Help Us Conserve and Exhibit the Cliff House Collection
Together, we saved over 100 artifacts from auction on March 11-12, 2021 but the work still continues. Support our collective effort to interpret our shared heritage at the edge of the Western world.
Visit The Museum at The Cliff in the former Cliff House Gift Shop at 1090 Point Lobos Avenue, Thursdays through Sundays, 11-4pm.
The closure of San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House restaurant in December 2020 was heartbreaking for all who loved it. The city had already lost so much during the first year of the pandemic and it was inconceivable that this landmark, which had risen from the ashes of two fires since opening in 1863, could be gone. So, three strangers decided to do something about it.
In late February 2021, after learning that historic art and artifacts from the Cliff House were destined to be auctioned, Alexandra Mitchell of ACT Art Conservation approached John Lindsey of The Great Highway gallery and said, “John, we can’t let this happen, we have to save the Cliff House collection.” John agreed, “You should call Nicole Meldahl at Western Neighborhoods Project.” This is how our collective effort, Save The Cliff House Collection, was born.
It took over 470 individual donors to do it, but we were able to raise more than our goal of $150,000 in just over two weeks. This was a grassroots campaign that succeeded primarily through small contributions supported by a few organizations / individuals who provided substantial donations to save our shared heritage. They include:
- Richard Beleson in honor of Gary Kamiya
- An anonymous donor who had their wedding reception at The Cliff House
- The San Francisco Cable Car Museum
- The Fleishhacker Foundation and David Fleishhacker
- The Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People
Additional support came from Rabin Worldwide as well as Dan and Mary Hountalas, who gave us access to and helped us to prioritize which items to acquire at the auction; Minnesota Street Project (MSP) and Lawrence Fine Arts (LFA), which have provided free art handling, transport, storage and crating for large pieces in the collection; Market Street Railway, who helped us with fundraising efforts; and all of you who contributed to our campaign in so many different ways. We genuinely love each and every one of you.
And we did it! During an online auction that we hope never to experience again, we placed winning bids on 58 lots to acquire over 100 artifacts–not everything we wanted, but a representative sample of what was once on display at The Cliff House. Now part of the Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) collection, these artifacts enable us to showcase the many layers of history, not only of the Cliff House but of the Sutro Baths and Playland at the Beach. See What We Saved. [link to page about The Collection]
This collective effort truly illustrates how community history is a community project and that, when we work together, we can save our shared heritage. This is why we immediately staged Listening Sessions via Zoom following our acquisition to hear what the community wanted to do with these priceless artifacts we acquired as a team effort. These were recorded and are now available on WNP’s YouTube Channel: watch the Listening Session #1 and Listening Session #2.
Keeping this feedback close, we set about conserving, cataloging, and interpreting the collection. Alexandra Mitchell and her team at ACT Art Conservation LLC began treatments on the most fragile items immediately, and WNP began developing programs, like history walks with historian John Martini and lectures with the Sutro Library. We continue to add new events every month and you can watch recordings of past online programs, like the “Life and library of Adolph Sutro,” on WNP’s YouTube channel.
Then, WNP took the reins of CliffHouseProject.com from its founder and tireless steward, Gary Stark. Now retired, Gary married the skills he acquired as a video game developer for Atari just out of college to a software developer and IT manager for a construction company with his love of Cliff House history. The website he created is an incredible resource, filled with photographs, newspaper excerpts, and more, either found by Gary or contributed by other historians and history buffs. Gary transferred CliffHouseProject.com to WNP in the Fall of 2021 and also donated historic photographs featured on the site, which are now part of our permanent collection alongside the art and artifacts acquired at the Cliff House auction.
But our main priority has been making the collection accessible to the public as soon as possible, and we did this by placing them on exhibition in two separate locations within six months of acquisition. See curated selections currently on view at:
- “Selections from the Cliff House Collection” at the WNP Office + Gallery, 1617 Balboa Street, SF, CA, 94121 (Ongoing, By Appointment Only)
- “The Museum at The Cliff” in the former Cliff House Gift Shop, 1090 Point Lobos Avenue, SF, CA, 94121 (October 2021 – April 2022, 11-4pm, Thursdays through Sundays)
Sign up for intimate Curator’s Tours of The Museum at The Cliff today on the WNP Events Page.
We’ve also been working with local artists to create family-friendly programming in support of our exhibitions. Starting in December 2021, windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean at The Museum at The Cliff will be illuminated by a series of projected artworks by Ben Wood called “The Cliff Moving Picture Gallery.” Wood animates photographs from the OpenSFHistory archives alongside footage from the Prelinger Archives so you can experience this history like never before. You can see scenes from Cliff House days-gone-by every evening from 5:00pm to 10:00pm on a secluded deck behind The Museum. This COVID-safe activity is absolutely free and fun for all ages.
