Saving the ‘Cliff House Collection’

Wool swimsuits, a 100-year-old cowboy, and a pair of porcelain muses are among the historic artifacts local preservationists hope to keep for future generations.

Former patrons of the Cliff House may miss evenings spent sipping cocktails, slurping oysters, and crunching calamari while watching the sun set over the Pacific. But the significance of the restaurant extends well beyond its menu and views, enticing as they were.

For historians, art conservators, and locals who watched the iconic Cliff House sign come down in December, the closure of the landmark San Francisco institution heralded a different kind of loss. The Cliff House was home to a sizable collection of artworks and artifacts that celebrate the storied past of Lands End.

Located on the cliffs of Point Lobos Avenue, which, years ago, overlooked the legendary Sutro Baths and the soaring roller coasters of Playland on the Beach, the restaurant long served as a time capsule. Photographs, paintings, sculptures, and other ephemera filled most of the space not taken up by tables, patrons, and staff. Now, however, the restaurant’s walls have been stripped bare, and 157 years of local culture lies strewn about the place — piled on top of beer cases and bar tops, and leaning against boxes of cutlery and kitchenware, waiting to be sold off.

A photochrom print shows the second iteration of The Cliff House, circa 1899. Photo courtesy of Detroit Photographic Co./Library of Congress

When the Cliff House shuttered due to coronavirus restrictions and the National Park Service’s failure to execute a new lease on the property, longtime proprietors Dan and Mary Hountalas announced that the memorable collection they’d acquired over the years would be up for auction in mid-March.

That didn’t sit well with a group of local organizers who believe the collection belongs to the public. Spearheaded by a community history nonprofit, the Western Neighborhoods Project, and two local fine art galleries, the effort, dubbed Save the Cliff House Collection, aims to raise enough money to buy some of the collection’s most culturally valuable objects at the auction and preserve them for the public for years to come. 

“We can talk about history all we want, we can give you dates and names,” says Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project. “But that will never replace being able to actually look at a wool swimsuit in front of you that people rented from Sutro Bath, to think, ‘That had to be so itchy, that had to be so heavy when you wore it.’” 

The tangibility of these items, she continues, “brings history to life.”

“To keep things where they’re from is incredibly important,” agrees Alexandra Mitchell, a fourth-generation San Franciscan and a fine arts conservator at A.C.T. Art Conservation LLC.  “It’s how cultures are understood. It’s how places live on forever.”

Old Cliff House menus are up for auction. Photo by Clara Liang

Meldahl, whose grandfather used to enjoy beers at the Cliff House bar back in the day, remembers it as a place where “all of San Francisco found a home.” And she believes that the eclectic collection of historic items scattered around the restaurant were a critical part of that inclusive, celebratory atmosphere.

“It felt like going to your favorite uncle’s place, the one who would always welcome you in with a whiskey and an ‘I remember when’ and start pointing to stuff on his wall.” 

In other words, the objects bring life to the restaurant. Without them, the Cliff House isn’t the Cliff House. 

“It’s going to be an empty building,” says Mary Hountalas, who is supportive of the preservation effort.

Long Lineage

Dan Hountalas started his first business at the age of six on Point Lobos Avenue, selling peanuts outside of his father’s restaurant, which was located right next door to the then-thriving Sutro Baths. This was back in 1941, when the entire hill overlooking Ocean Beach was lined with tobacco and liquor businesses, breakfast shops, and candy stands where locals and tourists alike could grab a bite to eat after spending a day in the lively entertainment district. The Hountalas family was one of a handful of Greek families who operated this bustling oceanview strip starting in the early 1900s. 

Dan met his eventual wife, Mary, after she came to the city with a different “young gentleman” in 1967, “the summer of love,” she says with a chuckle.

“When I came to San Francisco, interestingly enough, the Cliff House was one of the first places I went to,” Mary recalls. “I remember sitting in the dining room thinking, ‘Wow, this place is great, what a location. But boy, could it use some help! Who knew six years later I’d be involved.” 

In 1973, the newlywed couple got a call from their good friend George Whitney Jr., the son of another very influential local family, who owned both the Cliff House and Playland. George Whitney Jr. was many things — Walt Disney’s seventh employee, an avid sailor and pilot, and a specialist in aerial gunnery from his time in the Army Air Corps during World War II — “but he didn’t know the first thing about food or how to run a restaurant,” Mary says. Whitney wanted Dan and Mary to operate the Cliff House, and they happily agreed, starting out with an omelet house downstairs and working with Whitney until he sold the property to the National Park Service a few years later. 

