Henry Rice opened the Steamboat Exchange as a hotel in 1853, to be luxurious by frontier standards, eventually with a coach terminal that made it a major travel hub. The hotel was sold to William Moore and Amasa Pray, a pair of Yankee capitalists who ran a chain of three “Pray & Hobbs General Stores”. They had just added a third story and hotel porch, only to see the Steamboat Exchange succumb to flames on July 20, 1865, following a Confederate firebug.
Yet before the ashes cooled, financiers in Santa Cruz and San Jose offered $50,000 to $125,000 to build a new hotel of the highest standard, as an example of post-war prosperity. The land for the hotel was cleared, and in August the land was laid on a large fireproof red brick hotel, in an Italianate style by San Francisco contractor and supposed architect, AC Latson. The red-brick Alfred Baldwin Building to the north of the hotel, now Lulu Carpenter’s, was completed in 1866.
While the hotel was being built, businessmen found the two-block main street unable to extend south of Soquel Avenue because Mrs. Williams would not allow a road through her apple orchard. To expand, businesses began to move to a narrow road called Willow Street at the back of the Main Street businesses. Street names reflected this change, with Main Street renamed Front Street and Willow Street becoming Pacific Avenue, as it was the route to the Pacific. Thus, the new hotel was named “Pacific Ocean House”, under the management of George T. Bromley, known as “Uncle Bromley” for his genius personality. Some who booked rooms from afar were surprised that the hotel was far from the ocean. The only compensation was its Victorian elegance. There were 24 guest rooms. At the top of the stairs was a living room with a piano, opening onto the long veranda overlooking both the hotel and the Baldwin Building. There were beautiful rear gardens and a ballroom, dining room, men’s club style billiard room and plush bar.
California experienced an economic downturn around 1869-1870, and the hard times demanded more personal banking services that did not require a trip to San Francisco. Thus, the Santa Cruz Bank of Savings and Loan was established in the Pacific Ocean House in 1870. But around 1872, just at the start of the summer season, the Pacific Ocean House was closed, a victim of a frugal public, and a sold all his furniture. and accessories to pay his debts. It was an unfortunate development, as the local travel industry was beginning to rebound and the abandoned hotel was sorely lacking. Yet reduced to a mere shell with only storefront leases, it could not reopen hotel services without major investment.
Then a vacationing family from Truckee fell in love with Santa Cruz. JH Hoadley agreed with his family to settle here, and ignoring the impression that the Pacific Ocean House was a “precarious business”, bought the hotel, then invested $20,000 to furnish it with style. He saw the building as well-made, centrally located, and as a transit hub. He hosted a lavish all-night opening ball for 150 locals and visitors, showing off his chefs from San Francisco’s top hotels during a midnight buffet of ornamentally arranged foods, pastries and fruit pyramids .
Guests have been amazed at the improvements made to the hotel. The lobby contained Western Union and Star Telegraph (the Internet of its day) service, as well as a Wells Fargo Express office and the Santa Cruz Savings Bank. Hoadly hired Turner & Heath to fully outfit the first local hotel with a gaslight, placing mirrors between the windows to reflect the sense of light and openness. Expensive paintings adorned the walls. The main rooms had a battery-powered electric button for calling office staff, and the main hall had a talking tube for messages. Hoadley established a rooftop weather station to provide hotel weather reports, which were regularly transmitted to the Smithsonian Institute as the city’s official weather statistics. Prices were $15-$20 per week with meals, $12 per week without meals, $3 per day with meals, children half price and infants under 3 were free.
Amasa Pray built an 1873 building south of the hotel driveway (now Plaza Lane), and Hoadley extended his hotel rooms to the second floor, then added rooms above the Baldwin Building to the north , and a rear wing, until it had 70 guest rooms. . Eight were suites, including two bridal suites. Its dining room overlooked a lush back garden with a Russian teahouse and croquet lawn. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were announced by a gong.
Given the risk of fire, Hoadley placed a Babcock fire extinguisher in the lobby, an invention that was only three years old in 1873. Hoadley was one of the biggest customers of the Santa Cruz Gas Company, which billed customers $8 per 1,000 feet of gas. Yet even with Hoadley’s rebate of $6 per 1,000 feet, his annual gas bill for 1875 was $1,869. So, following the example of the Spreckels Hotel in Aptos, Hoadley installed a Union gas engine at the Pacific Ocean House in 1876, costing only $2.50 per 1,000 feet of homemade gas, to power 150 lamps. .
