by Frank Dunnigan
As everyone knows, times and traditions are constantly changing. People, places, and things that are popular today, might easily fade from the scene to be replaced with something new. Thanks to the vast photo archives of OpenSFHistory and Western Neighborhoods Project, though, it is easy and enjoyable to take a few glances back to some memorable holiday images from San Francisco’s past.
Looking north on West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel, December 26, 1956. (wnp25.1549; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Local merchants from many neighborhoods bolstered holiday spirit with street decorations. From the Richmond and Sunset districts to the shopping areas of the Ingleside, Mission, Excelsior, Marina, and more, good wishes and holiday décor were highly visible around town. This scene shows West Portal Avenue in December of 1956 at a time when West Portal School, perched high above the Twin Peaks Tunnel, still had both of its main buildings.
West Portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel, 1958. (wnp32.2774; Emiliano Echeverria Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
For a few consecutive years in the late 1950s, West Portal Avenue merchants decorated the façade of the Twin Peaks Tunnel to look like a fireplace, complete with candles and gift-filled stockings.
Christmas tree outside McLaren Lodge, December 1932. (wnp27.5562; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The tree growing in front of McLaren Lodge at Fell & Stanyan Streets has been lighted annually since 1932. For many years, it was a destination (along with the Shriner’s Hospital tree on 19th Avenue and the Living Nativity scene in Golden Gate Park’s Lindley Meadow) for families with children to make a nighttime drive-by viewing, with wide-eyed kids often dressed in their jammies and tucked snugly into the backseat. Read Woody LaBounty’s 2017 article about how this tradition of lighting living trees evolved from the San Francisco Examiner’s practice of cutting down an enormous tree and then erecting/lighting it on Christmas Tree Road atop Twin Peaks in the 1920s
Civic Center Plaza Christmas tree, December 26, 1933. (wnp26.146; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
For many years, Civic Center Plaza in front of San Francisco’s City Hall was home to a very large Christmas tree display. The plaza has undergone numerous remodels over the years and the patterned brick pavement is long gone.
View west along Chestnut Street at Scott with Christmas decorations, 1950. (wnp28.1687; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Chestnut and Scott Streets in the Marina, still served by the F-line streetcars, were bedecked with silver tinsel, stars, and bells in 1950. Streetcar service on Chestnut Street ended on January 19, 1951 and MUNI’s 30-Stockton bus line took over.
Christmas decorations along Geary Boulevard at 5th Avenue, December 1963. (wnp25.4817; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Fifth Avenue & Geary Boulevard, looking east, shows a variety of sparkling stars and trees along the planted median in December of 1963.
VMuni Presidio carhouse at Geary and Masonic decorated for holidays, January 1952. (wnp32.2303; Emiliano Echeverria Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
MUNI’s car house at Geary & Masonic displays a row of green wreaths decorated with red in 1952. The World War I-era building, designed to serve streetcars, has long been a bus maintenance facility.
Christmas decorations at Shell gas station at southeast corner of Baker and Fell Streets, December 1927. (wnp4.1895; Christopher Helin, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Many gas stations of the past were prime locations for oversized holiday decorations, such as this 1927 display at the Shell station located at Baker & Fell Streets (current site of the local DMV office).
Associated Gas station at Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue with Christmas decorations, circa 1949. (Courtesy of Bud Sandkulla)
This multi-level Flying A gas station, located at the southeast corner of Ocean Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard in the shadow of a PG&E substation, was decked out in a veritable winter wonderland of holiday décor circa 1949. A bank building replaced the station circa 1980.
Christmas decorations lining Mission Street at 18th Avenue, circa 1956. (wnp14.1596; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Mission Street merchants combined tinsel with stars, snowflakes, and red Mission bells in the neighborhood’s holiday display from 1956.
Engine Company 43 firehouse at 724 Brazil Street decorated for holidays, December 1949. (wnp27.7381.jpg; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
For several years after World War II, San Francisco firehouses competed among themselves in outdoor holiday lighting contests. This was the display installed by Engine Company 43 at 724 Brazil Avenue (between Athens and Vienna) in 1949. The Mission Revival building, constructed in 1911 when SFFD was still heavily reliant on horses, was eventually decommissioned and converted into two residential units. The SFFD revived this holiday firehouse decorating tradition last year and this year.
Engine Company 38 firehouse at northwest corner of San Jose and Ocean Avenues, December 1949. (wnp27.7379; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Engine Company 38 at the NW corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenues in 1949. The old wooden building was demolished in the late 1950s when it was replaced with a new structure farther west on Ocean Avenue. This corner of Ocean and San Jose Avenues is now a skateboard park.
