Artist Projects Insights into the history of Cliff House from the iconic SF Building Museum – NBC’s Bay Area


The history of San Francisco’s famous Cliff House, on the city’s western outskirts, is as long and eventful as the waves crashing below where the building’s third incarnation stands.

But now, at the end of each day, as the sun slips behind the fog, a Bay Area visual artist shines a light on part of that story, in a series of nightly projections through the building’s windows.

Artist Ben Wood uses a trio of projectors to project hundreds of rotating images, showing some of the people who have flocked to the West Coast over the past 150 years.

“What attracts me most of all is showing the faces of the people who have been here for decades,” said Wood.

The pictures show an evolving beach style, from voluminous dresses and suits to the less formal outfits of more recent times. They show the three incarnations of the Cliff House itself, from its 1863 Spartan building to the great Victorian Adolph Sutro. Both buildings burned down. The current building was built in 1909 by Sutro’s daughter, and despite extensive renovations, it more or less survives in its original state.

“I often think about what would happen if you had to show an extra layer of history,” said Wood, “to unveil those stories behind the building.”

Wood’s projections emanate from inside a temporary museum currently occupying the building’s now empty gift shop. Late last year, the longtime operators of the Cliff House restaurant announced they were shutting down permanently after failing to agree on a lease with the National Park Service that manages the site. The loss of the restaurant after nearly half a century has left the building closed and silent.

In March, the Western Neighborhoods Project, a small history group focused on the west end of San Francisco, purchased nearly a hundred historic Cliff House artifacts that restorers were preparing to auction. The objects are now in the museum while the park department searches for a new restaurant tenant.

“The idea is that you can really discover the history of this place – in this place,” said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

The museum includes vintage swimwear from the Sutro baths, decorative plates, and even a bust of Adolph Sutro himself.

Wood is currently showing stills of the history of Cliff House, but plans to include historical films soon in partnership with the Prelinger Film Archive. The installation, projected through three windows to the north, airs from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. each evening and runs through April 9. Viewing is free. Wood is also appealing to the public to submit personal photos of Cliff House memorabilia for future screening on the site.

“So what I do through video and moving images and projection,” said Wood, “is trying to add to the story, trying to bring back some of the stories that you don’t normally see.”

The images can go back decades, but Meldahl noted that the sounds of the ocean serving as the region’s soundtrack are the same sounds that would have accompanied the original photographers when they clicked their shutters.

“You get the larger context of what these people were going through when they were here,” said Meldahl, sitting inside the small museum, “because you feel the same time, you are in the same environment.”

The western outskirts of San Francisco are teeming with ghosts from history – from the bygone Playland Amusement Park to the Beach, the Sutro Baths, and the Fleishhacker Pool. The Cliff House and the ruins of the baths continue to attract countless visitors. Wood hopes the photo screenings will also give people a reason to visit.

“It’s just fascinating to watch the time go by,” said Wood. “And since people don’t really change, we still like to go down to the seaside and have fun.”


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