In 1876 F. A. Hihn helped establish a county railroad reaching Pacific Avenue, which in 1877 was moved to Chestnut Avenue, and the Pacific Avenue tracks were used for horse-drawn carriage service. Hoadley made sure to keep an access driveway open via a covered walkway through the Pray building, so that cars picking up passengers at the station (today’s Goodwill site) could pass the Pacific Ocean House . Their Paris-made carriage was pulled by horses that once belonged to New York millionaire Adam Grant. Now the hotel was a multi-modal hub for stagecoach, train and a carriage connected to steamers.
In 1878, Hoadley made the hotel’s 100-foot-long balcony 13 feet wide. So on balmy summer evenings, one could stroll down Pacific Avenue and listen to a dance band at the Pacific Ocean House, playing on the front balcony, while couples danced under the stars.
In 1882, FA Hihn became co-owner of the Pacific Ocean House. The old Hihn fire station at the rear of the hotel was converted into Chestnutwood’s Business College in 1884, then became the Olympic Club around 1886, a gymnasium popular with men. But when the roller skating craze hit, both male and female skaters used the Olympic Club as a roller skating rink.
In 1887, trolley owner EJ Swift became manager of the Pacific Ocean House, as well as the Kittredge House on Beach Hill and the Pope House on Mission Street, all located along his trolley line. When Swift died suddenly at age 41, JB Peakes took over as manager of Pacific Ocean House. Peakes wanted to emphasize the exclusivity of his clientele, so he put on special bullets for “The 400”, a reference to One Percenters of East Coast Society.
All went well, until Santa Cruz Surf reporter John Cooper pointed out that one of the bright young men they all liked at various balls was nothing less than a waiter at the Pacific Ocean House. Embarrassed, Peakes kicked Cooper out of the hotel, and then Peakes was arrested for kicking Cooper out of his place of residence for a trifle. The server had actually received an invite several times in Peakes’ own handwriting. A jury trial followed with twists and turns along the way. In the end, Peakes won, but was unable to stay at his hotel, having tarnished his own reputation. So in 1890 Peakes transferred his hotel interests to McCollum & James for $10,000.
Fred Swanton brought electricity to downtown Santa Cruz in 1889, and the hotel soon installed gas and electric appliances throughout, with gas as a backup in the event of a power outage. In 1891, McCollum placed several incandescent lights in front of the Pacific Ocean House, along with an arc lamp, to make it a bright part of downtown after dark. And to take advantage of the hotel’s garden on warm summer evenings, Mrs. McCollum placed strings of electric Japanese lanterns overhead, covered the back porches with potted plants and decorated the dining room. overlooking the garden with callas and snowy clematis.
Hihn added a wooden third floor in 1892, installing new carpets, lace curtains, folding beds, and new styles of furniture. But a year later, Whiskey King AP Hotaling built the luxurious and artsy Hotaling Hotel, giving Hihn new competition across the street and down the block. Hihn rented the Pacific Ocean House from the management of Sullivan & Chace for three years. Then, in April 1894, a devastating downtown fire burned down most of the Tri-Corner block bounded by Pacific, Front and Cooper Street, as well as the year-old Hotaling Hotel. The Pacific Ocean House was intact, but overlooked ruins.
Sullivan sold his stake in the Pacific Ocean management team in August 1894. Hihn bought out the co-owner of the hotel in 1896, then had to evict an insolvent JR Chace, who was willing to take all the furniture from the Pacific Ocean House. Hotaling rebuilt larger, bought out surrounding properties, and named its replacement hostel the St. George Hotel. He was still Hihn’s main competitor, until Leonard & Walsh’s St. George management was hired to also manage the Pacific Ocean House. This allowed them to book larger conventions in town and split attendees between their different hotels.
A decade later, as the management of Hedgpeth Bros. installed a number of attractions in the Pacific Ocean House, including an elevator, the 1906 earthquake struck. Yet it caused virtually no damage, making the hotel a popular destination from devastated San Francisco. The Ocean House Grill restaurant had an Italian band playing from 6 to midnight each night. Then, on November 3, 1907, the roof of the Pacific Ocean House caught fire, destroying the wooden third story. Hihn rented the Pacific Ocean House at the St. George as a boarding house. In 1937 part of the hotel was demolished for the offices of the Coast Counties Gas & Electric Company, founded by Fred Swanton.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.