Friday, September 18, 2020

Curiosities: The Sea Beach Hotel

At the turn of the twentieth century, every seaside town on the Pacific Coast had a Victorian-style palatial hotel to lure tourists to the beach. Monterey had the Hotel Del Monte. San Diego had the Hotel del Coronado. Capitola had the Hotel Capitola. And Santa Cruz had the Sea Beach Hotel. For nearly forty years, the hotel grew from a small structure on Main Street on the Santa Cruz Main Beach into one of the most renowned resorts on the Central Coast. Celebrities and politicians from across the country came to stay in the hotel while they visited the nearby bathhouses and played on the beach. But the hotel began not as a palace but as just another hostelry in an industrialized area that had struggled for two decades to attract residents or tourists.

One of many colorized postcards showing the Sea Beach Hotel in all its glory, 1911. [HipPostcard]
The Santa Cruz Main Beach in the mid-1870s was at its industrial height. The Santa Cruz Railroad had tracks running down the beach while the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad ran its own trains out onto a pair of piers at the ends of Pacific Avenue and Main Street. Steamships and tall ships from San Francisco and elsewhere stopped in daily at the piers, and wagonloads of lumber, leather, lime, and gunpowder were hauled up and over Beach Hill for transfer onto the waiting ships. The Powder Works Wharf at the end of Main Street was the older of the piers and only received railroad tracks in 1877. For several years, the California Powder Works carted powder from its warehouse near the top of the hill on 2nd Street to the pier, but the arrival of the railroad reduced the pier and warehouse's usefulness. By about 1880, the brick-lined warehouse was abandoned.

The Ocean View House (the large white building) on Main Street above the Powder Works Wharf
as viewed from a color lithograph of the Santa Cruz waterfront, c 1877.
Two blocks away, at the bottom of Cliff Street, the Leibbrandt Brothers and others had opened bath houses that attracted visitors from around the world. But most visitors spent the summers in tents set up across from the bath houses or otherwise in hotels downtown or across the San Lorenzo River. The few lodges near the beach were intended for more industrious persons, such as sailors, manual laborers, and other workers involved in shipping. Midway up Main Street, William Hardy had run a saloon since 1849, but the building sat vacant for several years. Samuel A. Hall saw an opportunity and made a bold gamble.

The Ocean View House towering over Beach Hill, c 1880.
[Harold van Gorder, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
Hall was originally a boatbuilder but he spent much of the 1860s and early 1870s developing Soquel and Capitola alongside Frederick A. Hihn. Why his focus shifted to Santa Cruz is unknown, but he clearly sensed a shift occurring that would ultimately move the center of industry to the Railroad Wharf on Pacific Avenue. He hoped to fill a much-needed niche. Midway up Main Street on the west side of the road, Hall opened a two-story hotel and restaurant on May 22, 1875 which he named the Ocean View House after a racetrack located on the West Side of Santa Cruz. Built by William Liddell, it was an unassuming, white-washed rectangular structure with windows lining the side facing the ocean. The first proprietors hired to run the hotel were P. Gardner and Charles Cummings, but Cummings left the partnership after only two months.

The Douglas House on Beach Hill after the Powder Works Wharf was removed, c 1883.
[Harold van Gorder, Santa Cruz MAH]
Success came quickly for the Ocean View House, despite its surroundings. By June, the proprietors had decided upon building a large dance hall beside the hotel. This was a single-story structure situated perpendicular to the main building on the west side, which functioned otherwise as a restaurant. A  kitchen was located further to the west, where it could be supplied from Drift Way, which functioned as a service road for the hotel. It is clear from an advertisement posted in September 1875 that the hotel's year-round clientele was tourists arriving by steamship. It read: "Its close proximity to the steamer landing saves its guests the necessity of standing for hours in the morning, shivering in the fog, waiting the approach of steamers. Unlike those stopping at up-town hotels, they can sleep if they desire until vessels touch the wharf, and have ample time to rise, dress and get aboard." By this point, the City Railroad horsecar line had also began operating on the Santa Cruz Railroad's tracks, which meant service to the Lower Plaza was quick and easy. The hotel was further expanded and a third story added in May 1877, allowing the hotel to support twenty-two guest rooms, while expanded service by the Pacific Avenue Streetcar Company brought more horsecar traffic to the beach.

