Thursday, July 31, 2014

Boardwalk Tales: The Sea Beach Hotel

Since it was rebuilt in the style of the San Diego Coronado Hotel in the late 1890s, the Sea Beach Hotel had become a staple of the Santa Cruz coast line. It began life in 1875 as the Ocean View House, a modest beach-side hotel constructed by S.A. Hall. In 1882, a third floor was added by its second owner, expanding the capacity of the hotel by 32 rooms. The new owner was a Chicago artist and he filled the hotel with paintings of California and renamed it the Douglas House. D.K. Abeel purchased the hotel from the artist in 1886 and then leased it to John T. Sullivan who remodeled the building and moved it back to Second Street. Once this remodeling was completed in 1890, Sullivan rechristened the Ocean View House the Sea Beach Hotel, a name that stuck until the end. Sullivan himself pulled out of the operation in 1898 and the hotel almost died, but Fred Swanton helped bring J.J.C. Leonard, manager of the St. George Hotel, on to keep the hotel afloat. The growth of the adjacent Esplanade and Boardwalk returned profit to the hotel and it expanded again, with a ballroom and banquet hall added beside Second Street..

This early painted lithograph shows the Douglas House at the top of Main Street, a road that, at the bottom, became the Steamship Wharf (the wharf on the far right). The building is large and blocky and rather rectangular, though it already appears to be three stories.

This photograph is roughly contemporaneous with the previous and shows the Douglas House on top of Main Street overlooking the three wharves.

Another early photograph from the 1880s shows the Douglas House towering above its neighbors. The Steamship and Connecting Wharves have been removed leaving only the Southern Pacific Railroad Wharf. The brief glint of tracks in the immediate foreground leads between the Cowell warehouse at left with their cliff-side "potato chute" wharf at right which gave the name "Steamer Lane" to the adjacent surfer spot.

This photograph is perhaps the earliest of the Sea Beach Hotel after its expansion and rechristening. It probably dates to the early 1890s and shows the building without its rear annex or, indeed, much of its gardens. This view looks up toward the hotel from roughly Cliff Street, and other buildings are visible in the background. As the years would go on, tennis and croquet courts would be added, as well as a new wing.

With the enhancements to the Douglas House, the Sea Beach Hotel included a long and narrow palatial wing that mimicked the popular Victorian stylings of the day. While it failed to rival the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey, it gave it a good run for its money and was able to draw numerous celebrities over the years. This photograph shows the Sea Beach Hotel before it was painted in lighter tones sometime in the late 1890s or early 1900s. The new annex building is visible in the background, built from 50,000 board feet of lumber that was left at the nearby California Powder Works warehouse.

The ornate stylings of the Sea Beach were designed for the wealthy and the up-and-coming celebrities of the day. Andrew Carnegie, William Randolph Hearst, and the military officers of the Great White Fleet all spent nights in the sprawling Victorian palace. Gardens dominated the south-east quarter of the property where this wooden walkway lead guests to the beach Esplanade and the nearby bath houses.

Ships still called at the Port of Santa Cruz across from the Sea Beach into the 1960s, as shown in this photograph taken from near the end of the patio walkway in the late 1890s. The patio garden was designed by Rudolph Ulrich, a local who had organized the landscaping of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Clippings from some of those plants were used with seeds from a New York company to plant 40 varieties of roses in addition to the many other beautiful plants that were grown there.

The Sea Beach Hotel was a popular source of profit for post card companies, and the majority of the remaining photographs are direct copies of postcards. The Victorian frontage of the hotel brought it directly onto Beach Street causing it to stand out among its small neighbors to the west. It also was located directly on the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way which gave it extra presence and frequent gawking, most to its benefit. The Victorian wing of the building included redwood floors and elevators, while each of the 170 new rooms included bedrooms, bathrooms, fireplaces, electrical lights, and telephones. The open second floor included the dining hall and hotel lobby.

