On Friday, March 12, after a long day of bidding at the Cliff House Auction, Nicole Meldahl was finally able to take a momentary breath. Then, she was right back to work.
Collecting a variety of historic artifacts to display for public consumption was the “easy part,” she says. Now, she and her accomplices from the nonprofit Western Neighborhoods Project have to take up the work of restoring, transporting, and displaying a magnificent haul made possible by over $180,000 in donations.
The goal? According to Meldahl, it’s “making sure that everyone feels ownership over this shared story that is history.”
The Cliff House announced that it would be closing last December after the National Park Service, which owned the site, doubted the feasibility of new restaurant operators running the property after a tumultuous pandemic year. The Hountalas family had run the restaurant since 1973, seeking a new operator and working off short-term leases since 2018. When the restaurant went under, the vast collection of historical artifacts housed at the Cliff House went up for auction, and Meldahl’s Western Neighborhoods Project stepped in.
The artifacts tell a story of a site that’s changed a lot over the last 200 years. The Sutro Baths, an indoor pool that burned down in 1966, were memorialized by wool swimsuits available for auction. Playland, a 10-acre beachside amusement park that closed in 1972 is remembered by a whimsical 10-foot tall statue named Sheriff “C.U. Soon,” that once marked the entrance to a section of the park called “Fun-tier Town.” The whole neighborhood was once much livelier than it is now, with concessions all along the strip of Point Lobos and Great Highway, says Meldahl. “The fact that it’s now completely quiet and dark, the fact that no business has been able to survive there, is deeply troubling,” she says.
It’s for these reasons that fine art conservator Alexandra Mitchell and John Lindsey of the Great Highway Gallery came to Meldahl. Lamenting over the history that would be lost were everything sold to private buyers, the trio put out a call for donations under a campaign called “Save the Cliff House” so that artifacts could one day be presented to the general public. A man named Richard Beleson committed to match donations in honor of SF Chronicle journalist and historian Gary Kumea. Together with the help of Western Neighborhoods Project treasurer Arnold Woods, who kept tabs, they broke their fundraising goal by more than $30,000, and went home with some incredible finds.
Though it’s hard for Meldahl to identify a favorite, one item stands out: a section of original lockers from the Sutro Baths. “Right in the middle of this whole process we learned that a dear member of the Western Neighborhoods Project passed away, named Tom Bratton,” she says. “He worked at the Sutro Baths, and his father worked at the Sutro Baths, and he was actually a locker attendant for a period of time. I’m very invested in making sure wherever these hang out permanently, that they have a little plaque that says ‘In Memory of Tom Bratton.’”
Maybe that’s why San Franciscans donated over $180,000 to the campaign in a few, short weeks — Meldahl takes an incredible amount of care in what she does. Now, finding where and how to store the artifacts will be a careful process, too. While the Minnesota Street Project stores the items and ACT Art Conservation begins restoring them, the Western Neighborhoods Project is having public conversations to decide where the items will be displayed.
If it were up to Meldahl, however, the exhibit will be in a welcoming, small museum space where people can sit down with the items and stay a while. The exhibit would tell a story, too. “It wouldn’t just be the Cliff House — it would be the Cliff House as one part of a very vibrant part of San Francisco that is often overlooked,” she says.
The artifacts will be viewable at the Western Neighborhoods Project office at 1617 Balboa by the end of May, and the first community listening session is scheduled for April 15. Invested San Franciscans can keep up with the discussion on the Western Neighborhoods Project website and the Cliff House campaign’s Instagram, @savethecliffhouseart. History lovers can donate to the project here.
Veronica Irwin is a contributing writer. Twitter @vronirwin