Friday, November 11, 2016

Curiosities: The Casa del Rey Hotel & Apartments

When the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1881, activity on the Santa Cruz main beach was still pretty slim. But the coming of the railroad brought in thousands of passengers, especially once the more direct route over the mountains was leased in 1887. Suddenly, the potential for Santa Cruz to become a tourist destination was assured. Fred W. Swanton, an early investor in the city, jumped at the opportunity by building a huge casino and tent city complete on the beach in 1904. When tragedy struck and destroyed it, he rebuilt like crazy, employing William Henry Weeks to build a new Casino, Plunge Natatorium, and Cottage City to replace what was lost. By 1907, all three were thriving, but things were quickly changing in the tourist market.

The multi-colored Cottage City built across from the Casino, 1907. [Vaughn's Summaries]
By 1910, the large, sprawling Cottage City was falling behind modern trends. Because of the advent of the automobile, it was becoming more fashionable to visit summer locales for shorter periods of time than before. People had things to do—they could no longer waste away the summer months relaxing in Santa Cruz. And the Cottage City was built to cater to just such an audience. Something had to change and Swanton knew the solution.

Construction on the Casa del Rey Hotel, early 1911. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The remnant Cottage City tucked behind the shadow of the Casa del Rey.
As his last major action as company financier, Swanton decided in 1910 to build a massive hotel complex he christened CASA DEL REY (House of the King). It was built via the architectural prowess of George Applegarth directly across from the Casino and was one of the most state-of-the-art structures in Santa Cruz County. Roughly half of the cottage city was relocated or dismantled to make room for the three-story colossal, fire-proof structure. The building was done in the most spectacular Spanish-revival style, with Pueblo-style vigas and a brilliant triple-arched bridge that crossed over street and railroad track to the Casino. Ornamental columns decorated the main entrance and a terra cotta trim along the roofline completed the look of the bastion. The final building was 335 feet by 135 feet (100,000 square feet total) that fronted Cliff Street. it included 300 rooms, 200 baths, two Italian gardens, private telephones in each room, guest elevators, rich furniture and tapestries, and a grand lobby. Outside beside the remnant Cottage City was a high-class restaurant, a tennis court, gardens, and a bandstand. The hotel also had direct railroad and streetcar service and operated a private golf course on the modern-day site of Pogonip park. It was a palace for a royal court and it made the Sea Beach Hotel two blocks away on Main Street look like a thing of the past. The fire that destroyed it the next year confirmed the dominance of the Casa del Rey on the beachfront.

