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Beach Hill: 1883-1899

Beach Hill became one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in Santa Cruz during the years from 1883-1899, and contains perhaps the largest concentration of surviving late-Victorian houses in the city.

A view (probably late 1890s) of the Bowman house, with Golden Gate Villa beyond (photo: UCSC)
A view (probably late 1890s) of the Bowman house, with Golden Gate Villa beyond (photo: UCSC)


A recent “Where Is This In Santa Cruz?” generated some interesting comments about a large residence on Beach Hill known as Golden Gate Villa (built in 1891). I’d like to follow that up with an overview of developments in that area around the time Golden Gate Villa was built.

The Beach Hill neighborhood reached its peak of gentility during the years from 1883-1899, and contains perhaps the largest concentration of surviving late-Victorian houses in the city.

Connoisseurs of architectural styles can identify Stick-Eastlake, Queen Anne and Shingle influences in homes built during this period. The one exception is also the oldest home on Beach Hill, the 1870 Italianate-style Eben Bennett house. Also significant is the fact that 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 in other places, before coming to Santa Cruz.

The other surviving pre-1880 structures on Beach Hill can be found at the Carmelita Cottages on Main Street. This collection of six small buildings is now a youth hostel run by the city. The front two cottages date from around 1872. Be sure to read Rick Hyman’s article on the SCPL website – 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.

Finally, in 1888, a new iron bridge was built across the San Lorenzo, connecting Beach Hill with Ocean Street via 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 to the main roads to San Jose and mid-county, it gave Riverside patrons access to the growing row of bath houses along the beachfront. The Dolphin and Neptune establishments merged in 1884, expanded in the 1890s, were rebuilt after the 1906 Casino fire and finally absorbed into the Casino-Boardwalk complex as the “Natatorium”.

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. Newly electrified streetcar lines, including a new line along the river below 3rd Street and down Leibrandt to the beach, gave patrons easy access to downtown, while the Southern Pacific Railroad connected to the San Francisco Bay area and – by 1890 – the entire country.

In 1883, local hotelier E. J. Swift (namesake of Swift Street on the Westside) began an extensive remodel and expansion of a house he bought at the west end of 3rd Street. 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 and gradually deteriorated. Local lore has it that the dilapidated Hotel McCray inspired the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In 1991, the structure was saved from the wrecking ball and nicely restored during its conversion into a nursing home. In a nice bit of historical awareness, the name Sunshine Villa also returned.

The 1885 Gustave Bowman house at 1012 3rd Street 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, 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, a large round corner turret was soon added – very much like the neighbor’s.

3rd street has several other fine examples of late-Victorian preservation, including the latest, down the hill at the corner of Leibrandt. The former Rio Vista, built in 1899, is now undergoing renovation and conversion to apartments, a process that has saved many other large Santa Cruz Victorians.  

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

Sources (books available at SCPL):




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.

Brad Kava January 15, 2014 at 12:21 AM
Love love love this column and I'm going to get the book and take the walk. Thanks so much!
Brad Kava January 15, 2014 at 12:22 AM
And that house does look like the Psycho house. Hitchcock got a lot of inspiration here.

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