History

‘Cliff Moving Picture Gallery’ Illuminates Cliff House History

By Laura Camerlengo

When the 157-year-old Cliff House restaurant closed its doors in December 2020, it was “another blow to lose an iconic restaurant in San Francisco,” said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project. Nevertheless, as one door closes, a window opens.

Meldahl and others curated an exhibit and took over the old Cliff House gift shop featuring many of their recent purchases of artifacts from the restaurant at an auction. It is called “The Museum at the Cliff.”

Local artist Ben Wood liked the museum’s goal of “reflecting on the specific story of the Cliff House over time.” For his complementary video installation, also on view at the Museum, he wondered, “What would happen if we had the opportunity to look into the windows and peel back the layers of history?” 

Volunteer Pam Wright inspects signage on the opening day of The Museum at the Cliff, Oct. 23, 2021. The former gift shop at the old Cliff House restaurant site on San Francisco’s western edge is now showing artifacts from days gone by. Photo by Nicole Meldahl, courtesy of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

Wood delved into the Western Neighborhoods Project’s OpenSFHistory website (OpenHistorySF.org) for images and worked with Prelinger Archives to secure archival footage of the site. The initial projections drew from historic tintypes.

“Next month, we will show some interesting footage of Sutro Heights Park from the 1920s, a woman looking at a zeppelin in the 1930s, people walking on the beach in the 1940s,” Wood said. The final film installment will draw from submissions from members of the Richmond and Sunset communities.

It was through passionate volunteerism and active community engagement that the gift shop of the former restaurant re-opened as The Museum at the Cliff in October 2021. The project, which remains on view through April 2022, is the brainchild of Meldahl, Alexandra Mitchell, founder and principal of ACT Art Conservation, John Lindsey of The Great Highway Gallery and artist Ben Wood. 

Visitors, including many San Franciscans for whom the Cliff House was a beloved landmark, have celebrated The Museum at the Cliff. Its realization has also been a rewarding experience for the project’s team.

“These pieces mean so much to me personally, as I am a fifth-generation San Franciscan,” Mitchell said. “I grew up celebrating every major milestone at the Cliff House.” Lindsey adds, “I am looking forward to growing this collection and sharing the entirety of it with the continued support of the community.” 

Alexandra Mitchell, founder and principal of ACT Art Conservation, works on conserving a portrait of Adolph Sutro. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Mitchell.

In the wake of the Cliff House’s closure and dispersal of its historic collections, “We decided to launch a fundraising campaign (to save the artifacts),” Meldahl recalled. “Mary and Dan Hountalas, the longtime proprietors of the Cliff House, were members of the Western Neighborhoods Project, and helped us identify the most historic artifacts in the collection so we could target our purchasing power.” The group thought they might raise a few thousand dollars and save one item. 

“Then magic happened,” Meldahl said. “In a little over two weeks, we raised more than $150,000 – more than Western Neighborhoods Project raises in an entire year.” 

For Mitchell and Lindsey, “the Western Neighborhoods Project was the most appropriate and ethical choice to be the stewards of the collection,” explains Lindsey. “We both came to the conclusion that we were not going to let these important historical pieces of the west side of San Francisco be spread about through auctioning. I am so proud of the community that supported this idea and made this all possible.” 

With the raised funds, Western Neighborhoods Project purchased more than 100 Cliff House artifacts, including most of the “big ticket items … or at least one from a series so we could have a representative sample,” Meldahl said. Mitchell and her team at ACT Art Conservation volunteered to conserve the saved artifacts.

“The conservation was quite extensive,” explained Mitchell. “An oil portrait of (Adolph) Sutro and the Playland Cowboy were both in need of serious attention. The Cowboy was outside for many years, and the paint layers (of which there are many) had deteriorated along the way. The bulk of the collection and archive are works on paper. We spent a lot of time cleaning and mending them. The biggest challenge was removing the syrup stains from the menus!”

Western Neighborhoods Project then hosted a series of community listening sessions to understand what the community hoped the group would do with the artifacts they had saved. In general, San Franciscans were keen to see the artifacts returned to their former site, which gave Meldahl the idea to contact the National Park Service.

Nicole Meldahl (left), John Lindsey (center) and Alexandra Mitchell with a Cliff House artifact purchased at auction. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Mitchell.

“The National Park Service quickly issued us a special-use permit so we could use the space for free,” Meldahl said. Although the Park Service offered the entire site, the Western Neighborhoods Project elected to use the gift shop, as it was “more attainable for a group of our size,” she explained. 

With support from historian John Martini, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Park Archives and Records Center (PARC), and the Global Museum at San Francisco State University, the group curated the space to include “objects that can tell several stories at once,”  Meldahl said. For example, a taxidermy monkey – currently in the collection of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area – reveals the story of an early museum of taxidermy once located in Sutro Baths.

“The museum never really made money, so over the years they tried other things, including a tropical beach theme in the 1930s,” Meldahl said. “They covered over some of the tanks, put in sand and palm trees, and this monkey was put into the palm tree to make it an ‘authentically tropical’ scene.”

THE CLIFF MOTION PICTURE GALLERY

The Museum at the Cliff invites submissions for the final video installment of The Cliff Moving Picture Gallery, a unique after-dark projected video artwork that animates the windows of the Cliff House with images from its own history. Become part of if the show. 

What is your Cliff House history? If you have photos, films or videos of your time with friends and family at the former Cliff House or the area around it, email jpeg files to:  wood.ben1@gmail.com by Feb. 15. Submissions are also welcome on Instagram: tag @outsidelandz or @benwoodstudio #mycliffhousesf. Photos with a minimum resolution of 300 dpi are preferred for archival purposes. If you are not able to scan, you can take a photo with your digital camera or iPhone at 72 dpi. If you have any questions feel free to email wood.ben1@gmail.com. Video projections will be on view through March 2022. 

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