Governor R. W. Waterman outside the Sea Beach Hotel, 1886. [Bancroft Library – Colorized using DeOldify]
Change came quickly for the hotel. In 1882, it was sold to A. H. Douglas who replaced all the furniture and renovated the interior. When it reopened in April 1883, it was renamed the Douglas House. Douglas  benefited from the removal of the Powder Works Wharf in 1882 in that his hotel now fronted an unimpeded view of the Monterey Bay. Although Gardner had led the expansion of the hotel, Douglas began the process of turning it into a destination. He started with simple amenities such as a bar and billiard tables. He also increased accessibility to horsecars and the beach by installing steps down Main Street.

The Douglas House in its final year under that name, 1886. [Bancroft Library – Colorized using DeOldify]
Douglas repainted the hotel and made extensive improvements each year prior to opening for the summer season. In 1884, he added tents, chairs and tables to the space outside the hotel and began displaying his art within the foyer. The next year, he added his artworks to other rooms of the hotel and installed a wide porch on the ocean side for more comfortable view of the bay. This same year, the Powder Works finished converting its lands at the waterfront by installing a plank walkway between the Douglas House and the Neptune Baths, which extended the original boardwalk between Pacific Avenue and Main Street. In 1886, the first floor bar was converted into a parlor with large windows that looked out over the bay, with the bar moved to the other side of the building. Japanese lanterns were hung outside the veranda following a recent trend. He also commissioned the construction of a platform for trains and horsecars on Beach Street, the first such structure in the area.

1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing the Sea Beach Hotel in its last year
prior to its major renovation. [Library of Congress]
Perhaps realizing the marketing mistake of naming his business after himself, Douglas rebranded the hostelry the Sea Beach House in June 1883, but the name didn't stick. He eventually sold the business to D. K. Abeel in March 1887, who took over on May 15. John T. Sullivan was promptly hired as manager of the hostelry and it was he who permanently renamed the building the Sea Beach Hotel on April 1. Abeel and Sullivan looked to more substantially expand the hotel within the next few years and, in anticipation of that, Abeel purchased the former Powder Works lot at the corner of 2nd and Main Streets, initially to be used as a playground. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Sullivan thoroughly repainted and re-wallpapered the hotel. But other changes also began under his tenure. New chimneys were installed, much of the furniture was replaced, the buildings were recarpeted, and Mrs. Sullivan planted an extensive garden on the slope in front of the hotel.
Advertisement by John Sullivan for the Sea Beach Hotel, c 1890.
Over the next two years, several substantial changes were made to the Sea Beach Hotel that converted it from a plain 'dry-goods box' style building, as the Santa Cruz Surf described it, to the elegant Victorian palace it was later known as. The idea for this expansion came in the 1887 season when the rooms were packed to capacity all summer long. The new construction was designed and overseen by famed architect G. W. Page and built in the style of the Hotel del Coronado. The old Douglas House was shifted to the back of the property, closer to 2nd Street, along with the kitchen and dining room. In their place was added a massive three-story wing with attic that stretched nearly to Beach Street. It featured dormer windows and steeply-sloped roofs, and the older buildings were modified to match this style, as well. This new wing was not just for guest rooms, it included a reading room, a ladies' parlor, and a large rotunda containing a club room that overlooked the ocean and the bath houses. Still, guest rooms were an important component and the new hotel featured 170 of them. Many of the guest rooms included en suite restroom facilities, fireplaces, telephones, and parlors. On the ocean side, a wide veranda swept around the eastern side of the building, allowing space for seating. The renovated hotel reopened the week of May 25, 1890.

