The Cliff House’s art and historical artifacts will be auctioned on March 11-13, piece by piece. Local historical societies, art conservators and galleries hope to raise $150,000 to keep the art in San Francisco and available for public view.
The 157-year-old restaurant, owned by Dan and Mary Hountalas since 1973, closed shop at the end of last year due to the pandemic and an expiring contract with the National Park Service. Its extensive historical display of artifacts from San Francisco’s past now falls vulnerable to private collectors.
The Save the Cliff House Collection effort hopes to preserve the former restaurant’s top memorabilia pieces, including The Cowboy statue from Playland, Sutro Bath bathing suits and the Whitney family totem pole. Everything the group can buy will be stewarded by the nonprofit Western Neighborhoods Project, with the help of ACT Art Conservation and art gallery The Great Highway.
“We want to save it all, but we’re also prioritizing art and artifacts that have documented historic significance and are culturally beloved,” organizers said in a statement.
Every day the group’s Instagram, @savethecliffhouseart, features a piece that’s at risk of falling under private ownership, along with historical context. Tuesday’s post, for instance, showcased a ceramic muse duo, which was commissioned in the early 1890s and originally located at the entrance to the Sutro Baths.
“Both Muses are being auctioned off separately, creating the tragic possibility that they will be split up and never seen together again. Unless we can line up the chance to rescue them as the pair they were created to be,” the post reads. “We would love to find these wonderful San Francisco treasures a forever home and keep these ladies dazzling near the sea…”
Organizer Alexandra Mitchell of ACT Art Conservation said her work as a conservationist gives her a strong inherent interest in protecting pieces of heritage and history from being disassembled. The Cliff House’s preservation campaign, however, is what she calls an “angel project” — a pro bono effort to protect works she’s admired over the years as a city native.
“Having the physical representation of these works accessible to the public and protected so that they can remain in the public safely for the rest of their lives is an incredibly important thing to make happen,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said her grandfather told stories of swimming at the Sutro Baths and her family held celebrations at the Cliff House. The City has faced many losses this year due to the pandemic, but the loss of the Cliff House is more than just another restaurant closure. She said it’s the end of an era.
“Those stories are very deeply ingrained in San Franciscans’ hearts. We have adopted many people in San Francisco that are amazing and wonderful, but definitely, this one hits differently for natives,” Mitchell said. “I think being a part of it was a no brainer. It was just no question at all.”
John Lindsey, another organizer of the effort and San Francisco resident for over 30 years, said he’s always loved San Francisco’s coastline, which is why he opened his gallery, The Great Highway, near Ocean Beach. The Cliff House’s featured artifacts gave him an even greater appreciation for the area’s history, he says.
“It was just so quintessentially San Francisco,” Lindsey said. “Learning about Playland, and the beach, and the tram and Sutro Baths … that little zone right there just has so much history and is such a jewel of San Francisco’s past.”
The auction company, Rabin, says it will provide a platform for private collectors and historical societies to bid alongside each other.
“We are aware of the Western Neighborhoods Project fundraising and we are encouraging of their efforts,” Rabin said in a statement. “Our clients, Dan and Mary Hountalas, would very much like to see the historically significant items remain in San Francisco.”
Mitchell said she’s grateful for the auction company’s understanding and the owners’ blessings. Rabin allowed her to digitally archive the items inside the Cliff House for important historical documentation.
“They are an old San Francisco family [business] as well and were heartbroken by the closure of the Cliff House, so it was great to hear that they were really on board to help us achieve this goal, to preserve the collection and keep it intact,” Mitchell said.
The collective will hold an informal meeting on March 4 about its goals and the historical context behind the items. Virtual meeting information will be available on its webpage.