Old location of the Sutro, to the right (not seen) is a shopping center
The first time I visited the Sutro Library I remember thinking "Wow this place is a dump!" It was located across from a shopping mall in an ugly brown building. The inside wasn't much better. It always seemed dark, like half of the lights were shut off. There were no windows to the outside world. I really did not like to do research there at all.
I don't know why I was surprised at the condition of the library. It has been treated like an ugly red-headed step child since the very beginning.
In 1859, Adolph Sutro planned and built a tunnel which made it possible to drain and ventilate the many mines in the Comstock Lode, and to permit the miners to bring out the rich silver ore. This made Adolph a very rich man.
He ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1894 on the Populist ticket, as the "Anti-Octopus" candidate, which opposed the politics of the Southern Pacific Railroad. He served one term.
Adolph Sutro's Cliff House 1894
At one time he owned one-twelfth of the acreage in San Francisco. He purchased the Cliff House in the early 1880s and a thousand acres of land facing the ocean, now named Sutro Heights. He also built the famed Sutro Baths and planted Sutro Forest.
The Sutro Baths
He owned the finest private library in the United States and had planned to build a library at Sutro Heights, then decided to use half the acreage subsequently given to the University of California, on Mount Parnassus (now Mount Sutro). A specific design for this building was published and the university regents actually approved the offer. However Sutro, who died in 1898, had failed to provide the necessary legal basis for this plan in his will, unrevised since 1882, and his heirs disputed the ownership of the collection. Only after extended litigation and several unsatisfactory location changes did they finally agree to donate it to the California State Library in 1913, on the condition it must remain permanently in San Francisco.
Bookplate from Sutro Library
In the 1906 Great Earthquake, about 40% of the library collection was destroyed by fire. Over the next forty-six years, the California Legislature repeatedly failed to provide funding for maintenance of the collection or construction of a building to house it. At one point returning the collection to the Sutro heirs was a consideration.
In 1959 The University of San Francisco offered to house the collection in the Gleeson Library for a nominal fee. There it remained until 1983 when it was moved to the location on Winston Street - the ugly brown building.
I am really looking forward to visiting the Sutro Library in its brand new home. May 2012 is when the door will open to the much improved location for the library.
The new address is: 1600 Holloway Ave, San Francisco, CA 94132
The Sutro Library is the San Francisco branch of the California State Library. Its holdings are cataloged and can be checked online using MELVYL.