A view of the gardens and Monterey Bay from the front of the Sea Beach Hotel, c 1900.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
An important feature of the new hotel and one favored by Mrs. Sullivan was the gardens and landscape on the southeast side of the property along Beach Street and Main Street. Rudolph Ulrich, a local who had achieved fame at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, was hired to arrange the gardens of the hotel using clippings from his own gardens. Over 40 varieties of roses were planted including three local variants: the Sea Beach Beauty, the Pride of Santa Cruz, and the Loma Prieta. Seeds from these plants became popular souvenirs. The gardens were primarily composed of flowers and shrubs as to not block the view of the ocean.

Advertisement for the Sea Beach Hotel, May 17, 1895. [Santa Cruz Surf]
The restaurant was also expanded in size and scope with chefs from the Hotel del Monte and Chicago's Palmer House brought in. The dining hall looked out over the bay while the kitchen was recessed into Beach Hill with a short tramway running to nearby storage rooms for the quick delivery of supplies. During special events, nine-course meals were prepared. Behind the hotel, an elegant dance hall was built with a sprawling staircase descending from the lobby upstairs. The George W. Parkman orchestra was employed in 1895 to play popular songs while dance lessons were given during the day in preparation for the night's festivities.

Colorized postcard of the Sea Beach Hotel with a streetcar out front, c 1905. [Fine Art America]
The hotel quickly became the primary destination for all forms of celebrities, from Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt, to capitalists like William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie, and other important peoples such as John Muir and Luther Burbank. The hotel became the focus of color postcards, which were just coming into vogue at the time, and it remains one of the best photographed pre-1900 structures in Santa Cruz County, with well over fifty known images and likely many more.

The Sea Beach Hotel soon after its upgrade, with a horsecar at the bottom of Main Street, c 1892.
[Pat Hathaway]
Sullivan jointly served as the manager of the Pacific Ocean House for a few years in the 1890s but relinquished his duties there to John R. Chace in mid-1894. It was a sign of changing times. On December 1, 1895, Chace purchased Sullivan's stake in the Sea Beach Hotel and took over its management. This was likely done under the gaze of Frederick Hihn, who was close friends and business partners with Chace and saw the potential in a hotel monopoly since Chace retained the proprietorship of the Pacific Ocean House as well.

Early photograph of the Sea Beach Hotel following its major upgrade, c 1895.
[Covello & Covello – Colorized using DeOldify]
Chace wasted little time before upgrading the Sea Beach Hotel again. In early 1896, he added a new stairway from Beach Street to the club rooms of the hotel and completely renovated the hotel's two dining rooms. On Main Street, he enlarged the hotel's office and foyer and expanded electricity to the attic and other places. To protect against fire, fire hydrants were placed throughout the complex and fire escapes installed for the upper stories. And to replace the artwork that Sullivan took with him when he left, Chace bought new art via a contact who worked at the Santa Cruz Surf. Otherwise, life at the Sea Beach under Chace's management continued much the same, with a busy summer and frequent dances and balls held all season long, although Chace lacked the energy of Sullivan.

The Santa Cruz waterfront with the Sea Beach Hotel in the center, c 1895.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
Success eluded Chace in the end and he was forced to sell his stake in the hotel at the end of 1896, culminating in January 1897 with a large sale of the hotel's furniture, which Abeel bought back. Abeel then turned around and leased the furniture back to John Sullivan, who had bought it originally, and Sullivan was promptly hired again as manager for the 1897 season. Sullivan changed the game by incorporating the Sea Beach Hotel Company on March 8 alongside his wife, two daughters, and J. Terry Brooks. To mark the change in management, Sullivan decided to give the hotel a bold new paint job, possibly the now-iconic whitewash that it was known for in later years.

