History Pages: 31 – How the Town Became a City

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For a table of contents, see History pages.

1880 S 017 Courthouse 1880-me.jpg

The coming of the railroads to Santa Cruz produced a new spurt of commercial and civic activity in what had always been a town isolated by its geography. One sign of the area’s growth and increasing economic importance came in 1876, when the town of Santa Cruz received a new charter from the state and became the City of Santa Cruz, with its first mayor. One of the new city government’s first acts, of course, was to build a city hall. Santa Cruz City Hall stood on Front Street, around the corner from the Courthouse, to the right of today's Museum of Art and History entry, and was completed in 1877 (photo: City Hall on the left, Courthouse on the right). Note that, in this pre-1882 photograph, today's Octagon building had not yet been built on the empty corner between city hall and courthouse.

The City Hall location shows how downtown development steadily progressed southward toward the bay from its beginnings at the lower plaza. By 1877, most of the early rough plank-sided one-story commercial buildings around the plaza had been replaced by much more detailed two-story structures of wood or brick. Santa Cruz Public Library has an online gallery with several early photos of the lower plaza, taken from the bluff at the end of School Street. As late as 1866, the brick "Flatiron" building at the north end of PacAve was the only "modern" structure. That all changed in the ten years from 1867 to 1877. Beginning at the plaza, the new-style buildings marched steadily south along Pacific Avenue and Front Street, and up Mission Street.

Anthony block, St Charles.jpg

The lower plaza itself got the earliest new buildings. The photo at left is from about 1890, but the two buildings shown had already been there for a while. The St. Charles Hotel (at left in the photo) once stood on the corner of Mission Street and River Street (now North Pacific), where little Scope Park is today. The hotel got a third story in 1873, with a mansard roof in the trendy "Second Empire" style, as shown in the photo. Elihu Anthony built a new "Anthony Block" in 1877 to replace the original 1848 one-story wood building that stood about where the Town Clock is today.

Ely block, Oddfellows.jpg

Looking at that corner today, you'll wonder how there was room for such large buildings. The parcels along the north side of the lower plaza were much larger back then, before Water and Mission Streets were realigned and widened in the 1960s.

Speaking of the Town Clock, the building that originally supported that clock tower was built in 1873 (also in "Second Empire" style). Known as the Oddfellows building because it was home to the Santa Cruz chapter of that fraternal organization, the tall clock tower made it a local landmark. The original wooden tower (at far right in this photo from before 1894) was rebuilt in brick after being damaged by fire in 1899.

A comparison of the photos of the original tower and today’s Town Clock reveals that, when the tower was rebuilt, it was also somewhat redesigned. Another funny story about the clock - most would agree these days that it’s pleasant to hear the clock chime the hours as you’re walking around downtown, but that wasn’t always a welcome sound. In 1929, when the clock still stood atop the Oddfellows Building, the chimes were shut down because of complaints from residents in nearby hotels. So, from 1929 to 1976, that sound was not heard in Santa Cruz. In 1964, the tower was removed and put into storage when the Oddfellows Building was remodeled.

Ironically, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake doomed the Oddfellows Building, but the unwanted clock tower was safe. In an early example of “reuse, recycle, restore”, the Oddfellows clock tower became the top section of the present Town Clock, completed just in time for the nation’s centennial in 1976.

McPherson Bldg 1880-600px.jpg

Where did the Oddfellows meet before getting their own building? There's some disagreement. In an 1870 "bird's eye" view of town, the two-story building with two large oriel windows in the 1880 photo at left is identified as the Oddfellows Hall and Post Office. John Chase, however, says the Oddfellows met until 1873 in the 1868 McPherson Building at the corner of Pacific and Locust (two buildings to the right of the one with oriel windows).

The McPherson Building was the Sentinel’s first self-owned home. The newspaper offices moved from rented space in the building right across Locust Street (with a sloped roof in the photo). More irony – the brick building owes its survival through the 1989 earthquake to the fact that it was damaged by an earthquake during construction. While repairing the damage, the builders added iron reinforcing work to strengthen the brick walls, and so it still stands today, though remodeled several times.

McPherson bldg now.jpeg

Built for brothers Alexander and Duncan McPherson, who by that time owned the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper, the building remains today and is the third oldest building on Pacific Avenue (after Zoccoli’s and Lulu Carpenter’s). Never an especially attractive building, today's version (photo at right) - with a partial third-story and an unfortunate Mission Revival-style remodel - doesn't impress. Only the street-level storefronts retain any of the old brick-wall-and-iron-cast-front charm. Also visible in the photo: the unfinished south corner was left exposed when, after the 1989 earthquake doomed the adjacent Leask's/Gottschalk's building, the upper walls of the replacement building were stepped back further from the sidewalk.

Note the more-or-less chronological pattern of new building activity moving south down Pacific Avenue in the years from 1860 to about 1890. The 1989 earthquake disrupted the pattern, as most of the remaining 19th-century buildings were razed up and down Pacific. All of those post-1989 holes have now been filled, and the current (2023) re-development wave is concentrated between Lincoln and Laurel Streets, preceded by clearing of mostly mid-20th-century structures and/or parking lots.

Next: History Pages: 31 – Paris on the San Lorenzo: Second Empire style