History Pages: 36 - Gentrification: Downtown Santa Cruz in the 1870s

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Hihn estate.jpg

As Santa Cruz emerged from its hardscrabble pioneer origins, quite a few of the early townies achieved a level of prosperity that allowed for some major discretionary spending in the 1870s. As many of us did during our own salad days, some fortunate folk put their savings into land and/or new homes. In many cases, these new homes replaced earlier old-west style homes built in the 1850s from hand-hewn beams and rough-sawn lumber. New local mills, woodworking shops and skilled craftsmen manufactured the fine-finish wood and metal products necessary for the latest architectural styles from the East Coast and Europe. Experienced builders and architects arrived to ply their trades in the growing town. The only question was – where to build?

The population of Santa Cruz grew rapidly during the 1870s. A lot of new homes were built, and whole new genteel residential neighborhoods were created. The first such neighborhood was downtown, west of Pacific Avenue, bounded by Laurel, Mission Hill and the bluffs below California Street. This low, flat flood plain was the old mission produce garden, bounded by a row of willow trees. In 1853, a coastal survey map shows only one east-west street crossing the area - what is now Lincoln Street.

Beginning not long after that, however, development dynamo F. A. Hihn bought up many of the former small farms and subdivided them into city lots. New east-west streets named Walnut, Church, Locust and Cherry (now Union) gave access. Then he set a high standard for the area in 1872 with his own mansion and landscaped estate between Church and Locust. The photo at right was taken from the east - about where the central library now stands - before Center Street was extended from Walnut to today's junction with Cedar Street (previously called Vine).

Kunitz house.jpg

Hihn’s neighborhood had a growth spurt in the later 1870s – helped, no doubt, by the decision to move the Kunitz soap and glue factory from where the City Hall Annex parking lot is today out to River Street. Relocating the aromatic glue works out near the equally odoriferous tannery operations made the west-of-Pacific area more desirable for residential development.

Owner Ernest Kunitz, like Hihn a native of Germany, kept a lot on Locust Street where he built a modest but comfortable home in 1876. The house still stands, well-maintained and used for City offices. The modest scale of the Kunitz house is typical of most of this neighborhood in those years. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that any homes were built on these streets to rival the palatial Hihn estate. In fact, Hihn himself built an earlier and much smaller home. Before starting on the mansion, he moved the 1857 house across Locust Street, where it remains today. An 1877 house that used to stand next door to the Kunitz residence was later moved to Elm Street, where it remains today. The moving of houses and other buildings was pretty common in those days, unlike today.

Zasu Pitts house.jpg

Another notable and well-preserved residence from this period stands next to the Nickelodeon Theater on Lincoln Street. Dating from the (probably late) 1870s, the story-and-a-half house (right) sports a blue plaque noting that it was the childhood home of early film star ZaSu Pitts (who said that her name is pronounced "SAY-zoo").

The north-of-Lincoln downtown neighborhood developed other amenities during this period. The tracks of Hihn’s narrow-gauge Santa Cruz Railroad created the route of today’s Chestnut Street, and the passenger depot was located on Cherry Street, near the mouth of the Mission Hill tunnel. In addition to its proximity to the owner’s house, the depot was handy for Hihn and other business travelers – the town’s first commuters. The rails also hosted one of the city’s first horse-drawn streetcar lines (also owned by Hihn).

The new flow of rail passengers perhaps inspired the opening of a new hotel at the corner of Locust and Vine (now Cedar) Streets. Once called the Germania (owned by and/or catering to Germans?), the building survives today as the Santa Cruz Hotel.

Another necessary ingredient in the gentrification process was to expand the local cultural opportunities beyond the existing saloons and beer halls, although this was accomplished in an unusual way. In 1877, a somewhat shady character named “Bud” Smith convinced Fred Hihn and others that Santa Cruz needed an Opera House.

1877 Opera house.jpg

After acquiring a lot (near the Germania Hotel) and building materials on credit, Smith forged ahead, but soon was forced to sell out to more substantial local entrepreneurs. The Opera House did get built, however, and remained a home to stage productions, lectures, prize fights and high school graduation ceremonies (even an occasional opera) for over forty years. After Smith's exit, local doctor Benjamin Knight ran the operation for many years, and it was often referred to as Knight's Opera House.

In those days, residential neighborhoods of any size also contained several churches, of denominations favored by those living nearby. The only church building still standing from the 1870s in the downtown neighborhood is Calvary Episcopal, which opened its doors in 1865. Other denominations that used to have a presence downtown neighborhood included Congregational and Unitarian. In addition, the Methodist and Catholic churches were just up Mission Hill. They were joined in 1884 a German Methodist church on Washington Street, which still serves spiritual needs today as a yoga studio. That church featured services in German, testimony to the substantial number of German natives in early Santa Cruz. By the end of the 1880s, the Methodists had moved down the hill from Mission Street, as had the Baptists from upper Locust Street.

The development of other fashionable Santa Cruz residential neighborhoods farther from downtown also began during the 1870s, as the population increased and as roads and transportation improved. By the turn of the century, Hihn’s subdivision was filled in, and the neighborhood began to acquire the mixed-use character it retains today. Part of the Hihn estate gardens became the site of the first purpose-built Public Library in 1904, and the Victorian mansion on Church Street became the second City Hall in 1920.


Next: History Pages: 36 - Bridges to Somewhere: Eastside Santa Cruz in the 1870s