Laura Reid of the Rabin Worldwide auction house holds a 1903 Cliff House menu for President Theodore Roosevelt. Photo by Clara Liang

When Dan and Mary took over the restaurant, they also acquired some of Whitney’s personal keepsakes — memorabilia from Playland, the Sutro Baths, and beyond. Over the years, the Hountalas built upon that collection, and the Cliff House became a museum of sorts, a natural place to document the region’s history. 

The restaurant’s closure this year “was pretty devastating” for Mary and Dan. Mary says that the National Park Service was supposed to have secured a long-term successor to take over the Cliff House back in 2018, when their contract was up, to ensure continuity — but the federal agency still has not found proprietors. The Hountalases were willing to continue operating the restaurant on short-term leases while the NPS searched for a successor, even though it required tens of thousands of dollars a month to maintain. But when the pandemic hit, that was the last straw: it became financially infeasible for the Hountalases to continue on. “I don’t want to put a lot of blame on the Park Service,” Mary says, “but they were rather remiss in their handling of this… It’s just really sad.” 

As for the Cliff House collection’s fate, Mary says the Hountalases had intended for it to go to their successor. “There would have been no need to break up this fantastic collection,” Mary says. “It tells the story of the place.” NPS informed the Hountalases at the end of their most recent contract that they had to remove all memorabilia from the premises.

Artifact Archive

Prior to its closure, patrons of the Cliff House were always greeted by two effigies of the American West upon arrival.

First, there was the 10-foot-tall “C.U. Soon” Sheriff statue. Affectionately known as “The Cowboy,” it used to be stationed in the Fun-tier Town area of Playland, a Western themed play area with rides geared toward children.

A giant grizzly bear carved out of wood served as the second sentinel at the entrance to the restaurant. Often referred to as “the doorman” of the Cliff House, historians believe the sculpture may have originally come from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in the Marina in 1915. The ursine maître d’ was a favorite among kids visiting the Cliff House and is valued at $28,000. Both the cowboy and the bear were brought to the restaurant by Whitney.

Further inside, mementos of San Francisco history lined the walls of this spacious, neoclassical-inspired, post-modern building — the third incarnation of the Cliff House. (The previous two were destroyed by fires.)

An oil portrait of former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro. Photo by Clara Liang

One especially cherished item is an oil portrait of Adolph Sutro, the German-Jewish immigrant, self-made millionaire, and populist mayor of San Francisco who bought the Cliff House in 1881 with dreams of turning into a more relaxed venue for families. At the time, it was an exclusive resort that catered to an elite, wealthy clientele, the only people who could afford to trek all the way over to Lands End, usually on horseback or via stagecoach. Sutro went on to develop the massive public bathhouse next door, which was also destroyed by a fire in 1966. 

Six or so of the old-fashioned wool bathing suits that were available for swimmers to rent — one of which was stolen during a break-in last month (and quickly recovered) — were also exhibited on the walls. Mitchell refers to these bathing suits, which are appraised at $2,000 a piece, as the “stars of the show.” The preservation group is intent on saving them, but Mitchell knows they’ll be popular. 

The two 74” porcelain muse reliefs that used to preside over bathers entering the Sutro Baths are also likely to also draw high bids. Commissioned by Sutro in the 1890s and brought over from Italy to expand his enormous personal collection, these bathing beauties are some of the most exquisite items in the collection. Two of the original five muses were acquired by the Hountalses from Whitney, and two remain in the Whitney family. The last is owned by the Park Service and has been sitting in storage for over a decade, along with a rare, curly redwood bar that was taken out years ago in a renovation, according to Mary.

Aside from these more prominent pieces, the Cliff House is filled with countless smaller sentimental artifacts. There are framed pieces of the original Cliff House building from the late 19th century, which burned down on Christmas Day in 1894. There are hundreds of newspaper clippings, etched mirrors, advertisements from old cable cars, and old menus — one of which commemorates a special luncheon held at the Cliff House for President Theodore Roosevelt when he visited San Francisco in 1903. 

Mary speaks especially proudly of the Cliff House’s impressive collection of signed movie star photos from the 1920s onward — though she says there were even more before the windstorm of 1995 swept a number of photos out the windows and into the ocean. Michael Douglas, who filmed an episode of the ’70s crime drama The Streets of San Francisco in the restaurant, used to smile down from the wall, as did psychedelic singer-songwriter Grace Slick, another Cliff House frequenter. So did Nicolas Cage, who Mary says came in a couple times a week when he was filming The Rock. “He’d sit in the back room and have white wine and steamed clams.”