The Casa del Rey Hotel soon after opening. Postcard dated July 29, 1911. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The Casa del Rey opened for business on May 1, 1911, although the grand opening celebrations were reserved for June 3. The final bill for the hotel was $500,000 (approx. $12.25 million in today's money) and the hotel was completely book that summer. Fireworks and music accompanied the grand opening. Swanton was an excellent promotions manager, if nothing else, and only months after the new hotel opened, the Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset Magazine published the following advertising the new hostelry's merits:
Advertisement, 1911.
"You turn a sudden corner, and see it looming ahead like a long battleship painted for times of peace, and berthed in the drydock of this sheltered swale—a battleship with ports from stem to stern for the black out thrust snouts of her gunnage; at second glance, it is a high rampart with a single merlon of three loopholes—an armed and double-arched wall for defense; descending, it proves to be what it looks—a fortification, the last in a chain of such that reaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate. For here, in the mountain-and-sea-town of Santa Cruz, and built so as to block the narrow way between roadstead and forest-slope, is another of those citadels equipped against the lack of everything necessary, desirable, convenient and entertaining. This is the Casa del Rey—and the ink is scarcely dry on the first pages of its muster-roll. 
"It is new—so new that the ivy is only just getting a first grasp on rough bright walls where, by the simple alchemy of paint, the sun (even on the grayest of sea-days) seems constantly to be striking. But for all its newness you have an instinctive feeling of romance toward this red-tiled building of Spanish design. No matter from which part of the state you hail, it will suggest some bell-walled mission, or some story of early days. And you think it would be the most natural thing in the world to see come out through its wide entrance a brown-cowled Brother of the White Cord 
"Casa del Rey Lobby, Santa Cruz, Cal." – postcard, 1930s. 
"You enter "the garden-room"—long and wide and high; glass-walled on two sides; built up, across a third, with a massive deep-throated fireplace. This is the room of the double garden. For turning right or left one sees—by a purpose of the builders that is inspirational—a patio, full of yellow light, musical with the tinkle of a fountain, splashed with the purples and crimsons of luxuriant bloom. 
One of the double gardens and the "garden-room" of the Casa del Rey, 1911. [Sunset Magazine]
"There are rooms above—two rectangles of them. The outer ones look upon mountains, town and sea. In these one sleeps under the guns, with the roar of the breakers booming against the windows and mingling with the joyous piping of children and early bathers. There is a second rectangle that commands the patios, and to these (all garden-rooms in themselves) the beat of the surf comes only dully, and voices not at all. But the great "garden-room" will charm the guests from them all. Here, on sunny days, is grateful coolness, the restful play of water after the boom of the sea, and green growth. When the fog is in, or a storm sweeps down from Loma Prieta, here is warmth, and bloom and brightness in the patios. And in the huge grate is springing the scarlet flowers of a fire.
"Gardens and Putting Green, Casa del Rey Hotel, Santa Cruz, Calif. – 6 miles from The Big Trees" – postcard, c. 1930s
"But the Casa del Rey is a house of double-gardens in a larger sense. For Santa Cruz, with a temperature that varies little from season to season, opens her doors one way against the mountains, and the other way into the sea. Thus, in the same hour, she offers all the pleasures of beach and bay as well as those that can be found in torrent-filled gorge and forest-covered steeps. 
"What a recreation-place for those families that are divided in their tastes respecting the outdoors! As well as for those other families who like variety during a vacation however long or limited! Turn left, and you tread on the foam-ruffled skirts of the sea; turn right, and you step on the fern-embroidered edge of the forest. 
"Arch Connecting Casino and Casa Del Rey Hotel, Santa Cruz, Calif." – postcard, c. 1915
"Turn left! A triple-arched bridge leads away from the "garden-room" to the Casino, the ocean-breezes, the sand and the deep salt. The Casino is a mammoth playhouse, Arabic in its gay towers and coloring, and with an arcaded front to the water. In "winter" you breakfast in "the garden-room" of the Casa, before a crackling blaze; but in summer you cross by bridge to a grill that commands the bay. Here within sound of surf one may eat, drink and be merry. There is a glassed-in room for those diners who prefer indoors; an open balcony for those who like the wind fluttering in their sleeves. There is a "sun-room" to rest in, high over the gay beach; there is a polished floor and a tireless band for the hours after dinner. 
"Dining, dancing, music, tennis, wading, bathing, boating, fishing, riding, rambling paths that follow the cliffs, resting in the warm sand—these, and more, are the pleasures offered at the end of the high arched bridge.
"Face right! With the sea glimmering at your back; with the Casa del Rey and its flanking "cottage city" out of sight in the sheltered hollow; with scarce a gilded cupola of the Casino showing, there opens a fresh world of delight. For you pass from the riot of color, gay laughter and splashing—to the heart of a redwood forest! 
"Other sea-towns of the West have mountains behind them. Are they such mountains as these?—opal in the near distance; a crisp green close at hand, where a wilderness of Christmas trees, giants and pigmies, life themselves tremulous with life. 
A streetcar and early automobiles parked outside the Casa del Rey, late 1910s.
"You make your "next-day" plans at night, looking out from under the bannered wall of Casa del Rey. It is a moonlight night, or, better still, there are only the stars. Left, over the oriental silhouette of the Casino, you can see the lights of a far-off passing steamer; right, looking mountainward, the yellow lights among the redwoods that are the beacons of camps on distant cañon-sides. Beyond the seaboard the ship's-bell is striking; from the mountain sound the bells of a "freighter" that is coming down from the long divide.
"Which way, at sun-up, will you go? Will you answer to the call of the ocean—that one voice ceaselessly booming? Will you go where a pipe-organ, keyed by the wind and choired by the birds, forever plays in the lofty roof of the forest? 
"The House of the Double Garden—in a double sense! It is gardened within, to right and left by its patios: it is gardened to right and left without. On one hand is the garden of the mountains, cool, mysterious, fragrantly inviting; on the other is the doubly mysterious, mist-brushed, changeful garden of the sea."
Ford Model Ts of all shapes and sizes parked outside the Casa del Rey, 1920s. [Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk]
"Hotel Casa del Rey at the Beach, Santa Cruz, California; one of the well-known
resort hotels of the Pacific Coast." – postcard, late 1940s. [CardCow]
Over the subsequent decades, much changed at the Casa del Rey, but much stayed the same, as well. The Santa Cruz Beach Company went bankrupt because of the hotel project and the entire Boardwalk complex was taken over by the city briefly before the Santa Cruz Seaside Company was founded in December 1915 to manage day-to-day operations. They struggled to make a profit until the waning years of the Great Depression finally brought hesitant vacationers back to the Central Coast, but the hotel was always one of its more successful ventures.

"Casa del Rey Apts, Santa Cruz Cal." – postcard, c. 1930. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Over the decades, the Seaside Company continued to expand the facility. The paving of Glenwood Highway in 1921 and then Beach Street in 1928 meant that more people could directly access the Boardwalk at their leisure. In response, the Seaside Company built in 1926, only a block away from the hotel, the Casa del Rey Apartments under the direction of architect William C. Hays. This was another Spanish-revival-style structure with a more intimate theme. Unlike the main hotel, the forty multi-level apartments were intended for visitors who wished to remain on the seaside a bit longer. It also included ocean-view luxury suites that were impossible to include at the larger hotel. Much like the Casa del Rey, these apartments featured two interior courtyards with gardens accessible only to guests.

