CCLaP Fridays: Sutro’s Glass Palace, by John A. Martini

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Sutro’s Glass Palace: The Story of Sutro Baths
By John A. Martini, Illustrated by Lawrence Ormsby
Hole in the Head Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The Sutro Baths were a spectacular San Francisco landmark no one has heard of. Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, and Alcatraz, the Sutro Baths exist now only as a series of ruins. John A. Martini, a San Francisco-based researcher and lecturer, has written Sutro’s Glass Palace: the Story of Sutro Baths for Hole in the Head Press. Lavishly illustrated by Lawrence Orsmby, the book includes architectural renderings of the Sutro Baths, along with archival photographs and other ephemera. The Sutro Baths occupied the San Francisco coastline from 1894 to 1966. Built by mining mogul Adolph Sutro, it was meant as an example of his noblesse oblige. Sutro himself has a biography that sounds too crazy to be real. Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro immigrated from Aachen, Germany, to the United States during the Gold Rush. He worked at various mines, engineered the deep shafts that de-watered and ventilated the Comstock Lode, and was the Mayor of San Francisco on the Populist ticket.

One of his many dreams involved building a monumental series of baths for San Francisco. Looking at the ruins and the architectural renderings, many historical associations come to mind. With its massive expanse of glass windows, an immediate parallel might be The Crystal Palace associated with The Great Exhibition of 1851. Since the Sutro Baths were meant for amusement, a geographically close counterpart is The Saltair Pavilion in Saltair, Utah. The ruins of the large-scale Victorian-era amusement park were hauntingly captured in the 1962 horror film, Carnival of Souls. (Saltair was built in 1893, one year before the Sutro Baths. Like the Baths, Saltair met a fiery demise in 1925.) Adolph Sutro also had grandiose ideas about the Baths, likening them to the Baths of Caracalla. In order to fully comprehend the scale of the Sutro Baths, Martini includes some phenomenal statistics. Here are a few: “Length of Baths: 499.5 feet.” “Amount of glass used: 100,000 superficial ft.” “Iron in roof columns: 600 tons.” “Lumber: 3,500,000 feet.” “Concrete: 270,000 cubic feet.” “Capacity of tanks: 1,804,962 gallons.”

The Sutro Baths encompassed more than just the large swimming pools. The complex included a museum and a promenade. One could see the Sutro Baths as an early antecedent to big city sports stadiums that also function as concert venues. Sutro snatched up museum exhibits from the Midwinter Exhibition, a smaller-scale West Coast version of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. Unfortunately, the Baths never lived up to Sutro’s ideals. Plagued by safety concerns and constant pummeling from the Pacific Ocean, the glass constantly needed replacing. Low attendance numbers also didn’t help. After his death, his daughter, Dr. Emma Sutro Everett, California’s first female physician, tried in earnest to sell the Baths.

The Baths weren’t sold until 1952, when George Whitney, a local real estate magnate, bought them for cheap. Throughout the years and change of ownership, the large swimming pools became burdensome to operate. Whitney shuttered the baths and focused more on making the Sutro Baths an amusement park of sorts. Like The House on the Rock, he packed the facility with his “collection of collections.” The Sutro Baths hobbled on until it was slated for demolition. Amidst the demolition process, a fire broke out and the entire grand edifice collapsed into a heap of molten glass and twisted iron. Today the ruins face depredation from the elements, so this book has done a notable public service by raising awareness for the site’s historic significance.

Martini’s book is also notable for its unflinching depiction of the Sutro Baths in operation. This includes peppering the account with reprints from San Francisco newspapers recounting safety accidents and an alleged murder at the Baths. (The murder soon proved anticlimactic when it was revealed the victim had a weak heart and got sucked into one of the drainage pipes.) There was also a case of the Sutro Baths turning away an African-American patron. Despite its monumental footprint and Adolph Sutro’s good intentions, the rigid racial codes of Jim Crow still persisted, even in a city as progressive and forward-thinking as San Francisco.

Martini’s book is a wonderful example of local history, interspersing documentary accounts with architectural rendering and examples of Baths-related ephemera. It also fits well with the program Hole in the Head Press has established. Like its other titles, Sutro’s Glass Palace is a locally relevant history that is spectacular and a just a little bit odd. Other odd local history books Hole in the Head Press has published include Rings of Supersonic Steel: Air Defenses of the United States Army 1950-1979 and The Last Missile Site: An Operational and Physical History of Nike Site SF-88, Fort Barry, California.

Out of 10/9.0

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