May 2016 | This is a paper on the history and development of the San Francisco landmark Sutro Tower.

In 1956, Sutro Tower Inc., a coalition of television and radio companies, announced its plan to build a new radio tower atop Mount Sutro, in the center of San Francisco.[1] The decision was met with both support and resistance. Support came from people who were glad that there would be better broadcasting service, as San Francisco’s uniquely hilly topography and the inability of smaller towers to broadcast effectively to all homes had caused the television and radio service in the city to be overall the worst in the country.[2] Resistance came from those upset to see the beautiful skyline of San Francisco ruined by the massive new tower. Because of its unprecedented proximity to urban residential areas, the tower affected people more directly than other construction projects of its scale. Diverging public opinions turned the debate on the construction of Sutro Tower into a classic struggle of progress versus preservation. The triumph of technological growth over the conservation of the city’s classic beauty makes the tower a monument to San Francisco’s commitment to the modern era.

Chief among complaints about the tower was its incoherence with the city’s aesthetic value and its disruption of San Francisco’s skyline. The base of Sutro Tower sits in Sutro Forest, the forest that covers the hills in the center of the city — the contrast with the forest emphasizes the imposing, artificial structure. This is evident in the city’s more recent efforts to beautify the area around the tower, planting trees around its base and using mirrors to hide some of the antennae from the view of the roads passing along Twin Peaks.[3] The site was chosen for the tower because of its high vantage point and ability to reach the maximum number of houses in an uninterrupted line, a requirement for optimal service. However, the tradeoff for this benefit was that it would have maximum visibility throughout the city. Indeed, Sutro Tower is visible from almost any point in San Francisco, as well as from Marin County and the East Bay. This divergence from the usual radio tower locations in remote areas was part of what sparked the controversy, bringing the usually distant industrial structures into the direct path of the people.

But the visual aspect is not the only way in which the tower disrupted public life. Gina Benson says of her home on the face of Twin Peaks: “When we first moved here, the remote key to our car didn’t work. Our car dealer warned us this might happen, since we were so close to Sutro Tower.”[4] This phenomenon occurs with various other devices as well. A recent report on the effects of the tower states that this is a somewhat frequent occurrence in such close proximity to the tower, as the radiation can interfere with electronic devices within close range.[5] However, the tower’s technology has since been updated to address these concerns, demonstrating an ability and willingness to adapt, and Gina Benson’s car key is now fully functional.

Many people also have safety concerns about Sutro Tower. There have been accusations that radiation from the tower may have adverse biological effects on nearby residents. A website about ecological dangers claims that the tower may cause increased rates of childhood cancer in the areas surrounding Mount Sutro.[6] However, engineers working at the tower insist that the radiation is in very low frequency waves, too low to cause any damage to the human body.[7] A recent city report supports this, proclaiming that the tower presents no danger to nearby residents.[8]

Because of the frequent occurrences of earthquakes in San Francisco, there are also concerns about Sutro Tower, or parts of it, falling, especially since it is placed above a residential neighborhood. Sutro Tower was built to withstand earthquakes, with a foundation that runs so deeply into the mountain that the tower’s center of gravity is underground.[9] Additional renovations were done in 1991 to improve the tower’s stability.[10] But there have been more recent complaints. A lawsuit by the Twin Peaks Improvement Association in 2005 claimed that meeting basic safety regulations wasn’t enough, and that Sutro Tower only meets old regulations, not updated ones. This organization asserts that a strong earthquake could still cause damage to the antennae mounted on the tower, causing them to fall and endanger the thousands of nearby residents.[11] These dangers illustrate the negative side of the rapid and innovative growth presented by the tower.

Sutro Tower’s construction also affected Sutro Forest. Sutro Forest was originally planted in the late 19thcentury by Adolf Sutro, mayor of San Francisco from 1894.[12] In the 1930s, the land was passed to his grandson (also named Adolf Sutro), who built his home at the future site of Sutro Tower. In 1948, he sold his land and his mansion to the American Broadcasting Company, who used it as a studio.[13] A small radio tower was originally built for their broadcasts, but later abandoned because of complaints of poor reception in favor of plans for larger one.

