Digging Up the Foundations of Sutro Tower

The Origins and History of San Francisco’s TV Tower…


Sutro Tower has stood on top of Mount Sutro so long that it is hard remembering a time when it wasn’t there. I was born two months before its patriotic birthday on July 4th, 1973; and so, for me, it has nearly always resided over the city. It has been celebrated and panned by locals and visitors alike. Herb Caen always had the best insults for the tower, such as “”I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge” or visualizing it to a “giant erector set that was stalking to march down and eat…” Fritz Leiber, in the opening of his novel Our Lady of Darkness called it “The TV tower — San Francisco’s Eiffel, you could call it — was broad-shouldered, slender-waisted, and long-legged like a beautiful and stylish woman — or demigoddess.”

Whether you love it or hate it, Sutro Tower has become as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge, the TransAmerica Building, Coit Tower, the Castro, the Mission District, SF Chinatown, Cable Cars, or bread-bowl clam chowder. It’s plastered on web banners and on T-shirts. But there was a time before 1973 when Mount Sutro wasn’t crowned with the orange and white pitchfork pointed towards the heavens.


Patron of The City

Its origins recede back as far as the lifetime of its namesake, Adolph Sutro. The German-born immigrant had entered the United States in 1860 at the age 20. He would make a fortune in the Comstock Lode, a lode of silver ore under the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, Nevada. Still working as a merchant when he heard about the silver deposit, he moved to Virginia City in Nevada with his education in engineering and designed a four-mile long tunnel, the Sutro Tunnel, which he oversaw the construction.

Cliff House © Ed Biermann (Cliff House, 1907)
Cliff House
© Ed Biermann (Cliff House, 1907)

The tunnel was designed by “Crazy Sutro” to remove water and heat, which was stalling miners within the bowls of Mount Davidson. Because of his work and ingenuity, Sutro became rich and would settle in San Francisco, where became one of the city’s most famous benefactors and patrons. Even now, the name commonly appears throughout the city. Here are some of the bequests he left for the city of Saint Francis:

  • Sutro Heights Park, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean and was a variety of different foliage—Monterrey cypress, eucalyptus, and palm trees.
  • The 3rd Cliff House, which was designed look like a French chateau, offering dining, dancing, and entertainment. It was 8 stories high, had four spires, and an observation tower that stood 200 feet above sea level. It sadly burnt down in 1907.
  • Sutro Baths, which opened in 1896, near the Cliff house and next rock cover. Sutro designed the baths himself with a system whereby water was circulated into the pools from the ocean directly, heated, and then sent back to the Pacific. It was destroyed in a fire in 1966,
  • The Sutro Library, which are the remains of Sutro’s vast private library of 100,000 books that is now located at San Francisco State University.

Sutro Bath House

He also was responsible for provide the land in which the campus of UCSF was built on and brought protection to seals and Seal Rocks in the city and county while mayor. Most importantly for this post, he bought the land around Mount Sutro and planted a forest of Eucalyptus trees that would be eventually the home to Sutro Tower.


The Legacy of La Avanzada

The story continues decades later with Sutro’s grandson, Adolph Gilbert Sutro. Not as an industrious as his grandfather, Adolph Gilbert would have made his own contribution to San Francisco, while paving the way towards the origins of the tower that bears his family’s name.

Adolph Gilbert received his education at Santa Clara College but would later work as a mechanic for the Wright Brothers. An early advocate for aeronautics and flying, he would receive the first ever pilot’s license for hydro planes in the United State, which he would proudly carry with him—License No. 1. The year he received the license, Adolph Gilbert would fly over the Bay and set a world record. This would eventually lead him to run the Sutro Hydro School in the Marina while building places. He would become a broker while managing the Sutro Baths, built and designed by his grandfather. He also wrote articles for Boating Magazine and other publications. Eventually, it would lead him to build a manage on in the peak of Mount Sutro for himself and his mother.

The mansion was a villa on Mount Sutro, a home Adolph Gilbert would call “La Avanzada.” Built in the 1930’s for what was believed to $250,000, the Sutro’s would live there for 18 years. The home was a spare no expense rollick designed to suit this Sutro’s tastes. In an article written by the Oakland Tribune in 1969, the home was described as something akin to a mystery novel:

The three story villa, La Avanzada, of dun colored stucco, as turrets and bays and its iron-banded, double front doors recessed and reached by a flight of stone steps across a stone terrace. Great boulders enhance the look of heavy permanence.

