History

Historians Form ‘Save the Cliff House Collection’ to Salvage Treasures

Artifacts Purchased After Landmark San Francisco Restaurant Closed Its Doors in 2020

By Janice Bressler

When the Cliff House was forced to close late last year, the neighborhood lost more than just a restaurant. The Cliff House was a kind of time capsule, its walls and floors filled with artworks and artifacts from the history of Lands End – from the towering cowboy statue (known as Sheriff C.U. Soon) originally at Playland by the Beach, to the Italian porcelain muse reliefs that once welcomed visitors to the legendary Sutro Baths. 

Luckily, 58 of the most beloved and iconic pieces from the Cliff House have been saved for the public by the energetic advocacy of a local historian, a gallery owner, and an art conservator – all from the westside neighborhoods and known collectively as Save the Cliff House Collection.

Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, stands in the historical group’s Balboa Street headquarters next to a wood carving of Monarch the grizzly bear. The likeness was named after the bear that lived in Golden Gate Park (and is represented on California’s state flag). Monarch is one of the many treasures saved after the Cliff House restaurant was closed last year. Photo by Michael Durand.

When Alexandra Mitchell, the owner and principal fine art conservator at ACT Art Conservation, learned that the Cliff House’s art works and memorabilia were slated to be auctioned off in mid-March, she knew something had to be done. She reached out to John Lindsey, owner of the Great Highway Gallery in the Outer Sunset. 

“John, we can’t let this happen, we have to save the Cliff House collection,” Mitchell said. Lindsey agreed and connected Mitchell with local historian and archivist Nicole Meldahl.  Meldahl is executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Projects, a community history nonprofit located in the Richmond District.

The trio formed Save the Cliff House Collection and launched a fundraising drive to buy as much of the Cliff House’s historical treasures as they could. In only two weeks, the group raised more than $150,000 from 441 donors.

“We never thought we would be so successful at fundraising,” Meldahl said. “I think one reason we were so successful is that people in the community are deeply emotionally connected to the Cliff House. So, a lot of people who had never contributed to a historical organization before contributed to this. Another factor, I think, was that during the pandemic, people had been watching so many of their favorite places go under, and this was something they could do something about.”

Interior view of the old redwood bar at the Cliff House in 1937 that shows etched mirrors behind the bar attributed to famed Richmond District native, photographer Ansel Adams. WNP acquired one of these panels at the Cliff House auction and you can now see it on display at their office and gallery, 1617 Balboa Street, through the end of the year. (Marilyn Blaisdell Collection courtesy of Molly Blaisdell / wnp70.0047)

According to Lindsey, the grassroots fundraising campaign succeeded primarily through small contributions.   

“But once it was clear how much community support we had, that’s when we were able to get some larger donations from organizations and individuals,” Lindsey said.  Some of those larger donors include Richard Beleson in honor of Gary Kamiya, an anonymous donor who had their wedding reception at the Cliff House, the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, the Fleishhacker Foundation, and the Sunset Heights Association for Responsible People.

“Our goal was to be able to get a representative sample of everything on display in the Cliff House,” said Meldahl.   

She added that in preparing for the auction and deciding which pieces were most historic, the collective was “very fortunate” to have the support of Dan and Mary Hountalas, operators of the Cliff House restaurant since the 1970s. In December of last year, the Hountalases announced the closure of the restaurant under their operation, saying that they were unable to reach an agreement with the National Park Service, which owns the Cliff House property.  

Interior view of the Sequoia Room at the Cliff House in 1946 showing a large ship’s wheel inset with a mirror on the far right. This massive piece saved by WNP from the Cliff House auction is allegedly from the tanker vessel Frank S. Buck, which wrecked off Lands End in 1937, and you can see it in person at their office and gallery, 1617 Balboa Street, through the end of the year. Image courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project.
 

Save the Cliff House Collection was further helped in its preparation for auction by the auction company, Rabin Worldwide, who gave the group access to the entire Cliff House collection and allowed it to inventory the pieces.

Meldahl, who did the actual bidding in the online auction said the experience of the auction itself was “terrifying … sometimes there were ten pieces, all of them on our list, that were being bid on at the same time. It was exhausting. 

“But the end result was very satisfying. We were able to get every big-ticket item that was on our list,” Meldahl said.

The Whitney totem pole is one of those pieces acquired by Save the Cliff House Collection. For Lindsey, the totem pole holds a special place in his heart. He remembers seeing it when he first arrived in San Francisco 30 years ago and being struck by how “it seemed to stand guard over Ocean Beach.”

The Cliff House wouldn’t be the same without the Whitney Family Totem Pole standing nearby. Seen in this photo from 1960, it will remain in place for at least the next year thanks to a special use permit between WNP and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Image courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

For Mitchell, a fourth-generation native San Franciscan, the piece that meant the most to her to secure is an Edwardian wooden carousel horse dating back to about 1910. 

“We believe it was one of the original carousel horses from Chutes by the Beach, which was an earlier iteration of Playland,” she said. “I think the reason that the carousel horse is very near and dear to me is that my grandfather and his brother used to play at Chutes, perhaps on this very horse. My grandfather passed away just last April at 103. A lot of the Cliff House project has been wrapped up and in honor of his memory, for me.”

Meldahl said that although her favorite keeps changing, her current favorite item in the group’s acquisition is a menu from a luncheon held in 1903 at the Cliff House in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Cliff House banquet table set for a luncheon in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt on May 13, 1903. Western Neighborhoods Project acquired one of the rare menus seen in this photo at the place settings on the table. Courtesy photo from the Western Neighborhoods Project (Marilyn Blaisdell Collection courtesy of Molly Blaisdell / wnp70.0041).

Other pieces acquired by Save the Cliff House Collection include the cowboy statue (Sheriff C.U. Soon), a pair of Sutro Baths woolen bathing suits, an oil painting of Alfred Sutro, San Francisco’s 24th mayor, and a carved wooden grizzly bear from the 1900s.

“The grizzly bear is currently in the Western Neighborhoods Project office and it’s really hilarious the reaction the bear gets from the dogs in the neighborhood. They all growl at it,” Meldahl said.

The grizzly bear is part of a group of selected items from the newly acquired pieces currently on exhibit at the Western Neighborhood Project, located at 1617 Balboa St. The exhibit is open to the public Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can also be accessed by appointment by emailing nicole@outsidelands.org.

Some of the artworks acquired are still in storage at the Dogpatch-based art center Minnesota Street Project which also provided transportation for the pieces, all at no cost. Other pieces are being conserved by Mitchell. 

“Alex has started working on conserving the oil painting of Sutro,” Meldahl said. “He was looking a little green, a little sea sick, and that’s likely because of faulty conservation work in the past.

“We’re trying to get pieces in front of people as fast as possible, and at the same time take care of and conserve these pieces which have been on display in a restaurant near the ocean for decades,” Meldahl said.

“We’ve also been working closely with the National Park Service,” she said. “They are allowing us to install a pop-up exhibition in the Cliff House Gift Shop at no cost. I’m thrilled. The Park Service is preparing the space, repairing, and painting it. We’ve secured the permits and we’re hoping to have the pieces ready to be exhibited by September of this year.”

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