‘Naiad Cove’ Exhibit Makes History Come Alive

By Alyson Wong 

Naiad Cove, named after the Greek demigoddesses, has been a labor of love and hard work to preserve the treasures, memories and history of Lands End, the Cliff House, Sutro Heights and Ocean Beach.

“Museums and art galleries can sometimes feel elite and unapproachable,” said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history and culture of San Francisco’s western neighborhoods. She said she set out to “create a space where visitors could feel comfortable and be a part of a unique part of history.” 

Nicole Meldahl (left), executive director of Western Neighborhoods Project, and John Lindsey, founder of The Great Highway fine art gallery, stand next to one of the many artifacts saved from the Cliff House auction as part of Naiad Cove in the entryway of The Museum at the Cliff. Photos by Alyson Wong.

Many moving pieces spanning conservation, curation, installation and construction went into this development. John Lindsey, Alexandra Mitchell, and Meldahl took on the long process of saving art from the Cliff House auction in March 2021 to make the artifacts now publicly accessible in this exhibit. Getting the go ahead and support to use the space from the National Park Service was another vital part of the process. Many volunteers and docents were brought onto the team and Lindsey, of The Great Highway gallery, incorporated the work of 14 local photographers to work in dialogue with the historical aspects of the exhibition. Archival images from the Western Neighborhood Project’s photo collection, OpenSFHistory, were also sourced and integrated into this unique experience. 

What was formerly known as The Cliff House Restaurant now takes new form as the home of the site-specific activation, Naiad Cove. The special exhibition officially opened to the public at the beginning of July. It is curated by Lindsey and Meldahl. The Museum at The Cliff’s history gallery in the former Cliff House Gift Shop has also been open to the public since October 2021. 

Playland at the Beach, San Francisco’s seaside amusement park located off of Ocean Beach, was open from the 1920s through 1972 and featured concessions, rides, and attractions, including this cowboy artifact.

The museum faces west with an expansive view of the Pacific Ocean as it sits perched at the edge of Point Lobos Avenue, windswept by salty ocean breezes. Looking west, to its right is Lands End, a lush ecosystem that is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area landscape, which merges into the otherworldly ruins of the Sutro Baths. To the left is Ocean Beach and the Great Highway, the City’s western border at the Pacific’s edge. 

It’s easy to forget the history carved into this land. Members of the Yelamu Ohlone tribe were the first to live on this hillside at the shore, which they inhabited for many thousands of years. Spanish settlers arrived in 1776 and a large boom in SF cosmopolitan activity rose with the Gold Rush of 1849. 

Later in the 1880s, Adolph Sutro transformed the seaside into a popular destination and the vestiges of the changes made from then until present day are preserved in this exhibition. 

The history gallery and special exhibition envelops visitors in the sensorial sound installations of gulls, the sea and seaside attractions, which were developed by Andrew Roth. Stepping further in reveals what it would have been like to come to Sutro Baths, The Cliff House and Playland at the Beach. 

A sign salvaged from one of the long-gone Playland attractions along with photos from the amusement park will bring back memories for longtime San Franciscans.

So many stories, transformations and developments all converge like a prism in this historic building. Walking in, a simulation of the Sutro Baths takes visitors through images and artifacts showing the vibrancy of what a visit there would have been like. Original tables, chairs, menus and flatware are laid out in vignettes in the former restaurant’s bar and bistro on the other side to offer a taste of what it would have been like to dine at The Cliff House. The space opens up to a gallery of contemporary photographs that work in dialogue with the space by offering fresh perspectives on history. And the exhibit concludes with an area highlighting Playland at the Beach, featuring projections by Ben Wood. 

“Visitors have come to the exhibit with soulful sincerity, some not knowing about any of the history of these places, and others having personal experiences they recall,” Lindsey said.

Many visitors entering this immersive historical experience find themselves integrating their personal experiences, memories and shared anecdotes with history. Playland was a seaside amusement park located next to Ocean Beach.  It opened in 1913 and closed a half century ago, in 1972. Many only know the area to be the site of condos and the Safeway grocery store. 

Today, the call of gulls can still be heard. Surfers tackle the waves below, and cars are parked at Ocean Beach for visitors to stroll the promenade, the beach and admire the waves. 

Instead of the horse-drawn buggies of years past, yellow two-seater tourist GoCars bring visitors to the bluff now. A large-scale camera obscura, built in 1946, still stands on the restaurant’s observation deck. And Louis’ Diner, a stone’s throw up the hill, with its signature blue namesake sign, now only reveals blue sky through its structural frame. The sands of time have had their way here and yet some remains still signify what once was. 

It is a real treat to walk through the sensorial portal that is Naiad Cove, which catapults visitors through time, space and place. 

“Places outlive us all and it’s our job to remember,” Meldahl said. 

To register for a visit to Naiad Cove, go to outsidelands.org/Event/539. For more information about the Western Neighborhoods Project, go to outsidelands.org. Learn more about The Great Highway Gallery at thegreathighway.com, ACT Art Conservation at actartconservation.com and  OpenSFHistory at opensfhistory.org. 

A 1969 hand-painted menu board from George Whitney’s This Is It cafe at Playland At The Beach, where the famous San Franciscan IT’s IT ice cream sandwich (invented by Whitney) was also first sold to amusement goers.
Recollections, reflections and appreciations from visitors near and far fill the museum’s guest book.
View of the historic Sutro Baths, Pacific Ocean and Museum at the Cliff from the Lands End lookout.

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