by Arnold Woods
The Museum at The Cliff has been operating out of the former Cliff House Gift Shop for about two months now and has been attracting a lot of visitors. Above the entrance, the gift shop sign is still there and we do get some people wandering in with the mistaken impression that a gift shop still exists there. This gift shop is not that big, but is a good size for our museum. Long-time Outside Landers will remember though, that there once was a much, much bigger gift shop by the Cliff House.
It may surprise some now, but there used to be a string of buildings between the Cliff House and Louie’s at Lands End. As early as the 1860s, a horse shed was built next to the Cliff House, in which the horses and carriages of visitors could be parked. However, later proprietors would find other uses for this stretch along Point Lobos Avenue.
By the 1920s, much of the shed space had been converted to concession stands, selling food and curios that were attractive to visitors. Unfortunately, Prohibition put a crimp in the Cliff House’s business. It’s then proprietor, Richard “Shorty” Roberts,” tried to keep it afloat as a coffee establishment, but was forced to close in October 1925.1 Some of the various concession stands remained open in the area, but the loss of a prime attraction in the area surely hurt.
With the Cliff House still closed, the Sutro estate sold it and the food/concession buildings to George and Leo Whitney, the proprietors of Playland in December 1936.2 They immediately commenced a $75,000 remodeling of the area. On August 5, 1937, the Cliff House reopened.3 In addition to the restaurant, the Whitney brothers also remodeled the concession stands into a large gift shop, which opened thereafter.4
The Whitneys, seasoned promoters from their years running Playland, declared the Cliff House Gift Shop to be the “World’s Largest” gift shop. Whether it was the largest gift shop in the world has not been something that we have been able to confirm, but there was certainly a lot of space and a lot of items to buy there. Above is the post card department with thousands of post cards in the bins.
The gift shop was big enough to handle hundreds of people as the above image confirms. We believe the antique bicycles in the overhead racks were items of historical interest being displayed as part of the Cliff House bicycle collection. Above the shoppers on the left side of the image, one can see historic images of the Cliff House. Clearly, the Whitneys were trying to create an “experience” at their large gift shop to attract the crowds.
Among the curios in the Cliff House Gift Shop were two wood sculptures carved in the 1870s by Japanese artist Ito Hamashi, one of himself and one of his mother. Adolph Sutro had displayed them at his museum in the Sutro Baths, but the Whitneys eventually moved them to the gift shop. They also sold postcards of them in the gift shop. We have a postcard of the sculpture of Ito’s mother in our museum now.
As with so many other structures at Lands End, the gift shop building met its demise in a fire. On November 12, 1963, a five-alarm blaze broke out in the structure at about 5:30 p.m.5 The fire injured eight firemen, but they saved both the Cliff House and the Sutro Baths. After about 100 years of a long stretch of buildings heading up the hill from the Cliff House, there was now a gap. The gap would grow larger three years later when another fire destroyed the Sutro Baths and Danny’s Cliff Chalet. Today that gap makes for a great vantage point of the Sutro Baths ruins and Seal Rocks.
1. “Lights Out at Cliff House,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 1925, p. 3.
2. “Cliff House Sale Approved by Court,” San Francisco Call, December 15, 1936.
3. “Famous Cliff House Reopens After 13 Years,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 1937, p. 14.
4. “Largest Gift Shop,” San Francisco Examiner, April 2, 1938, p. 8.
5. “Big Fire At Cliff House,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 1963, p. 1.