The Largest Gift Shop in the World: A Closer Look
by Arnold Woods
The Museum at The Cliff has been operating out of the former Cliff House Gift Shop for about two months now and has been attracting a lot of visitors. Above the entrance, the gift shop sign is still there and we do get some people wandering in with the mistaken impression that a gift shop still exists there. This gift shop is not that big, but is a good size for our museum. Long-time Outside Landers will remember though, that there once was a much, much bigger gift shop by the Cliff House.
First Cliff House and Shed, circa 1868. (wnp37.00647-R; Lawrence & Houseworth, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
It may surprise some now, but there used to be a string of buildings between the Cliff House and Louie’s at Lands End. As early as the 1860s, a horse shed was built next to the Cliff House, in which the horses and carriages of visitors could be parked. However, later proprietors would find other uses for this stretch along Point Lobos Avenue.
Sutro Baths entrance and concession stands along Point Lobos Avenue, circa 1920. (wnp4/wnp4.0279; Photographer Unknown (Courtesy of a Private Collector)
By the 1920s, much of the shed space had been converted to concession stands, selling food and curios that were attractive to visitors. Unfortunately, Prohibition put a crimp in the Cliff House’s business. It’s then proprietor, Richard “Shorty” Roberts,” tried to keep it afloat as a coffee establishment, but was forced to close in October 1925.1 Some of the various concession stands remained open in the area, but the loss of a prime attraction in the area surely hurt.
Cliff House Gift Shop building, circa 1948. (wnp37.01544.jpg; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
With the Cliff House still closed, the Sutro estate sold it and the food/concession buildings to George and Leo Whitney, the proprietors of Playland in December 1936.2 They immediately commenced a $75,000 remodeling of the area. On August 5, 1937, the Cliff House reopened.3 In addition to the restaurant, the Whitney brothers also remodeled the concession stands into a large gift shop, which opened thereafter.4
View of post card bins at Cliff House Gift Shop, March 15, 1947. (wnp70.0057; Gabriel Moulin, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
The Whitneys, seasoned promoters from their years running Playland, declared the Cliff House Gift Shop to be the “World’s Largest” gift shop. Whether it was the largest gift shop in the world has not been something that we have been able to confirm, but there was certainly a lot of space and a lot of items to buy there. Above is the post card department with thousands of post cards in the bins.
Crowded Cliff House Gift Shop, 1949. (wnp70.0056; Gabriel Moulin, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
The gift shop was big enough to handle hundreds of people as the above image confirms. We believe the antique bicycles in the overhead racks were items of historical interest being displayed as part of the Cliff House bicycle collection. Above the shoppers on the left side of the image, one can see historic images of the Cliff House. Clearly, the Whitneys were trying to create an “experience” at their large gift shop to attract the crowds.
Ito’s mother sculpture in Cliff House Gift Shop, October 1953. (wnp12.00310; Courtesy of David Gallagher)
Among the curios in the Cliff House Gift Shop were two wood sculptures carved in the 1870s by Japanese artist Ito Hamashi, one of himself and one of his mother. Adolph Sutro had displayed them at his museum in the Sutro Baths, but the Whitneys eventually moved them to the gift shop. They also sold postcards of them in the gift shop. We have a postcard of the sculpture of Ito’s mother in our museum now.
Cliff House and Gift Shop along Point Lobos Avenue, November 6, 1946. (wnp37.01551; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
As with so many other structures at Lands End, the gift shop building met its demise in a fire. On November 12, 1963, a five-alarm blaze broke out in the structure at about 5:30 p.m.5 The fire injured eight firemen, but they saved both the Cliff House and the Sutro Baths. After about 100 years of a long stretch of buildings heading up the hill from the Cliff House, there was now a gap. The gap would grow larger three years later when another fire destroyed the Sutro Baths and Danny’s Cliff Chalet. Today that gap makes for a great vantage point of the Sutro Baths ruins and Seal Rocks.
1. “Lights Out at Cliff House,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 1925, p. 3.
2. “Cliff House Sale Approved by Court,” San Francisco Call, December 15, 1936.
3. “Famous Cliff House Reopens After 13 Years,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 1937, p. 14.
4. “Largest Gift Shop,” San Francisco Examiner, April 2, 1938, p. 8.
5. “Big Fire At Cliff House,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 1963, p. 1.