Places are not always about what's there, but what's not there -- what used to be but is no more.
A good example of this would be the ruins of Sutro Baths, next to the Cliff House and down the steep hillside off Point Lobos Avenue on the edge of San Francisco and the rest of the world.
What's there now isn't super-attractive stuff. We're not talking the ruins of the Parthenon by any means. In fact, against the glorious backdrop of crashing waves and a denim-blue sea, there are haunting remnants of crumbling cinder-block walls, some with the requisite graffiti (really, people, does everything have to be tagged?). Seawater collects and stagnates in the footprints of the old foundation, now hosting algae and ducks. Rusty pipes jut out from rocky slopes. And there's a tunnel that goes nowhere and often serves as a receptacle for stray plastic water bottles.
Indeed, the "what's not there" is more intriguing. If you look hard enough, you can mentally reconstruct the great public natatorium that opened in 1896 -- a massive structure of glass, iron and wood built by mining tycoon and former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro. At the time, it was the world's largest indoor swimming pool establishment. A classic Greek portal opened onto a huge glass enclosure with seven pools -- one freshwater and six saltwater baths ranging in temperature.
Much frolicking was done by thousands of visitors, thanks to water slides, trapezes, springboards and a high dive. During high tide, the sea would rush in and fill the pools with 1.7 million gallons of water in just one hour. And at low tide, a powerful turbine inside a sea-level cave pumped water in.
But it wasn't just the pools. There was a great hall that held an audience of nearly 8,000 for band concerts and talent shows. There were three restaurants and an extensive museum with sculptures, paintings and artifacts -- even Egyptian mummies -- from Sutro's world travels. All this for a 10-cent adult admission, according to a 1906 program, meeting Sutro's wish to provide a wholesome, recreational facility that was inexpensive enough for all to enjoy -- not just for the well-heeled of the day.
Sutro died two years after the opening, and while the baths were popular for many years, interest declined during the Depression. It was all converted into an ice rink for a while, then eventually sold to developers who started to demolish it, but a fire in 1966 took care of that for them.
As a Bay Area native, I've been to the Cliff House and Ocean Beach dozens of times, but I'm ashamed to say I'd never ventured down to the Sutro ruins or bothered to learn the history. And even when my husband and I finally made it there a couple of weeks ago, it wasn't on purpose -- our original plan was a de Young Museum visit, but we were thwarted by impossible parking, so we kept driving and ended up at the Cliff House to grab a bite. Finding the restaurants mobbed, we went back outside, stood there for a while gazing down at the ruins and watching people use it like a jungle gym. We looked at each other, shrugged and decided to explore.
First, though, we walked up the hill and stopped in the sleek Lands End visitors center that opened in 2012. We studied old photos of the baths, bought to-go turkey sandwiches at the small cafe, then headed down the steep stairway to the ruins. (Warning: It's steeper on the way back up!) It's sandy and mucky down there, so wear good hiking shoes.
Then we sat on a piece of crumbled wall, munched our provisions, watched the breakers and some dumb people trying to rock climb beyond the section that's cordoned off with a no-nonsense sign: "Cliff and surf area, extremely dangerous. People have been swept from the rocks and drowned."
We ventured into the tunnel, once part of the water recycling system. It dead ends about 50 yards in, but a large crack in the rock wall inside provides a fun view of the swirling tide and thundering waves.
Some say the ruins are haunted, but I asked a friend who's a well-known Bay Area parapsychologist, and he's only heard a couple of local psychics say there are "imprints" of past events but all generally positive. Mostly, people just say things like, "Sutro Baths ought to be haunted ... just look at them!"
Indeed, if there are ghosts there, they're all splashing and squealing and having a good old spooky time. The living like it there too, taking photos, balancing on what's left of the old foundation. Tracing the edge of what was.
Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.
if you go:
Sutro Baths, Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco
Parking: Some metered street parking runs along Point Lobos Avenue, and there are two parking lots up by the Lands End visitors center.
Nearby eats: The cafe in the visitors center has delicious, reasonably priced fare. Right next door is Louis' Restaurant, in business since 1937, with great omelets and sandwiches. And at the Cliff House, there's the Bistro and Sutro's restaurant.
Info: The Sutro Baths ruins are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 415-561-4700, www.nps.gov/goga.