Adolph Sutro's grandson lived in the mansion with his mother for 18 years. (OpenSFHistory / wnp26.1404)
In 1930, Adolph Gilbert Sutro decided to build a mansion on land that had been in his family since his more famous grandfather purchased it in the 1870s.
The plot of land, though it came with views of San Francisco and the East Bay stretching all the way to Mount Diablo, was a cold and uninviting place that got swallowed by thick fog on a daily basis. It had but one hidden entrance, at the end of a narrow lane, encased on all sides by dense rows of trees and tangled blackberry vines. Still, Sutro decided that this isolated southern crest of Mount Sutro would be the perfect place to build his dream home. A mansion that, 40 years later, more closely resembled something out of a nightmare.
Sutro’s mansion, dubbed La Avanzada, cost $250,000 to build (about $5.4 million in 2022 money) and was designed by English architect Harold G. Stoner. It had three stories, 15 rooms, a footprint of 15,000 square feet, and several turrets. It had unusual features like big stone lions at its entrance, a door completely covered with animal hide, and wall sconces that could accommodate torches. Each room was decorated elaborately with wood panels, stained glass and spider-web motifs. One room even resembled a Swiss chalet.
Sutro lived in the mansion with his mother for 18 years, but when they left, they did so in a hurry. In August 1948, Sutro sold his home for less than half of what he had spent on building it. The buyer? A brand-new television station, KGO-TV.
KGO Radio had long operated out of 420 Taylor St. in downtown San Francisco, but those studios were not equipped to accommodate a TV station. KGO’s chief engineer A. E. “Shorty” Evans scouted suitable locations and landed on the Sutro mansion as the perfect place to build out a studio. (In 1949, the San Francisco Examiner called it “the finest site in the Bay Area for the purpose.”) A director of engineering for Channel 7 named Harry Jacobs was brought in to build a 500-foot transmission tower for KGO-TV. It took a year to construct and had a range of 60 miles.
KGO agreed to terms in its real estate contract that forbade the company from altering the mansion’s exterior or cutting down trees on the property’s five acres, unless it was absolutely necessary. The TV station even agreed to have no more than 25 people on the land at any given time. In the channel’s earliest days, that was doable — it broadcast for only 12 hours per week. (Within a year, that amount had increased to 35 hours.)
Inside the house, the former library acted as a rehearsal studio. The mansion’s ballroom hosted variety shows. Its great hall was used as an “auxiliary studio for live telecasts.” The lounges were remodeled for office use, and the bedrooms were locked up altogether. It didn’t take long for Sutro’s former house to get a creepy reputation. KGO-TV staff members nicknamed it “the haunted mansion” and complained about working in such strange environs.
In a 1977 Berkeley Gazette column, a former employee named George Tashman recalled:
I did some telecasting for KGO-TV at the time, and driving up the curving, tortuous road to the mansion — which resembled nothing so much as Castle Dracula — was a dreadful job. But coming out after a broadcast, and finding the entire road socked in by fog made driving down a two-man operation: one to drive and one to stand next to the left fender and walk on the white line for guidance.
Still, local people and media held a fascination with the mansion. “Imagination could have a splendid time making [the house] an eerie background for thrills and excitement,” the Oakland Tribune reported in 1969. “Especially on a dark night with the wind whipping the tall eucalyptus trees and the fog curling up the hill to blot out the lights below.” The newspaper described the property as “brooding and baffling.”
KGO-TV endured only four years — between 1949 and 1953 — of filming and broadcasting in the mansion. At that time, the studios temporarily moved to Taylor Street, before arriving in 1954 at their new headquarters at 277 Golden Gate Ave. Only KGO-TV’s trusty engineers remained behind at the house.
By the end of the ’60s, the city had decided the mysterious old mansion had to go. Arguments, hearings and legal battles about how and where to build a better transmitter and higher tower for the Bay Area’s television stations had been dragging on since 1956. The Federal Aviation Agency objected to Mount San Bruno as a location because of its close proximity to the airport, so Mount Sutro became the chosen place. The new $4 million tower was intended to eliminate the frequency with which Bay Area television viewers needed to adjust their TV antennas.
In 1969, ground was broken for the construction of the Sutro Tower as we know it today. Adolph G. Sutro’s once protected home was deemed a fire hazard, eyesore and vandal attraction — by then, the windows were regularly broken by thrill seekers and had long been boarded up. The now-dilapidated mansion was unceremoniously demolished.
That is, except for the two lions that once greeted visitors at the front of Adolph G. Sutro’s house — which originally come from his grandfather’s Virginia City home. As the mansion was destroyed, the lions were gifted to San Francisco Parks and Recreation and moved to Meadow Park at Fort Mason. It’s unclear now where they ultimately ended up. (The lion currently at Sutro Heights Park came from the original Sutro mansion that overlooked Sutro Baths.)
Today, all that remains of the mansion is a set of stone stairs that sits within a restricted area underneath Sutro Tower. KQED Network Systems Engineer Michael Kadel had to brave steep slopes and a group of beehives to get the photo below.
As construction neared its end, the new Sutro Tower — with its 3.5 million pounds of steel, anchored by 15 million pounds of cement — was considered by neighbors to be far uglier than the mansion ever had been. In 1972, just months away from the tower’s completion, the San Francisco Examiner called it an “ungainly, ugly, iron atrocity” — a far cry from how the structure is viewed today.
As for Adolph G. Sutro? After selling his mansion to KGO-TV, he resided in San Luis Rey near San Diego until his mother’s death in 1961. At that point, he moved to the Portuguese island of Madeira where he died in 1981. According to newspaper reports, he also owned a mysterious mansion there, though no trace of it can be found today — a fate that befell so many of his family’s homes.
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