We hold Projection Premieres to unveil new sequences every month! Join us for complimentary popcorn, beverages, and candy and enjoy extended hours in The Museum at our next premiere:
- Saturday, December 4, 2022 at 5:30pm – This Event Has Passed
- Saturday, January 8, 2022 at 5:30pm – This Event Has Passed
- Saturday, February 12, 2022 at 5:30pm
- Saturday, March 12, 2022 at 5:30pm
We’ve also partnered with Sunset District artist Thorsten Sideboard for a special kids activity book based on the life of Adolph Sutro. Inside, you’ll find a biographical comic strip, a word search, drawing challenges, a treasure map, and more! Generously funded through an education grant from the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People, this limited-edition zine is free and available to all Junior Historians at The Museum at the Cliff from January 1st through April 10th, 2022.
Again, we couldn’t have done this without the support of our community. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has provided the former Cliff House Gift Shop to us for free, also allowing us to keep the Whitney Totem Pole in place on a yearly-renewing special use permit without charge. We’re so grateful to Marcus Koenen and John Omega of the National Park Service for all they’ve done for us. Amanda Williford of the Park Archives and Record Center and Gina Capari, alongside her entire Global Museum team, have been fearless in their flexibility (which is hard for museum professionals!) as we worked together to open The Museum at a break-neck pace.
In addition, we’re so grateful for the countless hours of exhibition curation, preparation and installation that were also provided by Rick Bellamy, Ryan Butterfield, Jason Corning, Christina Gazi, Jennie Love, John Martini, Gillian Murdoch, Harvey Newman, Arlo Novicoff, Jamie O’Keefe Andrew Roth, Isabel Scanlon, Morgan Schlessinger, Carissa Tonner, Arnold Woods, and Cecilia Zhang. All of this would be for naught if we couldn’t keep our doors open; thank you to volunteer docents Jan and Harold Brandt, Erik Butterfield, Barbara Cannella, Joseph Grossblatt, Anne Evers Hitz, Judi Leff, Gail McGowan, Lauren O’Leary, Peter Peacock, Ken Spielman and Pam Wright. Last but most certainly not least, we need to thank Nicole Smahlik, who coordinates these volunteers and has kept us steady.
We’ve accomplished a lot in less than a year, but this is only the beginning. Stay connected with this community effort by following our journey on Instagram and checking the Western Neighborhoods Project website for upcoming events.
Conservation continues under the care of ACT Art Conservation LLC as an Angel Project, but some artifacts, like the porcelain muses, require extra special attention. Also, the collection keeps growing! When news of our success at the auction spread, another muse materialized in a private East Bay collection. She’s been offered to WNP but, sadly, is in pieces–having fallen over in the 1989 earthquake. We need your support to put the pieces back together and reunite these ladies.
Minnesota Street Project has kindly been storing the larger artifacts, like Sheriff C.U. Soon from Playland at the Beach, since they were removed from the former Cliff House but they can’t live there forever. Plus, our special use permit for The Museum at The Cliff expires in April 2022. We need your help to write the next chapter for these iconic pieces of San Francisco history.
We’ll continue to make the collection accessible at the WNP Office + Gallery but our walls can only hold so much. If you have a spare building you’d like to provide for the permanent exhibition of these pieces, let us know. Don’t have that kind of real estate at your disposal? Completely understandable. We’d love to hear your ideas on other solutions. Email the Dream Team with thoughts or questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support This Effort
Financial support is (obviously) also appreciated. Please consider a tax-deductible donation to support work that includes but is not limited to:
- Conserving artifacts within the WNP collection–those that were purchased at the Cliff House auction in March, and those that have joined the collection after news of our acquisition spread.
- Improving collections storage and purchasing archival supplies
- Developing exhibitions and public programming for all-ages
- Planning a permanent museum to showcase the diverse art and history of San Francisco’s west side.
You can also support this effort by purchasing custom merch from Turkey & Reuben, owned and operated by Noa Schneorson and Mara Ezekiel. These Inner Sunset residents are doing a very awesome thing: supporting local history. If you buy this one-of-a-kind Sutro Seals hat or other Outside Lands inspired items from the Western Neighborhoods Project Collection, they’ll donate 10% of the sale to our nonprofit. They have hats, tote bags, sweatshirts and stickers. Shop the Collection Today!
Can’t support us financially but want to help in other ways? Awesome! We are actively seeking volunteers to do work behind-the-scenes and engage the public around this local history. Email Nicole Meldahl, Executive Director of Western Neighborhoods Project, at email@example.com if you’d like to join the WNP Team.
Western Neighborhoods Project, a registered 501(c)3 community history nonprofit, has preserved, interpreted, and shared the diverse history and culture of San Francisco’s west side since 1999. ACT Art Conservation LLC is a fine art studio owned and founded by 4th-generation San Franciscan, Alexandra Mitchel–a fine art Conservator working to protect history and heritage for over 15 years. The Great Highway is a fine art gallery located in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District and founded in 2011 by John Lindsey.