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Artist Projects Glimpses of Cliff House History From Iconic SF Building's Museum

NBC Bay Area logo NBC Bay Area 12/25/2021 Joe Rosato Jr.
Artist Ben Wood is projecting historic images of the Cliff House from 5 to 10 p.m. every night through the building’s windows through April 9. (Dec. 24, 2021) © Provided by NBC Bay Area

Artist Ben Wood is projecting historic images of the Cliff House from 5 to 10 p.m. every night through the building’s windows through April 9. (Dec. 24, 2021)

The history of San Francisco's famous Cliff House at the city's Western edge is as long and turbulent as the waves crashing below where the building's third incarnation sits perched.

But now at the end of each day as the sun slips behind the fog, a Bay Area visual artist is bringing some of that history to light, in a series of nightly projections through the building's windows.

Artist Ben Wood is using a trio of projectors to cast hundreds of rotating images, showing some of the people who have flocked to the western seashore over the last 150 years.

"What I’m drawn to is especially showing the faces of people that have been here over the decades," Wood said.

The images show long evolving beach style, from bulky dresses and suits to the less formal attire of more recent times. They show the three incarnations of the Cliff House itself, from its spartan 1863 building to Adolph Sutro's grand, cliff-hugging Victorian. Both buildings burned down. The current building was built in 1909 by Sutro's daughter, and despite extensive remodeling, survives more or less in its original state.

"I often think about what would happen if you got to show an added layer of history," Wood said, "to unveil those stories that are behind the building."

Wood's projections emanate from inside a temporary museum currently occupying the building's now empty gift shop. Late last year, the long-time operators of the Cliff House Restaurant announced they were permanently closing after failing to come to agreement on a lease with the National Park Service which runs the site. The loss of the restaurant after nearly a half-century left the building closed and silent.

Back in March, the Western Neighborhoods Project, a small history group focused on San Francisco's Western end, bought nearly a hundred Cliff House historic artifacts which the restaurant operators were preparing to auction. The items now sit in the museum while the park service searches for a new restaurant tenant.

"The idea is you can really experience the history of this place -- in this place," said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

The museum includes vintage bathing wear from the Sutro Baths, decorative plates and even a bust of Adolph Sutro himself.

Wood is currently projecting still images from the Cliff House history, but plans to soon include historic films in partnership with the Prelinger Film Archive. The installation, projecting through three northern windows plays from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. each night and runs through April 9. Viewing is free. Wood is also putting out a call for the public to submit personal photos of Cliff House memories for a future projection at the site.

"So what I’m doing through video and moving pictures and projection," Wood said, "is trying to add to the story, trying to bring back some of the stories you don’t normally see."

The images may date back decades, but Meldahl noted the ocean sounds serving as the area's soundtrack, are the same sounds that would've accompanied the original photographers as they clicked their shutters.

"You get the broader context of what these people were experiencing when they were here," Meldahl said, sitting inside the small museum, "because you’re feeling the same weather, you’re in the same environment."

The Western edge of San Francisco is filled with the ghosts of history -- from the bygone Playland at the Beach amusement park, to the Sutro Baths and Fleishhacker Pool. The Cliff House and the ruins of the baths continue to draw countless visitors --Wood hopes the photo projections will also give people a reason to visit.

"It’s just fascinating to see time passing," Wood said. "And given that, people don’t really change, we still like to come down to the seaside and have fun."

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