Adolph Sutro was born in 1830 in Aachen, Germany. The third of eleven children, he moved with his family to Baltimore, Maryland in 1850 after the death of his father. Sutro relocated to San Francisco just a year later as one of many who sought opportunity in the Gold Rush. There he opened a number of businesses but left in 1860 to work in Virginia City, Nevada, where the silver Comstock Lode had just been discovered. While there, he invented a tunnel construction to drain water from the silver mines, earning him a fortune once the tunnel was constructed and up and running. Returning to San Francisco in 1879, he made numerous real estate investments and increased his wealth considerably, which he then put to use in several public and private ventures around the city. Sutro served a brief stint as mayor (1894-1896) and died shortly thereafter in 1898. His legacy included the Cliff House, the Sutro Baths, and a gift of land on Parnassus Heights that became the campus for a new medical school at the University of California San Francisco.
Sutro’s heirs donated his book collection, which was one of the largest private libraries in the country at the time, to the California State Library in 1913, with the requirement that the collection remain in San Francisco. An avid book collector, Sutro traveled extensively throughout western Europe in the 1880s looking for books to add to his collection. In this he followed the likes of J.P. Morgan, H. E. Huntington, and other magnates who looked to establish their cultural credentials with large art and rare book collections. Estimates are that at the end of its first decade his library contained some 100,000 volumes, which included nearly 4,000 incunables. By the mid-1890s, the number of books totaled something like 200,000 volumes, with another 100,000 pamphlets. The total cost of amassing all these books was estimated at the time to have been half a million dollars. Much of his collection was never properly cataloged, and probably half of his entire stock including almost all of the incunables, stored in a downtown warehouse on Battery Street, was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. About 60 incunabula volumes remain in the Sutro library today.
Sutro’s purchasing of books began in the early 1880s. Records show that Sutro was greatly interested in the 1883 auction of the Buxheim library and made a number of purchases there. He himself stated, “. . . the Monastery of Buxheim Library and that of the Duke of Dalberg, Germany, came under the hammer during that time, and large purchases were made therefrom” (Dillon, 342). Additionally, he purchased many of the incunable seconds from the Bavarian State Library in Munich. Presumably many of the Buxheim incunables became part of the Sutro library, since this was such an interest of his. Most of these must also be presumed lost. Along with an annotated copy of the auction catalog, four medieval manuscripts have been identified in the Sutro library (since 2012 on the San Francisco State University campus) as having originated in Buxheim.
Richard Dillon, “The Sutro Library,” News Notes on California Libraries, vol. 51.2 (1956): 338-352.
James Gillis, “The Sutro Branch of the California State Library,” The Library Journal, vol. 43.2 (1917): 182-183.
Eugenia Kellogg Homes, Adolph Sutro: A Brief Story of a Brilliant Life, San Francisco: SF Photo-Engraving Co., 1895. Online copy.
William Huber, Adolph Sutro: King of the Comstock Lode and Mayor of San Francisco, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2020.
Mark Stern, Beyond the Tunnel: The Second Life of Adolph Sutro, Independently Published, 2018.
Robert Stewart, Jr. and Mary Frances Stewart, Adolph Sutro: A Biography, Berkeley: Howell-North, 1962.
The Sutro Library. California State Library.