The Sutro Baths
In 1888, Adolph Sutro, “King of the Comstock” and one of the wealthiest men in America, was finally in a position to fulfill a life long dream -- to build a Public Bath that would rival in magnitude the beauty and utility of the Roman Baths of Nero, Titus, Caracalla and Diocletian.
Sutro came by this dream naturally enough. He was born in Aachen, Prussia, a city with a rich history as Charlemagne’s imperial city and a spa culture that had enchanted the ancient Romans. Before Charlemagne imitated the Romans and swam in the warm waters of his Pfalz, the Romans had discovered Aachenís springs and took their cure in its warm waters. The name Aachen came from the Romans, who named the spa town after the Celtic god of water and health. Today, Aachen is filled with springs, spas, and fountains -- all testaments to Aachení’s historical and current importance as a spa town.
Sutro arrived in California, in 1850, at the age of twenty, shortly after gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill. He was a clothier by trade, a mining engineer by education and an entrepreneurial visionary. He made his fortune by solving the problem of ventilating and draining the deep mines of the Comstock Lode. Then he used his underground expertise to excavate tunnels for railroads. He invested his fortune in San Francisco real estate. By 1881, he owned ten percent of all the land in San Francisco, including the Cliff House and a large track of land on the Pacific coast.
For Adolph Sutro, the idea of an ocean bathing bathhouse to increase the value of his oceanfront land holdings in San Francisco was impractical. The Pacific Ocean was always cold and as Mark Twain famously said, San Francisco summers were like the coldest of winters. Instead, he decided to build an indoor, heated bathing complex, that would rival the architectural and engineering achievements of any bath built in ancient Rome or by our modern pool designers.
Sutro began planning his lavish Bath in 1888, offering a $500 prize for their design. Architects C.J. Colley and Emil S. Lemme, who also designed his magnificent Cliff House, won the prize.
In 1894, after years of amazing engineering and design work, a long fight with the Southern Pacific over railway access, and the investment of over a million dollars in the project, Sutro had his natatorium. The official opening to the public wasn't until 1896, but private events, tours, and splashes had been hosted for almost two years.
Like the Roman Baths, Sutro offered more than just bathing to his customers. There were promenades and pavilions with sequestered alcoves, galleries, mazy staircases and corridors adorned with tropical plants, fountains, flowers, art and artifacts, including Egyptian mummies, specimens of Aztec pottery, Chinese swords, a collection of stuffed birds and animals, a North American Indian Totem and other treasures that Sutro had collected from his travels. In time, he added a small amusement park.
From the promenades and museum gallery, visitors reached the Baths either by walking down grand stairways or by descending in spacious elevators. There were five hundred private dressing rooms, perfectly ventilated, heated, lighted by electricity, furnished with showers, soap, toweling, bathing suits and all necessary toilet articles. All bathers were required to use the establishment’s suits.