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On March 14, 1896, the Sutro Baths were opened to the public as the world's largest indoor swimming pool establishment. The baths were built on the sleepy western side of San Francisco by wealthy entrepreneur and former mayor of San Francisco (1894–1896), Adolph Sutro. The vast glass, iron, wood, and reinforced concrete structure was mostly hidden, and filled a small beach inlet below the Cliff House, also owned by Adolph Sutro at the time. Both the Cliff House and the former baths site are now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and operated by the United States National Park Service.
A visitor to the baths not only had a choice of seven different swimming pools—one fresh water and six salt water baths ranging in temperatures—but could also visit a museum displaying Sutro's large and varied personal collection of artifacts from his travels, a concert hall, seating for 8,000, and, at one time, an ice skating rink. During high tides, water would flow directly into the pools from the nearby ocean, recycling the two million US gallons (7,600 m³) of water in about an hour. During low tides, a powerful turbine water pump, built inside a cave at sea level, could be switched on from a control room and could fill the tanks at a rate of 6,000 US gallons a minute (380 L/s), recycling all the water in five hours.
At the Sutro Baths, Sutro also maintained an extensive collection of stuffed and mounted animals, historic artifacts, and artwork, much of which he acquired from the Woodward's Gardens estate sale in 1894.
The baths were once serviced by a rail line, the Ferries and Cliff House Railroad, which ran along the cliffs of Lands End overlooking the Golden Gate. The route ran from the baths to a terminal at California Street and Central Avenue (now Presidio Avenue).
The baths struggled for years, mostly due to the very high operating and maintenance costs. Shortly after closing, a fire in 1966 destroyed the building while it was in the process of being demolished. All that remains of the site are concrete walls, blocked off stairs and passageways, and a tunnel with a deep crevice in the middle. The Sutro Bath ruins are open to the public, but a warning sign advises strict caution, stating "People have been swept from the rocks and drowned."
Currently, visitors coming to the Sutro Baths from the above parking lot are presented with a sign that describes the history of Sutro Baths starting from its construction and glamorous opening to the public in 1896. Another sign describes the later years of the site's history up until its demolition and complete destruction by fire in 1966. As one walks up out of the ruins toward the historic Cliff House, home to two full service restaurants: "Sutro’s at the Cliff House" and "The Bistro", as well as the "Terrace Room", a private Dining/reception room, one can find other pictures, paintings, and relics from the golden age of Sutro Baths’ functional operation.
Seal Rock is just offshore from the bath ruins.
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Several films are stored by the Library of Congress as part of the American Memory collection and available for viewing online.
The baths are featured in a scene in the 1971 film Harold and Maude in which Harold pretends to assault Maude while she acts the part of a war protester, in order to convince Harold's uncle (a high-ranking military man) that he is unfit for service. Maude "falls" down a hole in the ground and disappears after Harold grabs her protest sign and chases her with it, striking her and calling her various names such as "Commie!"
Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End is a 2011 documentary by Tom Wyrsch includes footage and photographs of the Baths, Sutro Railway, Cliff House, ice skating rink, Egyptian Mummy Museum, Musee Mecanique, and the Giggling Ghost.
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