Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

Commercial Development: Downtown business; Residential development
by Susan Lehmann

Downtown business: As discussed in an earlier section, the Santa Cruz Mission and its satellite properties (including the Mission gardens, orchard and small farms) were the first center of what would eventually become the City of Santa Cruz. From secularization through statehood, these lands were sold and subdivided and some later became separately developed tracts.

Industrialization of the area necessitated the building of the first wharf in 1851 and the center of activity for the town shifted from the plaza around the mission to an area that would connect more directly to the waterfront. Elihu Anthony bought the land south of Water Street between Front Street and the River in 1848. He built the first business in that part of town at North Pacific, Water and Mission Streets and offered the rest for sale. As more [businesses] were established, Front Street became the main business street in town.

In 1860, the town created a water system and as the population increased, more residential development occurred both above and below Lincoln Street. Concurrently with the industrial development, the first tourist hotels, cottages and other facilities were constructed at the beach. This partly explains why the city often seems to be divided into two separate unconnected parts: the beach area which was developed as a tourist center and the downtown which served commercial and industrial interests.

In 1866, as the result of the Wright-Forman survey, the name of Main Street was changed to Front and Willow to Pacific. Beginning at this time, the center of business began to shift to Pacific from Front and the latter became known as the location of the city's seamier businesses including waterfront saloons and whore houses.

The industrial boom throughout the County resulted in the city's population growing by fifty per cent in the 1870s. Business establishments continued to shift to Pacific Street which experienced a building boom after 1875. Horse cars ran down Pacific and Front Streets to the beach providing a link between the city's business area and the hotels and other attractions at the seashore. During the 1870s, facilities were built to enhance the cultural life of Santa Cruz. A hall for socials and concerts was constructed and as well as an Opera House in 1877. The city center boasted a bank as well as a savings and loan. There were also a number of large commercial hotels which offered free transportation from the train station and to the attractions at the beach. In addition there were churches and fraternal halls, a temperance hall and a town brewery.

According to the City Directory for 1876-78, businesses on Pacific Avenue included the following: attorneys, a tailor, a dry goods store, livery stables, a shop selling boot and shoes, as well as one providing "books, stationery and 'fancy goods,'" a bakery, restaurants, an ice cream parlor, several saloons, and a number of contractor's offices. One merchant showed a flair for business diversity -- George Staeffler, at 1510 Pacific, offered furniture and bedding as well as his services as an undertaker.

Until the late 1870s, the development of the waterfront was a key element in the city's economic development. The coming of railroad, however, with the opening of a spur from Watsonville and Gilroy in 1876, ended Santa Cruz's dependence on shipping. At the same time a line ran up to Felton which also gave increased accessibility to tourists. The port continued to decline in importance and in the 1880s, the beach front as [a] tourist attraction became more important than ever before.

The link between the downtown business area and the beach was touted in the 1891 Mercantile Guide for California: "The sidewalk on Pacific Avenue, the main street of Santa Cruz is almost 20 feet wide and nearly a mile long from the post office to the bathing beach and along this sidewalk every summer a large percentage of the very best people in California promenade ... ."

Interestingly enough, the downtown maintained its rather prosaic appearance, a legacy, no doubt, of its origins as the commercial center of an industrial empire. In 1890, E. S. Harrison wrote: "The business blocks of the city while making no pretensions to magnificence of proportions or particular beauty of architecture, are substantial, and bespeak an air of prosperity..."

With its population of 5,800, the city also supported another commercial district on Soquel Avenue which catered to local traffic. In 1894 it had, among other businesses, a shoemaker, carriage and wagon makers, grocers, blacksmiths, livery stables, and a generous share of saloons.

On April 14, 1894, the downtown area suffered a fire that would change the face of downtown. As was the case in cities and towns across the country, fire was always disaster waiting to happen and it became virtually unstoppable as it tore through the wood frame buildings that comprised many downtown areas during the period. Santa Cruz prided itself in having a modern and extensive water supply and a near perfect fire fighting system. The afternoon of April 14, however, the main water gate at the reservoir had burst cutting off most of the water supply to downtown. Firefighters were nearly helpless to stop the blaze which burned most of the block bound by Pacific, Front and Cooper destroying the courthouse, along with other major structures. The disaster caused major new commercial construction and rebuilding resulting in a changed look for [downtown] as limitations were put on wooden buildings. The fire danger was addressed in 1896 when new fire department facilities [were] constructed on Church Street.