"The Casa Del Rey Hotel, 300 modern rooms of hospitality located in a Spanish garden at the beach in
Santa Cruz, California" – postcard, c. 1928. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
Behind the main hotel, the Spanish Gardens opened up on March 31, 1928. Another half of the remnant Cottage City was demolished to make room for this expansion, but the cottages were quickly losing their appeal in the age of the automobile. Besides the plants and trees, a glass solarium and playground were added to the gardens, as well as a Spanish and French café and tea pavilion. In February 1932, management of the hotels, as well as the Palomar and St. George in downtown, were merged to make organizing local events easier to manage. The new proprietors, J. Vance, Gifford L Troyer, and W. C. Troyer, also leased the Bay Room ball room of the Casino and operated them as a year-round conference center and entertainment venue.

"Guests lounge in the quiet seclusion of Hotel Casa Del Rey's celebrated Spanish gardens. Adjoining the gardens are the Hotel's croquet and championship tennis courts, which are maintained for the added pleasure of guests." – Postcard, c. 1950.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
When the United States entered World War II, the Casa del Rey was leased to the military for use as a naval hospital, while the adjacent plunge was turned into a physical therapy center during certain times of the day. Even the apartments were given over to the military, housing 250 men by the end of the war. At the same time, permanent residents began moving into the apartments, mostly local businessmen working in some capacity for the Seaside Company.

"Overlooking the blue Pacific in the sunny vacation land of Santa Cruz, California"
– Casa del Rey Hotel and Casino postcard, late 1940s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
"Located at the Beac, Santa Cruz, California" – postcard, late 1940s. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The first Suntan Special returning after World War II had ended, 1947. The Casa del Rey Apartments are at left, and
in the distance one can see the bridge between the Casino and the Casa del Rey Hotel. [Fred Stoes]
In many ways, the war ruined both the hotel and apartments as popular tourist hostelries. The apartments went first, being purchased in 1944 by George Holland where it began to be run as an up-scale tenant-style apartment complex. A later owner, Dr. Allegrini, renamed them the La Bahia Apartments in 1964, who turned them into short-term lease apartments, although many of the previous tenants remained in select rooms. Under the management of Harry Stutz, La Bahia suffered and fell into a rapid decline, forcing the Santa Cruz Seaside Company to buy back the former hotel in 1983. Since then, it has primarily served as UCSC student housing and as a home to seasonal work-and-travel employees. Plans to upgrade, expand, or replace the building have been a constant but nothing has been done to revitalize this increasingly decaying representative of the Spanish-revival style.

La Bahia Apartments building, 2015. [Apostolis Giontzis]
Demolition of the Casa del Rey, 1989. [Pinterest]
The main hotel suffered greatly in the aftermath of World War II and it never entirely recovered. More of the cottage city was removed in 1942 to make room for parking. In 1952, the Seaside Company demolished the Spanish arch bridge over the road and tracks as the first in a series of improvements to the Casino structure. A restaurant workers strike in 1953 helped kill the conference trade briefly, and then the great Santa Cruz flood of 1955 damaged the local economy for many years as businesses fought to recover. The beautiful forest-speckled river-frontage of the Boardwalk was replaced with a dry flat area to the south surrounded by high river dike walls to protect from future floods. Property values plummeted in the beach area and the remaining cottages were shoved into a corner of the Casa del Rey property and their former locations and the gardens were replaced with five acres of parking lots. Although the Boardwalk itself remained seasonally popular, people no longer wished to stay in the increasingly violent area overnight. By the 1970s, the hotel had become a retirement home, but the Seaside Company was phasing out its last tenants in 1989 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake permanently crippled the structure. Although built to withstand all sorts of common building fires, the Casa del Rey had no defense against earthquakes and had been fortunate to survive 78 years without encountering one. But the damage was done and the Seaside Company was forced to demolish the ageing hotel soon afterwards.

The Casa del Rey Hotel after the Loma Prieta Earthquake collapsed a main wall, November 1989. [Vester Dick]
The history of the Casa del Rey Hotel is one fraught with unforeseen disaster. Its building in 1911 bankrupted Swanton and led to the transfer of his company to the Seaside Company in 1915. The hotel survived and even thrived through the 1920s and 1930s, but the war effort stretched its capacities and the flood of 1955 ruined many of its merits. Both it and its apartments passed through various owners and proprietors over the decades but neither ever thrived again. The hotel, succumbing to structural misfortune, disappeared from history in 1989, its only remnants being two large palm trees that once flanked the triple-arches over Beach Street. La Bahia survives, for now, but its future remains uncertain as it slowly rots away, lost to the politiking of the city and state.

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  1. WOW!! The pictures are fun and some quite stunning. The story of course is history, past and on going. What a mixture of hope, prosperity and sadness. Lets hope the 'politiking' doesn't keep us from moving forward with our beautiful beach town. Thank you for this.

  2. Truly enjoy your histories and pass them along to family and friends who also enjoy learning more about our hometown! Thanks Derek.


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