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The Sutro Baths and Little Brother

I’m a sucker for stories that are tied to places I know. When I first read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, I was only glancingly familiar with most of the Bay Area settings for the different scenes. Now I spend time every day in the Mission, where most of the action takes place, and have a much better feel for the character of the location.

One critical scene, though, takes place outside of the Mission in a place called the Sutro Baths. The Baths are way out on the northwestern corner of the peninsula, and Doctorow calls them “San Francisco’s authentic fake Roman ruins”. They were built in 1896 as the world’s largest indoor bathing house, and left to collapse after a 1966 fire destroyed most of the structure. (In Little Brother, Doctorow says the fire was started by the owners to collect insurance money. I don’t know if that’s true.)

In 1897, Thomas Edison recorded two videos of the attraction, which are available through the Library of Congress: one, two. I made this animated gif from one of them.

I saw the play adaptation of the book this weekend, and I was reminded of this cool location that I hadn’t seen before. So I did some research and decided to make a trip out there with my buddy Robb. I took a handful of pictures which don’t really do the location justice.

The ruins are definitely worth seeing. Bring a jacket, though, because it gets very windy in that part of the city. It’s a bit of a trek to get there on public transport, but mostly a straight shot.