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History Groups Successfully 'Save' Cliff House Art Collection — More Than 60 Pieces Purchased at Auction

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Two wool bathing suits from San Francisco's historic Sutro Baths attraction, purchased at an auction of Cliff House memorabilia. (Courtesy Western Neighborhoods Project)

Sutro Baths bathing suits. Italian porcelain muses. A carved wooden grizzly bear. A cowboy sculpture from Playland-at-the-Beach. An oil painting of San Francisco's wealthy 24th mayor, Adolph Sutro.

These eclectic items, and more — roughly 60 items in total — were saved from the closure of San Francisco's historic Cliff House restaurant for the posterity of the public this weekend.

The items didn't just survive the closure of the Cliff House restaurant, but also a late January burglary.

A collective of local community historians, gallerists and art conservatorss banded together, and with the financial help of 400 everyday San Franciscans and a few deep-pocketed donors, raised more than $150,000 to buy the beloved Cliff House's memorabilia at an auction over Friday and Saturday. Some of the pieces date back to the 1870s, while others hearken back to bygone decades living Bay Area folk may still remember.

Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, was one of the local historians working in a mad dash to raise money to save the Cliff House memorabilia from a possible sale to private owners, hoping to preserve these items for San Franciscans to see for decades to come.

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"After yesterday, I was exhausted," Meldahl said. "We were able to get at least one of each of the pieces we were hoping to save."

That wasn't always a sure thing.

Late last year, the Cliff House's operators since the 1970s, the Hountalas family, announced the closure of the restaurant under their operation, citing a contract dispute with the National Park Service, which owns the 150-year-old-plus Cliff House property.

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The "C" in the signage for the Cliff House restaurant is removed on Dec. 31, 2020. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

But that left many open questions, among them — What would happen to all of the Cliff House memorabilia?

The local treasures included statuettes and other keepsakes from the defunct Ocean Beach amusement park Playland-at-the-Beach, as well as the Sutro Baths saltwater swimming pool that burned down in 1966. The Hountalas family acquired some of the pieces when they took over the Cliff House operation, but also a few they garnered over the years, Meldahl said.

Meldahl's Western Neighborhoods Project joined forces with the ACT Art Conservation LLC, the Great Highway Gallery and the Minnesota Street Project to form the Save the Cliff House Art Collection group, raising money and sharing expertise to purchase the local memorabilia.

Other groups like the Cable Car Museum and Market Street Railway nonprofit also pitched in, along with many small donors and a few generous individual donors.

Made of Italian porcelain in the early 1890s, these bathing Italian muses welcomed visitors to the Sutro Baths, and were acquired at auction by the Save the Cliff House Art Collection group. (Courtesy Western Neighborhoods Project)

So how'd they choose what to save?

"Our goal from the beginning was if we couldn't get it all, to get a representative sample of what was on display there and some of the key big-ticket items," Meldahl said. "So what we kind of like evaluated each object with was, OK, what's the historic provenance? Is it deeply historic? Has it been connected to the Cliff House or Sutro Baths or Playland for a very long time? And then what is its artistic value?"

Last but not least, they also weighed pieces for their appeal to people's personal sense of history — their nostalgia.

"You know, is this something that everyone remembers walking into the Cliff House and seeing?" Meldahl said. "So 'Sheriff C.U. Soon' totally qualifies for that. [And] the bear."

While she said she felt "an overwhelming sense of accomplishment," she also feels "an overwhelming sense of dread." That's because the acquisition of the Cliff House art collection marks the transition of the humble little local history group, the Western Neighborhoods Project, into a full-fledged museum.

Previously, their collection mainly featured photographs, and the group also runs a popular podcast on western San Francisco history. The collection will be their first major foray into hosting historical objects for public perusal.

"This is a big deal for Western Neighborhoods Project," Meldahl said, "where we're a real museum now and it's a big leap for our organization. And we're very excited to meet this challenge."

One major next step will be figuring out where all the Cliff House art pieces will be exhibited. Meldahl said the same people who helped save the collection in the first place will help decide its future — everyday San Franciscans. A public input process is next on her list of to-do's.

"San Francisco helped us save these pieces, they should have input on where they go eventually," Meldahl said.

The effort to fundraise for that exhibition is ongoing here.

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