When the street car business picked up in Santa Cruz during the 1880s, the Sea Beach Hotel made certain that it had service. For a while, two separate street car companies ran on parallel tracks in front of the hotel, as evidenced above in 1903. The cars would be packed in the summer with tourists wishing to visit the beach, and the Sea Beach was sure to be filled to capacity on many days. The Sea Beach Hotel also offered nightly dances and dance lessons throughout the year, with most Santa Cruzans learning their skills here.

A curious mystery surrounds some photographs of the Sea Beach Hotel, however. Both presidents Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the Sea Beach Hotel while on state visits to Santa Cruz. The two photographs above, as well as the two below this aside, are said by at least one aspiring researcher to be of Teddy Roosevelt visiting the Santa Cruz Beach with his wife, children, and dog, possibly during his state visit in 1903. The president would be the gentleman with the umbrella sitting beside the sea wall. Beside him is a child and above and slightly to the right of him, beside one of the men, is a terrier, which he owned. The children, printed in yellow, blue, and red across from him are not unattended but actually accompanied by a woman, who is simply to difficult to discern. She is directly behind the boy at left.

The conspiracy deepens, though. This photograph is undoubtedly the most popular photo of the Sea Beach Hotel. It was used in stationary and on music book covers and remains popular today when the hotel is referenced. Yet there is another photograph that accompanies it that is rarely seen because the hotel is cut off midway through it.

Shown here, though, both the three children and the wide, Edith, are quite clear. Yet what is stranger is that this photograph was originally marketed as the "Santa Cruz PD and Secret Service". A composite of the two images is thus:

The author of this theory points out that Teddy Roosevelt was the first president surrounded with constant Secret Service operatives due to the assassination of McKinley. The men standing directly behind him along the railing, as well as some of those posing at left, therefore, are all members of his Secret Service. While some would argue that it couldn't be Roosevelt for various reasons, the theory certainly holds up. The theorist further argues that the reason the importance of this photograph has never come up is because the trip may not have been publicized or the Secret Service may have banned the use of this image in Sea Beach Hotel publicity if the president is mentioned. In any case, it makes for a quite interesting theory and provides for some fun photographs of the hotel.

Clearly some people thought that the photograph was altogether overrated and simply removed the children and Edith from it entirely, as with above. Also, the roof of the hotel has changed from red to gray, though the actual color is not entirely known. It was popularly highlighted in red but that could easily have been for marketing purposes and the true color of the hotel's shingles may never be known.

One last, and rather odd, version of the photograph displays the fire that apparently destroyed the building in 1912, though oddly no one seems very concerned over the matter, including the three couples and one random individual who have been added to the photograph, strolling on the beach.

The Sea Beach Hotel outlived the Neptune Casino without so much as a flinch, watching as Fred Swanton's new creation rose from the ashes. Shown here in 1907, the Sea Beach sits proudly in the distance beside the new Casino and Plunge buildings, hardly out of place despite its seventeen-year age difference.

The hotel survived the second Casino but changed little over the years. This photograph, probably from the late 1900s, shows a single street car passing in front of the hotel. A railroad crossing sign at the bottom of Main Street is the only note that time has passed. But its life was coming to an end. By 1911, Fred Swanton's Santa Cruz Beach Company had built a rival hotel two blocks away on Cliff Street called the Casa del Rey Hotel. It had all modern facilities with in-room toilets and sinks and two courtyards. It also had more rooms. This may have spelled disaster for the Sea Beach Hotel except fate intervened to overshadow it.

The Sea Beach Hotel disappeared in a fiery inferno on June 12, 1912. Of the structures associated with the hotel, only the new ballroom, which was disjointed from the main structure, survived. It would be many years before another structure would be built on the site. In the meantime, the Casa del Rey Hotel would grow and capture the majority of tourists in its neoclassical/modern-styled structure. An annex of the Casa del Rey would be built directly adjacent to the old hotel site in the 1920s, but both paled in comparison to the grandeur that was once the magnificent Sea Beach Hotel. The brief life of the Sea Beach Hotel is remembered in photographs alone now, but it was so popular and so well marketed during its short existence that its memory will continue to live on for many more years.

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