History Pages: 48 - The Rise and Fall of Swanton House: 1883-87
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The middle years of the 1880s saw continued growth and transformation in Santa Cruz. Improved building techniques and more skillful local builders allowed ever-larger buildings. In 1883, successful livery stable owner A. P. Swanton (father of the more famous entrepreneur Fred) jumped into the hotel business with the three-story Swanton House at the corner of Front and Water Streets. The first photo (at right) shows the brand-new building with its brand-new bituminous rock street paving out front. To the right, you can see the much-smaller 1851 Santa Cruz Hotel.
To get an idea how downtown was changing, compare with the early 1860s panorama view of Front and Pacific (at left). In that photo, the Santa Cruz Hotel is the tallest structure in sight, or at least as tall as the brand-new brick "flatiron" building across Front Street.
Unfortunately, Swanton House established a negative sort of record that has perhaps never been equaled. The new hostelry lasted only three years before it burned down. The photo at right shows volunteer firemen evacuating guests from the upper floors. That 1887 fire also claimed the venerable Santa Cruz Hotel next-door and the Franklin House (1859) - the next building to the south along Front Street.
The intense heat and embers from the fire endangered other nearby buildings but, with the help of the volunteer fire brigades, most of them were saved. The photo at left was taken at the same time as the one above right, and shows firemen spraying water on the fire using a hose carried by one of the human-drawn hose carts that were in use at the time. The one in the photo may have belonged to the Alert or Pilots hose companies, both of which had headquarters nearby. [Thanks to the Santa Cruz City Firefighters Union for preserving these historic photos, and for donating them to SCPL.]
After the fire, for some unknown reason, the prime Swanton House lot stood empty for the next 24 years, until the current Post Office was built there in 1911. At right is a view of the Post Office in 1917. The gathering in front was an official sendoff for Santa Cruz soldiers shipping out to fight in World War I.
Directly across from the Post Office on Pacific Avenue was the lot that set the new record for downtown emptiness. After several buildings there were torn down following the earthquake of 1989, the site remained a hole in the ground until 2018. In this satellite view, the post office is on the right, with the red tile roof. The empty green lot between the bank building and Lulu Carpenter's faced it across Pacific Avenue and Front Street.
Before 1989, that lot was home to a number of fondly-remembered buildings and businesses, including Bookshop Santa Cruz, Cafezinho, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasters and that funky smokeshop/newsstand/fishing tackle store, with Kelly's French Bakery behind (the two rear buildings were not damaged in the earthquake, but were demolished later in preparation for new construction that never happened). My favorite off-street al fresco dining deck was in the middle. Unfortunately, with real estate values being what they are now, the building that has now finally replaced those intimate indoor/outdoor spaces is a six-story, lot-filling monolithic block (sigh).