The Sea Beach Hotel from the beach, showing the original plank boardwalk along the railroad tracks, c 1895.
[Covello & Covello – Colorized using DeOldify]
Tragedy struck the Sullivan family in late May, however, when one of John's daughters died of an illness and it appears he temporarily passed management of the hotel over to a mysterious man named Bat Queenan. By late June, Sullivan too was ill and appears to have not been involved in day-to-day operations. Although he began to recover in August, Sullivan forfeited his position to Abeel in October and the next month, Abeel hired James B. Peakes as the proprietor for 1898. Peakes had run the Kittridge House on Beach Hill for several years followed by several hotels in San Francisco, San José, Sacramento, Stockton, and elsewhere. Peakes was not a heavy promoter and did not take out advertisements or make substantial renovations to the hotel. In fact, he closed the hotel from mid-October 1898 to mid-February 1899 and again from mid-September 1899 to early April 1900, although he resigned his position before the hotel reopened that year.

The St. James Hotel at the bottom of the Railroad Wharf with the Sea Beach Hotel to the east, 1890s.
[Sourisseau Academy – Colorized using DeOldify]
Abeel then turned to John S. Matheson as proprietor and the pair installed gas lighting throughout the hotel complex in the short window that they had before the summer season began. Matheson resumed the practice of taking out daily newspaper advertisements in July. He advertised that the hotel could accommodate 400 guests and provided modern conveniences and improved sanitation. He also advertised its private telegraph office, perfect table service, and first-class orchestra. Matheson did not close down in the winter as Peakes had done and indeed hosted several gala events during the off season. Still, by 1901 the hotel was appearing somewhat shabby, with one newspaper article stating "it is not old fashioned enough to be antique, and not modern enough to meet the requirements of would-be guests." After public discourse throughout the 1901 seasons, Abeel and Matheson had had enough and Abeel sold the hotel to James J. C. Leonard with the assistance and advice of Fred Wilder Swanton on August 30, 1901.

Streetcar running down Beach Street in front of the Sea Beach Hotel, c 1905.
[Santa Cruz Public Libraries – Colorized using DeOldify]
Swanton, who soon founded the Santa Cruz Beach and Tent City Corporation, and Leonard ran the popular Hotel St. George and Pacific Ocean House and continued to do so for the remainder of the 1901 season alongside their new acquisition. Under their management, the ballroom was enlarged even further into a banquet hall and an even larger ballroom was built at the back of the hotel on 2nd Street. The dining room was divided into guest rooms and a new dining room carved out of the old hotel building at back. Electricity was installed throughout the hotel alongside elevators. By 1902, tennis and golf links were also advertised, although it is unclear where these were located. Further major improvements were planned for early 1903, though it seems Swanton was no longer involved by this point.

The most famous and heavily replicated photograph of the Sea Beach Hotel, c 1903. [Randolph Brandt]
It was at this time that the most famous photograph of the Sea Beach Hotel was captured. It shows a Santa Cruz Electric Railroad streetcar parked beside a Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Watsonville Railway streetcar parked on opposite tracks near the end of Main Street with the hotel towering overhead and a family relaxing on the beach. The photograph was colorized at least five different times and was sold as a postcard by many different companies from about 1905 to 1915. It was used on souvenir dishes, as backdrops for portrait studios, and on the covers of music books. Fortunately, although the precise date of this photograph is unknown, it had to have been between late 1902 when the latter tramway finished its tracks at the beach and early 1904 when the Union Traction Company consolidated both streetcar lines. Yet the the photographer and the subject matter of the photo remains a mystery.

A colorized postcard of the above photograph, c 1900.
An alternative colorization of the above postcard with the children in the foreground cropped out, c 1900.
One investigator argues convincingly that the man in the photograph is in fact Theodore Roosevelt with four of his children and his wife, Edith, enjoying the beach during their visit to Santa Cruz in May 1903. As further evidence, Roosevelt loved terriers and sure enough, a man at the right is playing with a terrier. This theory would explain the excess of men in suits standing above and it is further given credence by the fact that this photograph actually only shows two-thirds of the original image. The panoramic version includes ten more men plus a fifth child and this added part can be seen below. Here it is clear that some of the men are Santa Cruz Police officers and the others may be Secret Service members. While it cannot be confirmed with certainty that this is Roosevelt, it does seem plausible that the president stopped for a photoshoot at the beach, possibly on his way to San José after giving his speech at the depot and visiting Big Trees.