People would often come to the restaurant offering family heirlooms to add to the collection. 

In the ’30s and ’40s, according to Mary, waiters and maître d’s would wear white paper bibs under their tuxedos. One German maître d’ was known for collecting signatures of famous people on his bib when they dined at the Cliff House. 

Ilya Okun, a member of Rabin Worldwide, flips through old newspapers. Photo by Clara Liang

“About four or five years ago, I got a letter from his grandson,” Mary says. “And he said, ‘I have these bibs, sitting up in the attic deteriorating.’ So they came down from Idaho or somewhere and we acquired them and had them carefully framed. One has a lot of signatures from representatives to the first meeting of the UN, which was held in San Francisco.” Cary Grant’s name is visible on another bib.

There’s a similar story behind a wooden toy horse that used to carry riders up and down on a carousel in Playland. The Whitney family, who “loved to recycle things,” according to Mary, cut off the horse’s legs one day to repurpose it for their Western-themed ride. When Playland closed in 1972, no one bought the delimbed horse, and a man who had worked at Playland for many years took it home and gave it to his niece. When the man passed away, the niece contacted Mary asking her if the horse could find a home in Playland. The horse was one of the items stolen and recovered in the recent burglary.  

The only piece from the entire collection that the Hountalas family is keeping for themselves is the antique peanut wagon where Dan sat as a little boy selling peanuts to Sutro bathers on a vibrant Point Lobos Avenue of the past. 

End of an Era

The fight to salvage this memorabilia from the Cliff House is made all the more urgent by the wave of restaurant, bar, and theater closures that swept across San Francisco when the pandemic hit. 

“This place has been a cornerstone of the way San Franciscans have lived their lives for over a hundred years. Places like this matter. Places that feel like home,” says Meldahl. “It’s hard to see so many of these places that have held such a dear space in our hearts disappear.

Just a few months before the Cliff House announced it was shutting down for good, San Franciscans mourned the loss of its down-to-earth counterpart: the beloved diner Louis’ right up the hill, which was operated by Dan Hountalas’s cousins. The Cliff House adds to the growing list of San Francisco institutions that have fallen in the last year. 

Some people in the preservation effort voiced concerns that the collection would fall in the hands of the Park Service and end up sitting in storage. Photo by Clara Liang

“As we’re losing these places, it’s even more imperative to make sure we jump on fighting for them,” Mitchell says. “Time is of the essence.” 

But it’s not just the pandemic that’s to blame. “This is a process that’s been happening for a long time as San Francisco shifts into the next phase of its life,” says Meldahl, referring to an influx of tech workers and other changes in the city’s demographics. 

“As a conservator, it’s our duty, our role [to preserve this history],” Mitchell says, “in the same way that a doctor seeing a patient in need runs without hesitation.” 

Just the thought of the collection disassembling appeared to cause Mitchell considerable distress. “Imagine taking pages out of a book and spreading the chapters all over,” she says. “You’ll never again fully grasp the entire picture. A collection works in the exact same way.”

John Lindsey, director of an art gallery called The Great Highway and another voice in the preservation effort, agrees that “history is a really important thing, especially right now.” Having surfed, fished, and walked his dog along Ocean Beach every day for thirty years, he also knew instinctively that he had to get involved when he heard the Cliff House was closing.

So far, the group has raised $18,867 of their $150,000 goal, with 211 contributors to the campaign. They’ll compete with other bidders in the auction from March 11-13 (most of the Cliff House’s memorabilia will be auctioned on the 11th and 12th through Rabin Worldwide, and the celebrity photos will be auctioned on the 13th through Turner Auctions + Appraisals). Some people in the preservation effort voiced concerns that the collection would fall in the hands of the Park Service and end up sitting in storage with the muse relief and the curly redwood bar, unappreciated and stuck in the wheels of bureaucracy.  

Items included in the Cliff House auction. Photo by Clara Liang

Should they salvage any pieces from the collection, the group hopes to conduct community listening sessions to determine where each item should go on display and what kind of education programming should accompany the collection.

“We really want this to be a community effort,” Meldahl says.  

Mitchell expressed gratitude that the auction house, Rabin Worldwide, and the Hountalas family have been so supportive of their mission. “I love seeing how our community has rallied around this,” she says. 

Clara Liang is a contributing writer. Twitter @clarablakeliang

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