by Arnold Woods
You may have heard by now that the Western Neighborhoods Project will be opening a temporary museum in the former Cliff House gift shop to exhibit some of the historic items that we purchased at the Cliff House auction. We hope to have our “Museum at the Cliff” open later this month. However, you don’t have to wait until the opening to visit the Cliff House and see one of the items we got. That item is the Totem Pole, which was purchased by us at the auction, but has remained on display at the Cliff House for anyone to visit. The totem pole that you see there now though is only “half” the story.
After George Whitney, Sr. bought the Cliff House in 1937, he did an initial remodel to get the place into shape as it had been closed for about 12 years at that point. A little over a decade later, he decided to really change the look and did an extensive remodel in the late 1940s. The “new” Cliff House had a moderne look with a red exterior and huge letters across the top of the building. As part of the new look, Whitney determined that a distinctive external feature was needed. The idea he hit upon was a totem pole, perhaps as an homage to the Ohlone peoples that once inhabited the area.
Not content to simply buy a totem pole from somewhere, Whitney commissioned one from Chief Mathias Joe Capilano of the Squamish tribe in Western Canada to carve one for him. The Capilano name had long been prominent in Squamish society and is part of many place and street names in the Vancouver area. Capilano’s father was not a direct descendant of the original Ki-ap-a-la-nos and had merely assumed the name when he became chief. Capilano was a master totem pole carver whose work is still displayed in numerous places.
The totem pole commissioned by Whitney was made from one long cedar log and depicted various members of the Whitney family. When Capilano finished the pole, it was shipped from Vancouver to San Francisco. Unfortunately, when it was ready to be shipped in November 1948, it was in the midst of a waterfront strike in San Francisco which delayed its arrival.1 When it finally got here, Whitney installed the 58-foot tall totem pole near the northeast corner of the Cliff House by the stairs to the lower deck. Never one to let a good marketing opportunity go by, Whitney claimed the totem pole was the largest in the world. It did tower over the Cliff House.
One issue, of course, with a 58-foot tall totem pole, was that no one could really see the top part of the pole. We aren’t certain that this was the reason, but around 1958, the totem pole was cut in half. The top half remained in the same spot that the totem pole had always been. The bottom half was moved down the hill from the Cliff House near where the sidewalk to the Giant Camera area split off from the main sidewalk.
The two halves of the totem pole stayed in their respective spots for nearly 30 years. In 1987, the top half of the totem pole by the northeast corner of the Cliff House was relocated south of the building, but up the hill from the other half of the totem pole. Together, they lined the sidewalk up to the Cliff House for about the next 13 years. However, sometime around the year 2000, the bottom half of the totem pole, the half that was furthest away from the Cliff House, disappeared. We don’t know what happened to it.
Despite the disappearance of the lower half of the totem pole, the upper half remained in place through and after the early 2000s Cliff House remodel. When the Western Neighborhoods Project acquired historic items at the Cliff House auction earlier this year, one of those items was the totem pole. We are looking at options on what to do with the totem pole to keep it on display. We are fortunate though, that for the time being, it can stay in place by the Cliff House thanks to a special use permit with the National Park Service. Whether it can remain there or will eventually need to be moved is up in the air currently. For the time being, you can visit it by the Cliff House.
1. “Herb Caen – It’s News To Me; Tales of the Town,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 19, 1948, p. 19.