History Pages: 51 - Beach Hill: 1870-99

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The Beach Hill neighborhood reached its peak of gentility during the years from 1883 to 1899, and contains perhaps the largest concentration of surviving late-Victorian houses in the city. Architectural styles in vogue during those years were primarily Stick-Eastlake and Queen Anne. The best known of the Queen Annes, built in 1891, is known as "Golden Gate Villa". It's the one on the right in the ~1900 photo at right. Its creator, Frank McLaughlin, became a millionaire in mining, but was ultimately a tragic figure. The house he built survived.

The 1885 Gustave Bowman house at 1012 3rd Street (on the left in the same photo) was not so lucky. It was replaced in 1936 by one of the few Streamlined Moderne structures in Santa Cruz – an interesting style in its own right. We can, however, get an idea what the original Bowman house looked like by seeing the Davis House on Mission Street. Why? Because the team of Calvin Davis and his brother Wellington designed and built both houses, and they were mirror images of each other. Until, that is, the even-more-grand Golden Gate Villa went up next door in 1891. Succumbing to an apparent case of turret envy, Bowman soon added to his Stick-style mansion with his own Queen Anne round corner turret – very similar to his neighbor’s.

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The oldest survivor on Beach Hill is the 1870 Italianate-style Eben Bennett house (modern photo at left). Bennett made the money to build his dream house in local industries: lime, mining, road-building. The owners of the bigger showcase homes of the 80s and 90s were more likely to have made their money outside of the county, before coming to Santa Cruz. The enclosed upper-floor sun porch of the Bennett house was a later addition on what was probably built originally as an uncovered porch-roof deck.

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The other surviving pre-1880 structures on Beach Hill can be found at the Carmelita Cottages (right) on Main Street. This collection of six small buildings is now a youth hostel. The front two cottages date from around 1872. Be sure to read Rick Hyman’s article – the evolution of the Cottages is a fascinating “only in Santa Cruz” story.

Contributing to the area’s attractiveness were improvements to the transportation infrastructure. These began with the railroad and horsecar lines that began to run along the beachfront in 1875. Removal of the Powder Wharf in 1882 hastened the removal of the last vestiges of the shipping industry, including several ship captain’s homes, that had previously dominated the Beach Hill neighborhood. In the 1880s, Beach Hill residential streets were among the first to receive asphaltum (bituminous rock) sidewalks and cut stone curbs.

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In 1888, a new iron bridge was built across the San Lorenzo, connecting Beach Hill with Ocean Street through Fred Barson’s Riverside Hotel complex. Called the “cut bias” bridge because it crossed the river at an angle, it was the forerunner of today’s Riverside Avenue bridge. Not only did the new bridge give Beach Hill a more direct connection from the main roads to San Jose and mid-county, it gave Riverside patrons access to the growing row of bath houses along the beachfront.

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The Dolphin and Neptune establishments merged in 1884, and expanded in the 1890s as the “Natatorium” - seen in the background of the 1890 beach photo at right. The facility was absorbed into the Casino-Boardwalk complex, rebuilt after the 1906 Casino fire.

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The increasing beachfront use went hand in hand with new and expanded hotel building. The trend reached a zenith with the monumental (by local standards) Sea Beach Hotel, which opened in its final form in 1890 (left). Newly electrified streetcar lines, included a new line along the river below 3rd Street (now Laurel Street Extension) and down Leibrandt to near the beachfront bathhouses (including the Leibbrandt brothers Dolphin), gave patrons easy access to downtown, while the Southern Pacific Railroad connected to the San Francisco Bay area and – by 1890 – the entire country.

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In 1883, local hotelier E. J. Swift (namesake of Swift Street in the Westside neighborhood) began an extensive remodel and expansion of a house he bought at the west end of 3rd Street, earlier owned by F. M. Kittredge. Operated initially as a hotel, the property was purchased in 1890 by eastern millionaire James P. Smith and converted into a grand residence called Sunshine Villa. In later years, the home reverted to a hotel ("Hotel McCray" in the ~1960s photo below right) and gradually deteriorated. In 1991, the structure was saved from the wrecking ball and restored during its conversion into the centerpiece of an assisted-living facility - reclaiming the name Sunshine Villa.

3rd street has several other fine examples of late-Victorian preservation, including the once and future Rio Vista, down the hill at the corner of Leibrandt. In 2014, the house was renovation and converted to apartments, a process that has saved many other large Santa Cruz Victorians. You can see the 1890 original at far right in the "San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz, Cal." postcard photo (above left).

Beach Hill is one of our best-preserved historical neighborhoods, so get your copy of Chase and get out for a walk.


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