An Octagon for Santa Cruz: downtown in the early 1880s

Downtown Santa Cruz continued to add new buildings in the early 1880s, including an octagon.

Front view of the 1882 Hall of Records "Octagon" building.
Front view of the 1882 Hall of Records "Octagon" building.

By 1880, there were few vacant lots in the core of downtown Santa Cruz. One prominent spot remained: the corner of Front and Cooper Streets. That changed in 1882 when Santa Cruz County built a new Hall of Records on the lot next to the courthouse. The Italianate style of the front façade coordinated nicely with the sixteen-year-old courthouse. (BTW - the taller building dimly seen behind is the first City Hall)

The rest of the little building, however, was a surprise. Oakland architect J. W. Newcum chose an octagonal shape, the only such building in Santa Cruz (that I know of – help me out, readers, if you've seen others locally).

Another building with an unusual shape was built not far away just a couple of years later. Perhaps inspired by the octagonal Hall of Records, a hexagon-shaped house was built in 1884 down on Sycamore St. Note the curved steep-pitched roof, borrowed from the Second-Empire style popular a few years earlier (the porch and garage were added later).

About the same time, a much larger and more traditionally-shaped house went up on Mission Street, across from the plaza. Calvin Davis and his brother Wellington were very busy designer-builders in Santa Cruz during the 1870s. Calvin converted some of his sweat into a big house on the hill, second only to the Hihn mansion (which the brothers also designed and built). Still in excellent condition, the Davis house is one of the finest historic homes in town.

Two other profitable businesses in Santa Cruz in those years were livery stables and hotels. A. P. Swanton had the first, then both, at the corner of Front and Water streets. By 1884, he had done well enough with the livery stable to build a new hotel on the site (with expanded stables on the ground floor). Hotel guests today would probably balk at a room above a horse barn, but horses were a fact of life in the 1880s, so noses were perhaps not so sensitive.

If the name Swanton sounds familiar, it’s because of A. P. Swanton’s son Fred, who grew up into a most ambitious local entrepreneur a few years later. Among Fred Swanton’s lasting contributions to the Santa Cruz scene were the beginnings of today’s Beach Boardwalk complex - more on that subject in the future.

It’s worth mentioning a couple of other locals whose endeavors can be seen in the photo showing Cooper Street and its ends at Pacific Avenue and Front Street - and who haven’t been mentioned previously in this blog. The two-story 1870s building at the far left corner of pacific and Cooper housed owner Mike Leonard’s saloon and other businesses. That domed tower should look familiar to Santa Cruzans – Leonard also put a domed tower on his second building, built in 1894 and still standing at the corner of Cooper and Front.

In the same photo, the boxy structure to the right of the Octagon and County Courthouse carried the prosaic name of “Ely’s Block”. Built in 1876, it was an eponymous enterprise of William Ely, a former 49er who moved to Santa Cruz in 1870 to become a developer and streetcar investor. Ely later built another “block” on the other side of the Oddfellows Building (that’s the building to the far right sporting our town clock). Stubbornly defying imagination, the two buildings became known as “Ely’s Block No. 1” and “Ely’s Block No. 2”.

Looking at that photo, I bet County officials were wishing they’d bought more of that Pacific-Cooper corner property, to give the courthouse more space. Following the fire of 1894 that destroyed both buildings, that’s exactly what they did to build the second courthouse – later known as Cooper House.

One more note: look at the street paving in the Cooper Street view and the Swanton House photo. These were the years when Santa Cruz got its first street paving, using locally-mined bituminous rock. Edges of the new paving can be clearly seen at the Pacific-Cooper junction, and at the Front-Water Street meeting in front of Swanton House (Water Street is the muddy one to the left of the hotel).  


  • Chase, John L. Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (3rd ed. 2005)
  • Elliott, W. W. Santa Cruz County Illustrations, with Historical Sketch (1879 - indexed edition 1997).

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Julia Gaudinski October 14, 2013 at 02:52 PM
I just discovered your blog Casey and am so glad to see it! I will definitely use it for some fodder for my blog about people doing projects related to natural and human history at www.assemblingourhistories.com. I would love you to check it out. I also have a Facebook page that posts about natural and human history of Santa Cruz and beyond www.facebook.com/mobileranger. Thanks!


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