The Cliff House opened in 1863 and ever since has provided a grand view of Ocean Beach and the properties fronting upon it. As a destination spot for both San Franciscans and tourists, that view has been photographed repeatedly over the last 150 years. In fact, that view drew photographers even before the Cliff House was built as we will see as we begin our review of pictures from that spot over the years.
In this mid-1850s image looking southeast from the future site of the Cliff House, we see a desolate land of sand with only a few buildings at the north end of Ocean Beach. There is no Seal Rock House yet–it will be built in 1857. There is also no Golden Gate Park yet as it is still over a decade away from work beginning on it. In fact, nearly all the land you see is outside San Francisco city limits, which at that time ended in the area of Divisidero Street today.
Moving forward about a decade to the mid-1860s, we now see the Seal Rock House at the north end of Ocean Beach. There is still a small cluster of buildings nearby, but Golden Gate Park has still not been started yet, so there are just miles and miles of sand dunes, rocks, and scrub brush to be seen in the distance.
A couple of decades later in the mid-1880s, this view is now dominated by the appearance of the Ocean Beach Pavilion. It opened on June 14, 1884 and would last for nearly 90 years, going through many iterations. The Seal Rock Inn still stands just to the north of the Ocean Beach Pavilion. Though largely unseen in this view, Golden Gate Park is beginning to take form just beyond the pavilion.
At the turn of the century, this area has grown to include more establishments and a lot of trees throughout Golden Gate Park. Besides the previously seen Seal Rock House and Ocean Beach Pavilion, we now see the Olympic Saltwater Pump Station (with the large chimney structure) and the Olympic or Lurline Pier that stretches into the ocean with the pipes that the ocean water is being pumped through. Further to the south are the Cycler’s Rest, Sheehan’s Tavern, and the original Beach Chalet on the west side of the Great Highway. Of course, this is the Sutro grand Cliff House era, which would only last until 1907.
Approximately ten years later around 1910, the view is largely the same, but with two noticeable additions. Golden Gate Park now has two windmills fronting the northwest and southwest corners of the park. The Dutch Windmill at the north end was completed in 1903 and the Murphy Windmill at the south end was finished in 1908. The Beach Chalet still sits on the other side of the Great Highway from what we are now used to and they have yet to start building the seawall. Clearly, Ocean Beach is a very popular spot.
A dozen years later in 1922, some significant city improvements to the area are now seen. Point Lobos Road down past the Cliff House to the Great Highway is now paved. Down on Ocean Beach, the northern part of the seawall has been constructed with the esplanade and plenty of parking. It ends near the Beach Chalet, still sitting on the ocean side of the Great Highway. Meanwhile, the Playland predecessor, Chutes at the Beach, is beginning to grow. You can see the Shoot the Chutes ride just beyond the Ocean Beach pavilion in this view.
In this 1938 view, the expansion of Playland can be seen. It now covers the whole area from the Ocean Beach Pavilion at Balboa down to Fulton and the Dutch windmill in Golden Gate Park. The Shoot the Chutes ride can still be seen at the north end of Playland, while the Big Dipper rollercoaster can be seen at the south end. Additionally, the Ocean Beach seawall and esplanade have now been built all the way down to Lincoln Way at the south side of Golden Gate Park. They were able to construct this extension in part because the old Beach Chalet had been moved and the new one was erected on the east side of the Great Highway. It opened in 1925.
Let’s inject a little color into our view with this image from March 1956. The Ocean Beach Pavilion is now being operated as the Surf Club. Much of the rest of the area remains the same, but the Shoot the Chutes ride has disappeared from view, having been torn down in 1950. You can also see people sitting toward the bottom of the seawall. That’s because there are bleacher style seats at the bottom of the seawall that are now largely covered up by sand.
By June 1968, the Ocean Beach Pavilion had been transformed again, this time as the home of the Model Car Raceway. There is not a whole lot left of Playland by this time. The Big Dipper and most other rides are gone. The Fun House was still there though. The rest of Playland would close after Labor Day in 1972 and torn down. Another departure is the Lurline Pier which supplied salt water to the Olympic Club downtown. It was torn down a year or two prior to this picture after the Olympic Club switched to fresh water.
Over 50 years later, we get our final look at this view in January 2021. Much of what was once at the north end of Ocean Beach is gone. The Seal Rock House, Ocean Beach Pavilion, and Playland have all been removed and replaced with condos and a Safeway. We still have the windmills and the Beach Chalet though. How will this view change in the next 50 years? Only time will tell.