At Lands End in San Francisco, visitors will soon be able to take shelter from the elements and learn about the site’s culture and history at a new visitor center opening this weekend.

The center is the realization of a 1993 vision to overhaul the existing visitor center, according to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit arm of the National Parks Service dedicated to preserving its namesake protected lands.

Without funding, the idea was shelved until 2010, when private funding and $1.5 million from the National Parks Service gave the Lands End Lookout some traction.

Work began in 2011 on the 4,150-square foot center, which sits above the former Sutro Baths.

As one walks downhill from the site’s parking lot, the wood and concrete structure, with its glass east and west walls, emerges slowly from the hillside to frame the horizon.

According to the lookout’s designers and the parks service, the structure intends not only to remind visitors that they are on the edge of the continent and but also how the landscape has changed over time.

In the 1880s mining magnate Adolph Sutro, a German immigrant who made his fortunes during the Gold Rush era and whose name lives on in city landmarks, built up the lands surrounding his modest estate into an amusement center–the Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights Gardens, lands which the city inherited upon Sutro’s death in 1898.

But before the hillside’s incarnation as a pleasure center, it was a wild landscape, where sheer cliffs and rolling sand dunes were battered by whipping winds and blanketed by coastal fog.

Howard Levitt, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s director of communications, said the site symbolizes “the wildness of the western edge of San Francisco” and all its drama.

Today, the landscaping reflects a selection of native plants and statues of a stag and a lion are imitations of those that once graced the grounds at Sutro’s gardens.

Rows of wooden posts, formed with reclaimed wood from the Presidio, create “dune screens” that help prevent dune erosion and encourage microclimates that support the plantings.

The posts also create lines that naturally draw the viewer’s eye from the hillside to the building to the ocean beyond.

An art installation stretching the length of the main room’s ceiling also aims to connect the space to what lies beyond, depicting the site’s transition from wildlife habitat to urban hub.
“You never lose that connection to the landscape,” architect Jennifer Devlin, a principal with EHDD Architecture, said. Her firm worked with landscape architects Surface Design and interior designers Macchiatto Strategic Design on the structure.

Jeremy Regenbogen, a principal with Macchiatto, said the structure’s design is “intended to age, and like the rest of the building, to weather,” which is why it also incorporates reclaimed elements such as redwood cladding that once formed a bar at the nearby Cliff House.

Devlin said the building was also designed with the idea of visitors wanting “to go in to go out again,” rather than have it be a one-time destination.

Breaking from the traditional of other national parks visitor centers, the Lands End lookout combines interpretive retail with historic exhibits, with a 1,800-pound replica statue of the Greek goddess Diana from Sutro’s garden on display alongside books, coffee mugs and other merchandise.

Along with its educational and interpretive exhibits, the center also houses a cafe.

It will officially open to the public on Saturday with an 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony and an open house from noon to 2 p.m. that will feature refreshments and music as well as educational tours.

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

Want more news, sent to your inbox every day? Then how about subscribing to our email newsletter? Here’s why we think you should. Come on, give it a try.

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!