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The Rise and Fall of Swanton House, 1883-1887

The middle years of the 1880s saw continued growth and transformation in Santa Cruz, including Swanton House at the corner of Front and Water Streets

Swanton House, soon after its opening in 1883 (photo credit: SCPL)
Swanton House, soon after its opening in 1883 (photo credit: SCPL)

The middle years of the 1880s saw continued growth and transformation in Santa Cruz. Improved building techniques and more skillful local builders allowed ever-larger buildings. In 1883, stable owner A. P. Swanton (father of the more famous entrepreneur Fred) jumped into the hotel business with the three-story Swanton House at the corner of Front and Water Streets.

The first photo shows the brand-new building with its brand-new bituminous rock street paving out front, contrasting with the mud of Water Street to the left. To the right, you can see the much-smaller 1851 Santa Cruz Hotel. To get an idea how downtown was changing, compare with the 1866 panorama view of Front and Pacific. In that photo, the Santa Cruz Hotel is the tallest structure in sight.

Unfortunately, Swanton House established a negative sort of record that has perhaps never been equaled. The new hostelry lasted less than four years before it burned down. That 1887 fire also claimed the venerable Santa Cruz Hotel next-door and the Franklin House (1859); next building along Front Street. The intense heat and embers from the fire endangered other nearby buildings but, with the help of the volunteer fire brigades, all of them were saved. 

After the fire, for some unknown reason, the prime Swanton House lot stood empty for the next 24 years, until the current Post Office was built there in 1911. Directly across from the Post Office on Pacific Avenue is a lot that has been empty since the earthquake of 1989, equaling that dubious "prime empty lot" record this year.

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