Sutro or bust: Sculpture proposed to honor Jewish mayor

Visitors to San Francisco and longtime residents alike can tour the ruins of Sutro Baths, gauge their whereabouts in the city by glancing up at Sutro Tower and stroll through Sutro Forest near Laguna Honda Reservoir.

All of which begs the question: Who the hell, exactly, was Sutro?

Leonid Nakhodkin would like to answer that. He’s pushing for the installation of a bust of Adolph Sutro — a former engineer, philanthropist, book collector and mayor of San Francisco — in City Hall.

“We must save the historical treasures in our city, and Sutro is a treasure, a part of American history. He was also our first practicing Jewish mayor,” said Nakhodkin, a Ukraine-born former Soviet political prisoner and founder of San Francisco’s United Humanitarian Mission.

At one point Sutro owned more than one-twelfth of San Francisco. Before his death in 1898 at age 68, he’d amassed nearly a quarter of a million books, virtually all of which were donated to the public. He was one of the greatest collectors of Hebraica in the world.

Perhaps the only thing more fascinating than Sutro’s life is pondering how a man like this could become almost completely overlooked in one century’s time.

“It fascinates me that he is so forgotten,” said professor David Dalin, the Taube research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on Jews in American politics between 1860 and 1932.

The German-born Sutro settled in San Francisco in 1850 when he was a 20-year-old engineer. But he became a household name in 19th-century America during the Nevada silver rush of the late 1850s. The engineer devised a method for draining the Comstock lode’s mines of water; in 1866 President Andrew Johnson signed the Sutro Tunnel Act, which mandated that every Comstock silver mine pay royalties to Sutro for making their mines feasible.

Sutro returned to San Francisco as a fabulously wealthy man, and the city benefited from his success. He donated large swaths of his personal holdings to the city — one 27-acre parcel now houses the University of California Hospital and Medical Center, Parnassus Campus. And, of course, there’s Sutro Baths, which he built and donated to the city (along with the Cliff House).

Sutro also designed and constructed the city’s first all-electric trolley system, so the poor could afford to ride to the baths.

Sadly, the majority of Sutro’s books were consumed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Yet thousands of texts, including priceless, 500-year-old Hebrew manuscripts, can still be viewed at the state library in San Francisco, an unassuming building at 480 Winston Drive behind the Stonestown Mall.

When Sutro was elected mayor in 1895, his chair had recently been warmed by another Jew. Washington Bartlett — the son of a Sephardi Jewish mother — served as mayor from 1883-87. Sutro, however, was the first overt and practicing Jew elected to the office.

While Sutro was not a particularly effective mayor, Dalin maintains that his legacy was already secured via his philanthropy and by paving the way for future Jewish politicians. These are the major reasons Nakhodkin is pushing for the bust.

In Nakhodkin’s initial meetings with the San Francisco Arts Commission earlier this year, the panel reacted favorably to the idea of a bust for Sutro. But Nakhodkin still has to meet the commission’s approval on his choice of artist, design and location for the bust.

While the 13 busts in City Hall are all cast in bronze, Nakhodkin is hoping Sutro’s will be in marble. He feels this looks better — and at $25,000 to $30,000, it’d be far cheaper than a cast metal sculpture (the forthcoming Harvey Milk bronze bust cost $57,000). Along with the “maintenance fund” for the bust, Nakhodkin is looking at around $50,000 in fundraising.

Jill Manton, director of the city’s public art program, said Nakhodkin’s deviation from the usual bust material could cause problems. In any event, that’s one of many details looming in what appears to be a lengthy process.

“The city never makes it easy for anyone,” she said. “Artists have to have signed-and-stamped engineering drawings, liability and fine arts insurance, transportation insurance, and must attend a number of meetings and presentations. Typically, our commissions with artists take a good year for art to be executed.”

But, then again, Sutro’s Nevada tunnel took 15 years — and we all know how that turned out.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.