a pleasure trip is only equalled by an excursion to Lone Mountain
in a hearse.” Twain’s account of the six-mile journey and other
Cliff House lore can be found on the
website. Some of Architect C. D. Robinson's renderings of the new Cliff
House are shown here; others can be found on his website,