Camera Obscura: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

Perched on the back patio of the Cliff House, the Camera Obscura or Giant Camera offers panoramic views of Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The history of camera obscuras date back thousands of years and the technology is simple. Light passes through a small hole in a box or room to a surface where the image is reflected in an inverted and reversed fashion. The basic design used for centuries is purportedly based on one created by Leonardo da Vinci. The Camera Obscura at the Cliff House is not the first one in San Francisco.

Balloon ascension ride at Woodward's Gardens, 1874.Balloon ascension ride at Woodward’s Gardens, 1874. (wnp27.6101; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The first known camera obscura in San Francisco was located at Woodward’s Gardens that was located in the area of Mission and 14th Streets. Although we have a number of images of Woodward’s Gardens in our collection, we do not have any that have its Camera Obscura identified in the picture. However, it was described as being in the area near the balloon ascension ride seen in the above image. Woodward’s Gardens closed in 1891 and the Woodward family auctioned off everything. We do not know for certain what became of its Camera Obscura, though there is some speculation below.

Haight Street Chutes waterslide ride with Camera Obscura at top of Chutes Tower, circa 1900.Haight Street Chutes waterslide ride with Camera Obscura at top of Chutes Tower, circa 1900. (wnp37.03559; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

In August 1898, the Haight Street Chutes began advertising a Camera Obscura. At the top of the Chutes tower, Charles Ackerman had a Japanese-style structure built with a Camera Obscura in it. When passengers got to the top of the tower, they went through the structure and got a panoramic view of the area around the Chutes courtesy of the Camera Obscura, before the ride returned them to the bottom. The Haight Street Chutes closed on March 16, 1902 with the operation moving over to Fulton Street. Although the waterslide tower at the Fulton Chutes had a similar Japanese-style structure at the top, we have found no mention of it also having a Camera Obscura.

View southwest along Cliff Avenue to second Cliff House, circa 1900.View southwest along Cliff Avenue to second Cliff House, circa 1900. (wnp4/wnp4.0564; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Adolph Sutro’s grand Cliff House that opened in 1896 also had a Camera Obscura. Again, we do not have any images of this Camera Obscura, however, a Taber Photography brochure from the era stated that the fourth floor contained the largest Camera Obscura west of Chicago. Here’s our speculation. When Woodward’s Gardens closed, Adolph Sutro purchased much of it at the auction, much like he would later do at the end of the 1894 Midwinter Fair. Perhaps Sutro purchased the Camera Obscura from Woodward’s Gardens and then later had it installed on the fourth floor of the Cliff House. Wherever this Camera Obscura came from, it was destroyed with the Cliff House when it burned down in 1907.

Camera Obscura, circa 1949. (Courtesy of the Cliff House Project)

When Emma Sutro Merritt built a new Cliff House and opened it in 1909, there was no Camera Obscura included. The Whitney Brothers bought the Cliff House in 1937 and in the late 1940s, they did some remodeling to make it look more like a roadhouse diner. Around this time, the Whitneys were approached by Floyd Jennings about building a new Camera Obscura on the back patio. They approved it as an extension of Playland-at-the-Beach which they also owned. Construction was completed and opened by 1949. It featured a rotating lens on the roof to provide 360-degree views. Life Magazine featured an article about Jennings’ Camera Obscura in 1954.

Cliff House and Camera Obscura viewed from Sutro Heights, 1973.Cliff House and Camera Obscura viewed from Sutro Heights, 1973. (wnp28.2606; © Greg Gaar Photography (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Around 1957, George Whitney suggested to Jennings that the Camera Obscura building be remodeled to resemble an actual camera. Jennings and his assistant, Gene Tuttle, did the work and the Camera Obscura had its now-familiar facade. This is known as a “signature” or “duck” style of architecture where the building advertises itself through its unique shape. To accomplish this remodel, the structure was widened on the sides to give it the appearance of a Brownie camera.

Giant Camera, February 2016. (Courtesy of Arnold Woods)

In addition to the remodel, the Camera Obscura began to be called the Giant Camera to take advantage of its new shape. Large letters spelling out the new name were placed on the side of the building facing Point Lobos Avenue, although the Camera Obscura name was still retained over the front door.

Giant Camera and Cliff House from Ocean Beach, 1990s.Giant Camera and Cliff House from Ocean Beach, 1990s. (wnp07.00418; Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review)

When Playland closed in 1972, the future of the Camera Obscura was threatened, but public support saved it. In 1979, a collection of holographic images was added inside. When the Cliff House was going through a remodel in the early 2000s, the National Park Service wanted to remove it from the premises. However, another campaign to save it resulted in the Camera Obscura being added to the National Register of Historic Places. As such, the Camera Obscura can not be removed or demolished.

Giant Camera, January 2023. (Courtesy of Arnold Woods)

The Camera Obscura faced a new challenge with the recent storms. The high winds tore off the part of the structure that had been added to the southeast side during the 1957 widening and caused damage to the roof. Fortunately, the camera itself inside was not harmed and still works. Hopefully, insurance will pay for its full repair, but we will be keeping an eye on it to see if further fundraising becomes necessary.

Read more about the Giant Camera and listen to our Giant Camera podcast.