The Naiad Cove exhibit at Museum at the Cliff looks back at more than 150 years of the famed Cliff House
The Cliff House – perched high on the headland north of Ocean Beach – was built in 1863 as a resort. Since 1973, it operated as a restaurant under a few different names until it became the Cliff House Restaurant . It was well known for its serving drinks and food with sweeping views of the Pacific ocean before closing in 2020. The building sat empty until it found a new life as a pop up museum last year. In July, the Museum at the Cliff opened an immersive exhibit filled with art and artifacts that come alive with soundscapes and simulations of the area through the years. KALW's Johanna Miyaki takes us behind the scenes of this very San Francisco experience.
Johanna Miyaki: I pull up in front of the Old Cliff House restaurant on a misty Saturday morning. The sound of a fog horn is drifting through the salty air. Standing inside, memories WASH OVER ME – eating popovers in the Bistro, drinking hot cocoa in the lounge with my daughter , and enjoying cocktails downstairs at the restaurant, Sutro’s. Although the Cliff House has only been closed a couple of years. I FEEL like I am stepping WAY BACK in time. I say out loud, "We used to sit in these booths right by the window, the view, ahhh!
Nicole Meldahl: It's such a special place.
Johanna Miyaki: Nicole Meldahl co-curated this exhibit called: Naiad Cove. It highlights attractions that have drawn people to Lands End over the years. visitors can see and hear what it was like to be at Sutro Baths, the Cliff House and Playland-at-the-Beach during different periods of their history. She takes us on a tour.
"We ask you to start here in Sutro Baths", says Meldahl.
Johanna Miyaki: A photo collection of epic shipwrecks from the 1920’s and 30’s are on display. Meldahl says, "they kind of kept wrecking on top of each other." In the center of the room is a bank of wooden lockers thought to be from the original Sutro Bath house as well the standard issue wool bathing suits swimmers wore to take a dip in the saltwater pools. These artifacts feel more extraordinary because of the view.
Nicole Meldahl "Because we're explaining the history of Sutro Baths and you can look out on the ruins."
Johanna Miyaki:As we leave the Sutro room and move to the old bar and bistro, the soundscape – designed by audio artist Andrew Roth – changes. Now, sounds of glasses clinking, plates and silverware clanking, give the illusion of a dining room in full swing. There are staged place settings representing different patrons who've come to the Cliff House restaurant over time. There is a 1941 graduation scene, a 1949 tourist visiting the Cliff House restaurant, maybe for the first time. And a 1970s Dan Hountalas, wine connoisseur and former owner of the Cliff House restaurant.
Nicole Meldahl: People would've come here to mark these incredible moments when it was a restaurant."
Johanna Miyaki: To a local like me, who is missing the Old Cliff House restaurant, Nicole says, this part of the exhibit offers a hopeful reminder.
Nicole Meldahl: In 1925, the Cliff House closed for prohibition and it didn't reopen until 1937, so we like to remind folks it's all gonna be okay. Right. This has happened before, history tells us that time marches on.
Johanna Miyaki: Next we take a stroll down the Great Highway…not the actual roadway outside, but a multisensory, historical representation.
Nicole Meldahl: We've tried to orient everything here, geographically specific. We have a lineup of all the roadside attractions that used to be here, as well as hand painted signs from Playland and all the concessions along Great Highway from 1937 to 1972.
Johanna Miyaki: The Great Highway section of the exhibit is on one side of the old dining room, facing the wall of windows looking out over the coast. In the same booths where diners once enjoyed popovers and bloody Marys with a view, NOW the museum invites visitors to write a postcard from their visit.
Nicole Meldahl: I've been putting them into this old timey scrapbook, like people used to do, right. We have a whole art station set up in the old restaurant booths so that you can sit and look out at the view and maybe remember what it was like to be here before it was a museum. We really want people to spend time here, create new memories, remember old memories. We have benches set up with binoculars overlooking ocean beach. So you can really just relax here. Take in the view that San Franciscans have been taking in for over 150 years.
Johanna Miyaki: The iconic cowboy from Playland draws you into the next part of the exhibit. He is showing some wear and tear from being outside all those years but is being restored by the museum. Visitors can see the restoration process every Saturday!
Nicole Meldahl:"He is mechanical, meaning his rootin' tootin' self used to move. He was installed on the top of a building at Playland, in an area called Frontier Town, which was a Western themed kid's ride.
Johanna Miyaki: The Playland room is filled with more nostalgic hand painted signs.
Nicole Meldahl: We have a rifle range sign. We have a surf club, the fun house. We even have a button (((in the back))) that you can press and "Laffing Sal" will cackle at you.
Johanna Miyaki: Laffing Sal, the mechanical doll with a deranged laugh. Playland had the first, but Laffing Sal became a popular fun house attraction all over America in the 1930’s.
