History Pages: 55 - The Big Fire of 1894

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For a table of contents, see History pages.

Fire, flood, and earthquake are the most important historical disaster categories in Santa Cruz. "Devastation" was the Santa Cruz Sentinel front-page headline on April 15, 1894. On the previous day, a fire destroyed nearly the entire wedge-shaped downtown block bounded by Pacific Avenue, Front Street, and Cooper Street. A number of structures across those streets also burned. The top photograph at right was taken soon after the fire from near the north end of the block, shows the burned-out remains of the courthouse and Ely's Block, and that most of the intervening buildings burned. The two surviving brick structures on the left were later absorbed into the St. George Hotel - part of what gave the hotel its eclectic appearance. The building partly-seen at far left, with the projecting oriel window, is described as the "1891 C. B. Pease Building" in The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (2005 book) (p.166, item 47). Beyond the courthouse is the tower of City Hall, which survived the flames. Beyond the blackened slump of the Ely Block is another survivor, the Oddfellows building (with the clock tower) - which can be seen in the middle right photo.

Also lost to the fire were a number of buildings across Front Street, some of which together comprised what's now referred to as the Front Street Chinatown. Also lost on that side of Front Street were two of the oldest downtown hotels; the Santa Cruz House and Franklin House, along with the slightly newer Garibaldi Hotel. Those hotels can be seen in the early photos on History Pages: 48 - The Rise and Fall of Swanton House: 1884-87. The other major hotel in that row - Swanton House - had already burned down in 1887. The site remained vacant until today's main post office was built there in 1911.

Below right is a pre-fire view of the Pacific-Cooper corner from ~1890. The three most prominent buildings in this photo burned in 1894. They are: Mike Leonard's saloon (far left), the 1866 County courthouse, and William Ely's first "Block". In between Leonard's building and the courthouse, the 1882 Hall of Records (Octagon) can be seen, which remains today.

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After the 1894 fire, the resulting rebuilding created a different look for that area - a look that remained intact until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Some of the owners of buildings lost to the fire rebuilt in the same locations, including George Staffler and Anton Hotaling, owner of the post-fire rebuilt hotel that became the St. George. Hotaling also acquired the adjacent "Werner, Simpson and Pease" sites/buildings, and added them to his hotel. The "big rebuild" is the subject of the next History Page.

The bottom-left postcard photo of the St. George was taken in ~1930, not long after the hotel got a "Mission Inn" Spanish Colonial Revival-style remodel. Those projecting oriel windows remain from the 1891 Pease structure, with added conquistador medallions similar to those that can still be seen on the 1928-29 Palomar Hotel. The formerly-separate Werner and Simpson buildings are to the right of Pease, before you get to the tower and three-story part of the hotel. At far left in this image is the 1867 building that remains home to Zoccoli's Deli. That building is now the second-oldest in the downtown area - the only one in the Pacific-Front-Cooper block that survived both the fire and the 1989 earthquake.

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