It has the look of a setting Helen Maclnnes or Mary Stewart suspense story (“little did I know when the big door swung open…”) Indeed when the door does wing open it is literally an their story.

The big, unusual rooms, wood beamed, tile and stained glass-ornamented, where fire lace flames should warm walls of books and men and women deep in conversation, are bare of conventional furniture…

…Imagination could have a splendid time making this an eerie background for thrills and excitement — especially on a dark night with the wind whipping the tall eucalyptus trees and fog curling up the hill to blot out the lights below.

It is sinister? Or is it only a strange lonely house on a mountain top? Who was its fascinating builder? Why did he leave it? Why is it to be torn down? Why is it filled with unusual equipment?

The mystery will unravel

The home was literally a mansion on the hill and would, fittingly reside over the city of San Francisco, which lay under its foundations. As time passed while mother and son grew older, Adolph Gilbert would look elsewhere for a home, moving his mother and himself in 1948 to near San Diego at San Luis Key. He decided to sell the house and the new owners would soon move in and open for business.

Sutro Mansion ABC Studio
photos by permission, courtesy Sutro Tower Inc.

The new owners were ABC television, who bought the mansion as the studio and broadcast station for their local affiliate, KGO-TV. Two years later K PIX, the CBS affiliate, would join them. During this period, the ambiance of the mansion would migrate into something more bizarre and techy, as both stations with would transfer the villa on the hill into a broadcasting facilities, along with a much smaller TV tower constructed over the mansion as mentioned in the Tribune article:

…the house is loaded with highly technical electronic equipment.

In the basement, men work at panels in a room filled with cabinets. A huge fireplace incorporating fossil specimens hidden by a tool panel. Half the big living room is divided by aural and visual amplifiers. Acoustical tile blocks out the orange and blue pan ls that ornament the ceiling

KGO would move out of the house in 1953 to their current location at 277 Golden Gate Avenue, followed by KPIX. La Avanzada was abandoned aside from a skeleton crew that manned the TV Tower, which provide television signal for the city and surrounding area. The location became targets for intruders and vandals. In 1956 the television stations in the Bay Area decided they need a tower with more signaled, which lead to the final days of the Sutro mansion.


Raising the Tower

Originally, two locationsSutro Tower and Sutro Tower Inc. Operation's Center were being considered for the new tower. Because of the unique geography of San Francisco with its large hills, the tower was only suitable for both locations. One location was San Bruno Mountain and the other was Mount Sutro. Eventually, Mount Sutro was chosen after the FCC disqualified San Bruno due to its location close to the airport.

With the site selected, a new company was formed named Sutro Tower Inc through joint ownership by ABC, The San Francisco Chronicle, Westinghouse, Cox Broadcast and Metromedia for Channels KGO-TV, KRON, KPIX, KTVU and KNEW-TV. Neil Smith and Associate were commissioned to build the tower.

This was the death sentence for La Avanzada. Through agreement with the city, Sutro Tower Inc. would remove the mansion due to the condition of the villa. The city condemned the building as a fire trap and target for vandalism.

The sad passing of this eccentric and wonderful San Francisco home would give way to the even more bizarre, often reviled, and industrial icon of San Francisco. Sutro Tower stands 977 feet high. Its highest antenna is 1,811 feet above sea level. The tower weighs 3.5 million pounds. According to SutroTower.com, it is the used by “Eleven television stations, four FM radio stations and 20 wireless and mobile communications users (i.e. law enforcement agencies, taxi cabs, school buses, wireless internet, etc.).” In 2009, the tower began the process of broadcasting signal for digital television.

Sutro TowerThe legacy of the name and landscape surrounding Sutro Tower is complicated and rooted in the origins of the city. To understand this tower is to understand the history of San Francisco, from Adolph Sutro’s philanthropy to broadcasting imperium that is Sutro Tower Inc. Above all this history San Francisco and the city its self-dwells the Tower. Looming above the fog, cast shadows down the slopes of Mount Sutro and surrounding neighborhood, and casting its visage over the entire city; Sutro Tower remains an icon for San Francisco for multiple generations would still wait for its stalking march towards the Golden Gate.

Further Reading

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