A second photograph from the same scene as above showing police officers and men in suits along with another man holding an umbrella beside a young child, c 1900.
The opening of the Neptune Casino, Neptune Plunge, and Tent City by Swanton in 1904 led to a massive increase in patronage for the hotel, which benefited from its successful neighbors. K. D. Zandt was hired as manager and began running hops each weekend in the summer to attract customers away from the Tent City, but it was all friendly competition with many of the higher income guests staying at the hotel while lower income households spent the summer in the tent cottages across from the new buildings. A depiction of this grand vision can be seen in the postcard below. While many considered the hotel a part of the new complex, Frederick Hihn hoped for a newer, modern hotel to sit between Westbrook and Cliff Streets, bridging the two but also supplanting the Sea Beach. Zandt and Leonard, however, had their own plans to expand and purchased another property across Main and 2nd Streets from the hotel in July 1904, converting the property into a laundry, stable, and carriage shed.

Color lithographic postcard showing the Sea Beach Hotel beside the Neptune Casino and Plunge, the Tent City, the Electric Pier and diving platform, early Boardwalk rides, beach bath houses, and the San Lorenzo River with its pavilion, c 1904.
Leonard and Zandt found great success in the 1904 and 1905 summer seasons, opening early in the season and running through September. They attracted theatre celebrities, famous authors and reporters, and even hosted political conventions. Streetcars stopped at the base of the hotel on Beach Street daily, and special excursion trains stopped periodically as well. It became a venue for weddings, with its beautiful gardens frequently the backdrop for photographs, and it attracted all sorts of mystics, religious leaders, and psychics. In many ways, the hotel and Santa Cruz became one-in-the-same to visitors.

The Neptune Casino with the Sea Beach Hotel in the distance, 1904. Photo by I. W. Taber. [WorthPoint]
There was every reason to believe that 1906 was going to be as successful as the previous two years for Leonard and Zandt. The hotel opened in early March and quickly filled up with guests and events. But then a double assault by nature and bad luck struck. On April 18, the San Francisco Earthquake ripped through Santa Cruz and left a substantial mark on the hotel. All but one of its chimneys were destroyed, sending bricks through roofs, gables, and porches alike. The Surf reported that "the plastering on the first story, lobby, dining rooms, parlors, etc., has either fallen or is so badly cracked that it will have to be replaced." Fortunately, the structure itself survived and Leonard wasted no time in hiring repairmen and supplies to fix the building. But disaster tourism sells and people from around the country flocked to Santa Cruz by May and June. The hotel was well on its way to recovery when it was hit by a second disaster on June 22. The still new Neptune Casino and Plunge—the tourist magnet only a block away—burned to the ground leaving only the skating rink, tent city, and a large salt-water basin standing. Yet the people still came in record numbers to visit the beach and enjoy the hotel's amenities and entertainments.

Colorized postcard of the Sea Beach Hotel beside the second Casino, 1908.
In the aftermath of the Casino fire, Swanton got to planning and quickly started to rebuild once the summer season ended. Into this flurry of discourse came a strong rumor that the Sea Beach Hotel would be moved to the Tent City lot and a new hotel erected in its place. However, this idea came to nothing and by 1907, a new Cottage City sat beside an even grander Casino and Plunge designed by William Henry Weeks in a Mission revival style. That year proved to be well-attended but unremarkable for the Sea Beach Hotel. At the end in December, the Council of Education held a large conference there, justifying Leonard and Zandt's decision to remain open until the beginning of January.

Cars parked outside the Main Street entrance to the Sea Beach Hotel with the new Casino in the distance, 1908.
[Sourisseau Academy]
The final years of the Sea Beach Hotel are less recorded in newspapers, with focus split between the various venues of an ever-growing tourist trade. Nonetheless, the Sea Beach Hotel did not sit idle. Its now 130 guest rooms—some had been repurposed over the years—were outfitted with telephones in April 1908 and a private phone exchange was located in the complex run by two operators. A few retail stores also opened in the hotel, including a small market, a barber shop, and a medical clinic. The year 1909 was even less remarkable but the Evening News reported that the hotel had another successful season when it closed in September. As in previous years, the hotel remained available in the off season for special events and as a dining and dance venue.

