Santa Cruz's 99 Year Search for that Grand Beachfront Hotel
On June 12, 1912, hundreds of Santa Cruzans came out to watch the Sea Beach Hotel burn to the ground, leaving two tall chimneys towering over the rubble like "grim sentinels." With the Sea Beach went the last (and perhaps only) grand, nationally-known beach front hotel that Santa Cruz had ever known before or since. This is not to denigrate the Dream Inn, Chaminade, or other fine properties, but the Sea Beach was cut from the mold of the likes of the Coronado and its across-the-bay arch rival the Hotel Del Monte.
Even the Sea Beach had decidedly Santa Cruz origins—it took many years to complete and looked like it had been put together by a committee. It didn't spring from the mind of a single owner or architect as did the Del Monte, but grew out of many minds and owners over decades until, in 1890 it perched, all bumps and corners like a Sphinx on the brow of Beach Hill. The architecture reflected its complex origins, a collection of buildings and styles. It was grand, but not overwhelming, inviting the visitor to rest in comfort but not too much style. We can imagine laughter as families spent a week or two with the beach just across trolley and railroad tracks.
It reflected the best of the type of tourist Santa Cruz attracted—the upper end of the middle class, as opposed to the top-drawer travelers who sipped champagne and wandered along the gravel paths of the topiary garden at the Del Monte. Del Monte's visitors laughed, but it was polite, restrained – genteel. There was no sign that said so, but it was clear – No Guffawing ! The Del Monte was known by its visitors – presidents and princes. Even the list of those who died there is impressive, including Charles Crocker, one of the founders of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The Sea Beach's flower garden was as rambunctious as its visitors, a cacophony of color – begonias, passion vine, roses, violets and a big "white army" of calla lilies. And besides, wrote Santa Cruz newspaper editor, Duncan MacPherson, the Del Monte was grand and all that, but the sun never came out in Monterey. We have sunshine, crowed MacPherson, forever denoting Santa Cruz as the Sunny Side of the Bay.
Nothing Ever Replaced the Sea Beach
In 1904, just eastward on the beach, arose the Santa Cruz Casino, to further amplify that Santa Cruz was the Happy Side of the Bay. True, it burned in 1906, but was rebuilt in a flash. The success of the Casino in Santa Cruz even caused developers in Monterey to consider and plan a similar casino complex near the Del Monte in 1908, but the economics never worked out, and they settled into their heavy-lidded upper class boredom.
Then, as if it were a portent, in 1911 another working-class no-nonsense hotel opened across from the Casino—the Casa Del Rey. Then, in June of 1912, just as the Casa Del Rey was getting its haunches settled in the sand, the Sea Beach went down.
The Sea Beach Site
Beach and Main - The Casa Del Rey picked up some of the Sea Beach's orphaned tourists, and some went downcoast to the Capitola Hotel. And others went over to the Del Monte. (It too burned in 1924, but was rebuilt and is today's Naval Postgraduate School.) But they never rebuilt the Sea Beach. In 1916 the site on the corner of Beach and Main again began growing organically and today is the site of the Casa Blanca Inn. Just down the street, in 1926, the owners of the Casino and Casa Del Rey Hotel built the Casa Del Rey Apartments, known today as the La Bahia. Over the century since the Sea Beach burned, Santa Cruz never got a replacement, surrendering time and again to the high-end hotels that Monterey seemed to build every week.
Is it Karma?
It's probably too easy to credit karma for the absence of such a hotel on Santa Cruz's waterfront. Perhaps the die was cast in 1880 when Duncan McPherson derisively dismissed the Del Monte as "Stanford's Folly" and indicated that Santa Cruz didn't need that "type" of visitor. Or perhaps it's just a determination to maintain that democratic working class-spirit that Santa Cruz always seemed to exude. Whatever it is, these days you'll have to drive to Monterey to that convention, or sip that glass of champagne.