(Laffing Sal sounds)
Johanna Miyaki: Surrounded by all the photos and artifacts. It's hard to believe that what was once a giant amusement park is now all condos.
Nicole Meldahl: When people come here, they see photographs, they hear stories about Playland. They always ask us, “why would this ever have been torn down?"
Johanna Miyaki: The final part of the exhibit takes you through the old Cliff House Restaurant kitchen. It’s kept dark except for one beautiful neon Playland sign. Visitors can pick up flashlights to illuminate images of behind-the-scenes workers from Playland, and its predecessor Shutes at the Beach.
Nicole Meldahl: This piece, it’s an illuminated sort of effervescent Seal Rocks image.
Johanna Miyaki: This depiction of Seal Rocks has a meditative effect on me. Even though I know I am deep in the old Cliff House kitchen, I am sure I can hear crashing waves.
Nicole Meldahl: And that brings you to the end of our show, where we have turned an old refrigerator into one of Playland's best loved rides called the Diving Bell. We have a projection of the diving bell playing and then you press this button.
(Diving Bell Sounds)
Johanna Miyaki: Outside the Cliff House, I meet Lorna Reed. She is a third generation San Franciscan. Her father came here when he was with the Navy and fell in love with San Francisco. He passed that love along to his daughter.
Lorna Reed: I have a profound love of San Francisco history, particularly the Western end of town, Sutro, the baths, the Cliff House, the sound of the foghorns, is just beautiful. San Francisco is a city that constantly renews itself. Given the circumstances of the Cliff House being closed, it has resurrected into an excellent exhibit.
Johanna Miyaki: Sasha Cuttler said he had nearly forgotten the old Cliff House closed, when he heard about the Naiad Cove exhibit
Sasha Cuttler: I think it's really cool and it doesn't feel like a top down thing telling you something, they're really interested in people to have the experience of it.
Johanna Miyaki: A big part of the experience are the projections curated by visual artist Ben Wood.
Ben Wood: We're projecting images from Cliff House history. It's like a journey through time. And we're really excited. We've made a call to the local community to share their own photos.
Johanna Miyaki: This exhibit is a community effort. Soon after the Cliff House restaurant closed, the former owners announced all the art and artifacts would be sold. Nicole Meldahl – who’s been the Executive Director of the Western neighborhoods project since 2019, teamed up with founders of the Great Highway Gallery and Act Art Conservation.
Nicole Meldahl: We said, okay, let's fundraise and try to save as much as we can.
Johanna Miyaki: Nicole says prices for the auction items were nuts. Matchbooks you could find before on eBay for five dollars were suddenly going for over a hundred dollars.
Nicole Meldahl: Incredibly we raised over $150K in less than three weeks to buy over a hundred artifacts at the auction. We bought chairs, tables, we bought a chandelier. We bought all the big historic artifacts, the carved bear, the porcelain muses, the totem pole outside and the cowboy which we're excited to have here
Johanna Miyaki: The group got almost everything they wanted.
Nicole Meldahl: There's a few things that haunt me. I wish we could have gotten all of the chandeliers because they were original to the building. We have this etched glass panel that was once behind the bar in the Cliff House.
Johanna Miyaki: There were five etched glass panels attributed to artist Ansel Adams in the original set. They got just one.
Nicole Meldahl: So, I wish we could have kept the set together.
Johanna Miyaki: If you happen to be listening, auction buyer with the other four etched glass panels, call the museum, they'll give them a good home.
Nicole Meldahl: We didn't get everything, but we did get a representative sample. We've been so blessed by people continuing to donate pieces to us.
Johanna Miyaki: Nicole says they got a lot of help from the former owners Dan and Mary Hountalas.
Nicole Meldahl: She helped us get these pieces. She helped us identify the most historic artifacts. In fact we have her book here on display. There's the famous popover recipe in this book, if anybody needs it.
Johanna Miyaki: Trust me, you need the popover recipe, but I digress. Nicole and her partners set out to save the art and artifacts of the Cliff House, never imagining they’d be able to show them inside the Cliff House.
Nicole Meldahl: A lot of these pieces have many stories. Some of them are true. Some of them are not true, but they're all part of the history here. And we love that. You know, a lot of times scholarly history will sort of push popular history or lore and nostalgia aside, but that's the most powerful part of history of telling these stories.
Johanna Miyaki: The exhibit is named for the area called Naiad Cove, where the Sutro baths ruins are today. It's said THAT settlers named it after the mythical nymphs who had power over creeks and springs. Nicole says naiads were thought to protect and bless the land in the area. So…Naiad Cove is the perfect name for this exhibit, that merges the history and mythology of this special place.
The exhibit is on through the end of September and has programmed special evening events including "History Happy Hours" and Curator Tours". For more information about the exhibit, the museum and this story, visit https://www.outsidelands.org/ and for reservations visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-museum-at-the-cliff-tickets-351326465917