With the official arrival of May Day, the crossroads of Spring and Summer, locals flock out to enjoy Sutter’s Hill. Located between two abandoned railway lines—reminders of the city’s competing railroad companies consolidated out of existence long ago—Sutter’s Hill is a steep man-made mount overlooking the beautiful vista of a small man-made “lake” (though, a more accurate term would be pond), a field of soft grass, and a lone pear tree that bears no fruit.
The history of Sutter’s Hill began in the early 1920s, when aluminum heiress Honey Sutter commissioned one of the country’s first multi-story underground homes. Decked out in the finest appointments on the inside, the exterior was hidden by a truck-fleet’s worth of soil, halfway up to the fifth floor. When, in her characteristically impulsive manner, she decided to abandon the city in 1943 to join an air circus, she left the house to the municipality, lock, stock and barrel.
In a rare episode of foresight, then-Mayor Dalton Worth elected to turn the whole thing into a park. To this day, the bottom four floors are closed and sealed, completely buried under what has ever since been called Sutter’s Hill. In the winter, it serves as one of the city’s best (and steepest) sledding/snowboarding hills, in warmer times as a wonderful lookout spot and place for romantic encounters.
The fifth floor of the house is kept in pristine condition by the collaborative efforts of the Preservation Society and the Historical Property Rights Commission. There are eight rooms in all, some furnished with teak four-poster beds or replica antique vases and faux-cubist paintings. The pseudo-museum also includes a small cafeteria and bakery, in the former upper ballroom and two guest bedrooms.
If you are not too sensitive, your feelings not too tender, the cafe’s sharp-tongued and all-business cooks offer fine delights, including the standard fare of cakes, cookies, kugel and one of the best rice puddings in the country, as declared by Rachel Ray on her traveling food program, $40 a Day (The pudding is $1.50/slab, and rated by the host as “Mmmmph, oh gawd!”).
An oil painting of Ms. Sutter (tragically killed in an airplane crash in 1943) hangs behind the cash register in the cafe. Honey gazes lovingly at the viewer in nothing but a white shirt, her shoulders bathed in her golden curls.
Sutter’s Hill Cafe hours: Mon-Sat 8-6, Sun 10-4
– M. Cathers