As Santa Cruz emerged from its hardscrabble pioneer origins, quite a few of the early townies achieved a level of prosperity that allowed for some major discretionary spending in the 1870s.
As many of us did during our own salad days (remember those?), those fortunate folk often put their savings into land and/or new homes. In many cases, these new homes replaced earlier old-west style homes built in the 1850s from hand-hewn beams and rough-sawn lumber.
New local mills, woodworking shops and skilled carpenters created the fine-finish wood products necessary for the latest architectural styles from the East Coast and Europe. Experienced builders and architects arrived to ply their trades in the growing town. The only question was – where to build?
During the period from 1860 to 1880, the population of the city of Santa Cruz quadrupled – to nearly 4,000 residents. A lot of new homes were built, and whole new genteel residential neighborhoods were created.
The first such was downtown, west of Pacific Avenue, bounded by Laurel, Mission Hill and the bluffs below California Street. A map from 1853 shows that the only east-west street crossing the area at that time was what is now Lincoln Street. North of Lincoln, Santa Cruz development dynamo Frederick A. Hihn bought up and subdivided the former small farms into city lots. New east-west streets named Walnut, Church, Locust and Cherry (now Union) gave access. Then he set a high standard for the area in 1872 with his own mansion and landscaped estate on Church Street.
Hihn’s neighborhood had a growth spurt in the later 1870s – helped, no doubt, by the decision to move the Kunitz soap and glue factory from where the City Hall parking lot is today out to River Street.
Relocating the aromatic glue works out near the equally odoriferous tannery operations (later Salz Leather) made the west-of-Pacific area more desirable for residential development. Owner Ernest Kunitz, like Hihn a native of Germany, kept a lot on Locust Street where he built a modest but comfortable home in 1876. The house still stands, nicely restored.
The modest scale of the Kunitz house is typical of most of this neighborhood in those years. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that any homes were built on these streets to rival the palatial Hihn estate.
In fact, Hihn himself built an earlier and much smaller home. Before starting on the mansion, he moved the 1857 house across Locust Street, where it remains today – currently undergoing extensive renovation. An 1877 house that used to stand next door to the Kunitz residence was later moved to Elm Street, where it remains today. The moving of houses and other buildings was pretty common in those days, unlike today.
Another notable and well-preserved residence from this period stands next to the Nickelodeon Theater on Lincoln Street. Dating from the (probably late) 1870s, the story-and-a-half house sports a blue plaque noting that it was the childhood home of early film star ZaSu Pitts.
The north-of-Lincoln downtown neighborhood developed other amenities during this period. The tracks of Fred Hihn’s narrow-gauge Santa Cruz Railroad created the route of today’s Chestnut Street, and the passenger depot was located near the mouth of the Mission Hill tunnel.
In addition to its proximity to the owner’s house, the depot was handy for Hihn and other business travelers – the town’s first commuters. The rails also hosted one of the city’s first horse-drawn streetcar lines (also owned by Hihn).
The new flow of rail passengers perhaps inspired the opening of a new hotel at the corner of Locust and Vine (now Cedar) Streets. Once called the Germania (owned by and/or catering to Germans?), the building survives today as the Santa Cruz Hotel.
Another necessary ingredient in the gentrification process was to expand the local cultural opportunities beyond the existing saloons and beer halls, although this was accomplished in an unusual way. In 1877, a somewhat shady character named “Bud” Smith convinced Fred Hihn and others that Santa Cruz needed an Opera House.
After acquiring a Park Street lot and building materials on credit, Smith forged ahead, but soon was forced to sell out to more substantial local entrepreneurs. The Opera House did get built, however, and remained a home to stage productions, lectures, prize fights and high school graduation ceremonies (even an occasional opera) for over forty years.
In those days, residential neighborhoods of any size also contained several churches, of denominations favored by those living nearby. The only church building still standing from the 1870s in the downtown neighborhood is Calvary Episcopal, which opened its doors in 1864.
Other denominations that used to have a presence downtown neighborhood included Congregational and Unitarian. In addition, the Methodist and Catholic churches were just up Mission Hill.
They were joined in 1884 a German Methodist church on Washington Street, which still serves spiritual needs today as a yoga studio. That church featured services in German, testimony to the substantial number of German natives in early Santa Cruz. By the end of the 1880s, the Methodists had moved down the hill from Mission Street, as had the Baptists from upper Locust Street.
The development of other fashionable Santa Cruz residential neighborhoods farther from downtown followed during the next two decades, as the population increased and as roads and transportation improved.
By the turn of the century, Hihn’s subdivision was filled in, and the neighborhood began to acquire the mixed-use character it retains today. Part of the Hihn estate gardens became the site of the first purpose-built Public Library in 1904, and the Victorian mansion on Church Street became the second City Hall in 1920.
- Chase, John L. Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture (3rd ed. 2005)
- Santa Cruz Public Library website - online local history articles, photographs and newspaper article indexes.