When the forest was originally planted, it covered 1100 acres. However, through many increments of downsizing it over the past century, it is now only approximately 80 acres of forest.[14] As the largest green space within San Francisco, and arguably the only place where one can be completely immersed in nature, it provides an area of escape to the natural world within an urban setting. Popular hiking trails run throughout the forest, providing the people with the experience of a natural environment.[15] Since the conception of the tower, there have been efforts made to stop the reduction of the forest. The Environmental Law Society of the University of San Francisco’s law school filed a suit against Sutro Tower Inc., just after its construction was announced.[16] Though the lawsuit, based on the technicalities of Sutro Tower Inc.’s building permits, ultimately failed, the group’s efforts laid groundwork for later campaigns. More recent challenges have come from opposition to the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), partial owners of Sutro Forest, which has plans to further reduce the size of the forest by cutting down sections of trees.[17] Protesters to this further reduction of the already small amount of forestation in the city have criticized this decision and are actively working to preserve the forest. The Sutro Forest website has a blog dedicated to raising awareness of Sutro Forest’s predicament with UCSF and the importance of its role in the city.[18] The scaling back of Sutro Forest has dramatically changed the topography of this part of San Francisco, slowly chipping away at the need to preserve the city as it is.

In the face of the harsh protest, Sutro Tower has continued to stand, remaining the primary broadcast center for the Bay Area. Since its inception, the tower has continued to expand its importance, integrating cellular service and gaining more companies to use the tower for their own broadcasts, including the city government. . In 1997, Sutro Tower was designated an “essential facility” by San Francisco for its importance in communication.[19] It is clear that Sutro Tower has become an indispensible part of the city’s life.Despite the controversy over Sutro Tower’s construction, initial and ongoing, people of San Francisco are coming to see the tower as a part of the city rather than an imposition on it. Many pieces of San Francisco-themed art feature the tower alongside such iconic landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Pier 39. As a new generation of San Francisco residents grows up with the tower, its omnipresence becomes less of an imposition and more of a comfort. Although aspects of San Francisco’s past may have been lost with the construction and assimilation of Sutro Tower into the city, the tower became part of an evolution into a new city culture for the modern age.


[1]July, David. “Sutro Tower and Mount Sutro.” http://sutrotower.org.

[2]Corona Daily Independent(Corona, CA). “San Francisco’s New TV Tower.” April 24, 1974.

[3]“Tower History.” Sutro Tower. http://sutrotower.com.

[4]Benson, Gina. Interview by the author. San Francisco, CA. February 27, 2016.

[5]Wycko, Bill. Sutro Tower Television Project: Draft Environmental Impact Report. San Francisco, CA: 2008.

[6]Cherry, Neil. “Childhood Cancer Incidence in the Vicinity of the Sutro Tower, San Francisco.” Mindfully. http://www.mindfully.org/.

[7]“Surto Tower: From Eyesore to Icon.” Video file. Exploratorium. August 13, 2014. http://exploratorium.edu.

[8]Wycko. Sutro Tower Television Project: Draft Environmental Impact Report.

[9]July. “Sutro Tower and Mount Sutro.”

[10]Ibid.

[11]“Questions Regarding the Lawsuit.” Community Perspectives on Sutro Tower. http://www.sutro.org.

[12]“Tower History.”

[13]July. “Sutro Tower and Mount Sutro.”

[14]“Mount Sutro Forest.” http://mntsutro.com/.

[15]Ibid.

[16]Daily Review(Hayward, CA). “‘Monstrosity’ new colossus.” January 28, 1973.

[17]“Save Mount Sutro Forest.” http://sutroforest.com/.

[18]Ibid.

[19]July. “Sutro Tower and Mount Sutro.”