The new Casino as viewed from the gardens of the Sea Beach Hotel, c 1910.
1910  heralded more of the same, with regular and new conventions, conferences, and political meetings hosted alongside weddings, galas, and reunions. The hotel had evolved from a destination in itself to a venue at the beach where the excitement and focus were directed elsewhere. It reflected a changing time with tourists shifting from summer-long vacations to weekend and week-long getaways. From all accounts, the Sea Beach neither suffered nor thrived during its twilight years.  What it didn't do, however, was change. Most of the major improvements were done by 1905 and only smaller changes happened thereafter.

The Sea Beach Hotel with the Railroad Wharf in the background, c 1910.
[Covello & Covello – Colorized using DeOldify]
After several years of threats that a new hotel would open in the large lot to the east of the Sea Beach Hotel, one finally did arise on the lot of the Cottage City across from the Casino. The Casa del Rey,  the last major project overseen by Swanton, opened its doors on May 1, 1911. A rivalry immediately began between the two hotels, although the details are lacking. As a former business partner of Swanton, Leonard could only have felt personally betrayed. Yet rather than improving the Sea Beach Hotel, Leonard focused his efforts on improvements to the St. George Hotel. Despite the rivalry, the Sea Beach still did good business for the year and attracted many of its usual customers. The hotel even stayed open through the winter to make up for the closed St. George while it underwent renovations.

The Sea Beach Hotel fire as photographed in the morning of June 12, 1912. As can be seen, the front wing caught fire first and it slowly spread to the rest of the complex. [Santa Cruz Public Libraries]
The two hotels faced off against each other across a largely vacant lot for less than a year before disaster at last struck once more, this time for good. At 3:30 in the morning on June 12, 1912, the Sea Beach Hotel caught fire in one of the rooms of the southern tower. The specific cause of the fire was never discovered and the first person to notice it was a fisherman in a boat offshore since the hotel had not yet opened for the season. Over the next four hours, the fire methodically moved through the building until finally reaching the back wall of the old Douglas House, which remained standing as a final monument to the structure. Only the detached ballroom built by Swanton and the laundry survived mostly unscathed. It was truly the end of an era. Leonard had $40,000 in insurance on the property, but the hotel was valued at $90,000.

A highly doctored postcard of the Sea Beach Hotel fire on June 12, 1912, adapting the 1903 photograph but adding people strolling on the beach and a decided lack of concern for the burning hotel.
From its humble beginnings almost forty years earlier, the Sea Beach Hotel had grown with the city and the beach resorts and adapted each time. Its end only a year after the opening of the Casa del Rey seems in retrospect to be appropriate—a Victorian palace had little place in a Modernist world. Salvaged artworks eventually found their way into the De Young Museum but the hotel itself was not replaced and for many decades only small structures of incomparable quality took its place on the shore of the Monterey Bay.

36.9644N, 122.0235W
515 Second Street, Santa Cruz

The final iteration of the Sea Beach Hotel was truly a monstrous structure that spanned the entirety of the section of land from Beach Street to Second Street and from Main Street to Drift Way. The heart of the old Douglas House was near 2nd Street while the rotunda of the Sea Beach sat ominously over the beach just east of Ideal Bar & Grill. The only remnant of the structure that survives is the hotel's south and east retaining walls, which run between the lower Beach Street entrance of the Casablanca Inn and the upper building, with the part visible to the public running up Main Street behind the Sawasdee By The Sea restaurant.

Citations & Credits: 
  • Beal, Richard A. and Chandra Moira. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: The Early Years—Never a Dull Moment. Pacific Group, 2003.
  • Gibson, Ross Eric. "Sea Beach Hotel and Its Gardens were Equal Landmarks." Santa Cruz Public Libraries—Local History Collection.
  • Santa Cruz Evening News.
  • Santa Cruz Surf.
  • Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel and Sentinel.

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