Adolph Sutro and the Ruins of the Sutro Baths

By Mary Weppler.

Published by The International Journal of Arts Theory and History

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: July 3, 2014 $US5.00

The Sutro Baths (1894–1966) was a glass enclosed natatorium complex comprised of several large swimming pools innovatively engineered with an elaborate pipe system that drew water directly from the ocean. Completed in 1894 and opened officially to the public in 1896, it was also home to an eclectic museum and three restaurants. Adolph Sutro (1830–1899) designed the natatorium as part of a larger entertainment development that included a Bavarian inspired castle known as the Cliff House, a tree-lined park with classical statues, and an amusement parkway. During its first decades, the Sutro Baths was host to elaborate aquatic performances, orchestras, and vaudeville-style entertainments. Located in what was, at the time, the desolate inhospitably foggy area of San Francisco, it was an affordable entertainment for individuals from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, even having its own rail line to take visitors from and back to the more densely populated areas of the city. Since 1966, the ruins of the burned and demolished baths have been left to the devices of nature, except for the occasional painting over of graffiti. This paper presents an iconographical analysis of the Sutro Baths ruins. Drawing directly from Erwin Panofsky’s (1892–1968) iconological theory, in addition to Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) definition of the aura, the following analysis will include an assessment of the ruins’ expressive qualities, first through a visit to the site, followed by a brief biographical overview of its creator, Adolph Sutro, and concluding with a summary of the historical context of the site. This analysis will reveal ideas of amusement, cultural edification, and the nineteenth century architectural interest in the containment of nature within artificial environments. In direct contrast to this containment or mastery of nature is posed the paradox of the architectural ruin and the slow steady reclamation of nature.

Keywords: Adolph Sutro, Sutro Baths, Ruins

The International Journal of Arts Theory and History, Volume 8, Issue 2, July 2014, pp.79-88. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: July 3, 2014 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 639.220KB)).

Mary Weppler

Archivist, Physical Planning, Design & Construction, University of California, Merced, CA, USA

I have a Master of Arts degree in a special major (art history and humanities) from California State University, Sacramento. I am also an alumni of Oxford-Brookes University in Oxford, England, and completed most of my graduate work as an exchange student at this institution. My master's thesis explored the ruins of a 1923 movie set in the Guadalupe desert (Central California coast).