Aside from some facade changes, mostly initiated after World War II, the downtown area maintained its post 1894 appearance until 1989. The unreinforced masonry replacements constructed following the fire were vulnerable to a different kind of disaster and suffered wholesale destruction as a result of the effects of the 1989 earthquake. Only a small number of these buildings remain including the County Bank Building at 1502 Pacific which had been remodeled [in] 1910. It was virtually destroyed by [the] earthquake but the facade was saved and has been rebuilt for commercial use. The Leonard Building, designed in 1894 by Edward L. Van Cleeck, and originally housing a saloon in the bottom floor was another survivor along with the William Weeks designed structure at 1515 Pacific now known as the ID building. Also intact is the 1882 former Hall of Records at 118 Cooper Street which is now part of the Art and History Museum.

There was some additional construction during the 1920s and 1930s and examples of these were spared destruction by the earthquake and its aftermath. These include the Del Mar theater constructed in 1936, the 1929 Bank of America Building, and the Veterans Building constructed in 1932.

Residential development: The industrial and commercial development of Santa Cruz governed the early residential development and influenced the later patterns of residential growth. By the 1860s Fred Hihn owned most of the old Mission garden between Mission Hill and Beach Hill. Earlier, during the 1850s, he had developed a tract located north of Lincoln Street. Although land was also subdivided for houses on Mission Hill and west of the Mission on the Coast Road to San Francisco, most of this early development took place on the flat lands below the hill.

In the 1870s important residential developments moved to the east side of the river and to the West Cliff area. Ocean View opened up in 1871 and Riverside Avenue subdivided in 1876. In 1875, [the] old Mission orchard and pasture (River Street) was subdivided but never filled up. With the exception of worker housing, including single family dwellings, boarding houses and the homes of owners of industrial sites such as the tannery, the area remained industrial. In the 1880s small housing tracts appeared all over town including the near west side and area just east of the River. In 1889 the Circles area was laid out by Fred Hihn for the Christian Church of California. It was the first major geometric planned area in Santa Cruz and representative of an unusual planning idea in a few other California cities of the period. It was a failure both as a plan and as [a] real estate venture at the time it was built. Other houses were later constructed in the Circles, mostly after World War II. It is a notable location because it was the center of a post-World War II African American community.

The 1890s brought electrification and expansion of [the] street railroad system. By 1895 major new lines ran out Mission and down Younglove and Woodrow and out Soquel and down Cayuga to Seabright. Housing followed these streetcar lines and a great deal of the resulting neighborhoods still remain, although no longer connected by the public transportation that brought them into being. Following this, little residential growth occurred in the city until after the turn of the century due to an economic depression and limited population growth.

From 1900 through 1910 new housing went up near the streetcar lines and when a new line ran out Water and Morrissey, the large piece of land between Soquel, Morrissey and de Laveaga Park was subdivided and developed as Laveaga Park. During the period between 1910 and 1920 the city lost population for the first time and little building took place although new subdivisions were plotted on the outskirts, particularly on the west side. One of the most notable failures of the period was the Swanton Beach Tract just east of Natural Bridges. The development never sold and, as a result, Fred Swanton was driven into bankruptcy.

New housing in the 1920s occurred mainly on the west side of town on King Street and surrounding areas, much of it built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. In 1927 the streetcar system closed down due to [the] popularity of cars and the ubiquitous garage with every new house, no matter how modest, made its appearance. There was very little development during the Depression and World War II and housing constructed after the war occurred as small tracts and infill within established neighborhoods.

[From: Fully Developed Context Statement for the City of Santa Cruz. Prepared for City of Santa Cruz Planning and Development Department. Prepared by Susan Lehmann, October 20, 2000. Chapter 3, Context I: Economic Development of the City of Santa Cruz 1850-1950, pp. 19-21]

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