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The Cliff House needs new tenants

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Historic (if sometimes ill-omened) Ocean Beach property’s longtime leaseholders are almost done

The Cliff House, a white concrete building, atop a cliff ovrerlooking the Pacific Ocean. Brocken Inaglor

The Cliff House, San Francisco’s original hard luck monument on the western waterfront, is looking for new renters, as the National Park Service [NPS] announced on Tuesday that it needs “an exceptional individual, organization, or team with restaurant management expertise” to take up the lease on the historically scenic Ocean Beach overlook.

“The properties are currently being operated as the Cliff House and Lands End Lookout Café,” NPS says, noting that 21,000 feet of the 27,000 square foot historic structure is available for a new enterprise.

Per the missive:

The Cliff House was acquired by the NPS in 1977 and has operated under a concession contract since that time. The building was constructed in 1909 and is the third Cliff House on this site after the two previous Cliff House buildings were destroyed by fire. The primary structure consists of a renovated historic structure and a major addition completed in 2006.

The main restaurant is situated on a hillside above the Pacific Ocean. [...] The lease will also include the café at the nearby Lands End visitor center, public restrooms, public viewing areas, and non-exclusive use of an adjacent parking lot.

A painted postcard of the second Cliff House, with spires and towers.
The second Cliff House, commemorated via postcard.

Those ventures may change their current names and menus under a new deal, but the offer specifies that the Cliff House must remain a restaurant.

The current lease holders have been in place since 1998, but that deal is about to expire and the federal agency is looking for new partners to take over.

[Correction: Cliff House management, Dan and Mary Hountlas, say they’ve actually been there since 1972. Dan Hountlas previously ran the nearby Cliff Chalet, until that burned down in the same 1966 fire that destroyed the Sutro Baths. The Cliff House defied all odds and managed not to burn down that time too.]

According to the timeline published by NPS, the original Cliff House dated to 1863, “a modest one-story wood-frame structure skillfully situated on top of the cliff overlooking Seal Rock.” It became an exclusive destination thanks to the impracticality of all but the wealthy traveling out to Lands End to patronize the place.

Adolph Sutro, future mayor of San Francisco, bought the Cliff House in 1881, but the building perished in a fire in 1894, on Christmas of all days.

Sutro built a new, grand Victorian style Cliff House in 1896, with fairy-tale like adornments of spires and towers. Sadly, this one’s tenure was even more brief than the first, burning down in 1907, less than 18 months after weathering the great earthquake of the previous year.

Sutro’s daughter Emma Sutro Merritt built the current Cliff House in 1909, opting for a fire-resistant, concrete-heavy design. That did the trick, and the new/old landmark has stayed in place ever since.

NPS is not yet tipping its hands about what kind of rent an ambitious lease holder may be looking at for a storied asset like this. Selection of a new tenant is set for summer of 2020.