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The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

(39) On the bay side of Beach Street is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, redolent of the odor of roasting hot-dog grease, popcorn, and salt-water taffy.

A capsule history of American popular culture from the turn of the century to the present may be had by wandering through the various games and amusements in the main building.

As early as 1867 a notice appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel announcing the construction of a “dwelling house for the accommodation of bathers on the beach” by Charles Martelle (Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 23, 1867). The next year John Leibbrandt built the Dolphin Baths, which was a combination bathhouse, swimming tank, and entertainment house. In pre-flood-control days, the San Lorenzo River delta area was the most favored spot for bathing. In 1884 Captain C. F. Miller opened the Neptune Baths, such a successful venture that fifty more rooms were added the following year. Leibbrandt and Miller consolidated their concessions in 1893 and built a bathhouse with an indoor seawater pool.

The Boardwalk as it stands today began to take shape in 1903, when Fred Swanton and John Martin bought the Miller and Leibbrandt bathhouse, forming the Santa Cruz Beach, Cottage, and Tent City Corporation.

Swanton was an imaginative, energetic promoter and entrepreneur who operated a wide variety of businesses during his lifetime. He ran a lumber mill at Felton and opened the splendiferous Palace of Pharmacy in the old IOOF Building on Pacific Avenue. From Alexander Graham Bell he secured the rights to the first commercial telephone system in California, establishing systems in Santa Cruz, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles. In 1896 he opened on Big Creek the first hydroelectric generating plant west of Chicago and started the Santa Cruz electric streetcar system, the second in the state. He also participated in the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1900. At age forty-two Swanton was a millionaire, opening his Neptune Casino “with a blare of music, a blaze of rockets and the boom of bursting bombs” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 13, 1904). A lacy folly of Moorish inspiration, its onion domes and Venetian ogee arches painted in bright colors rose up like an improbable vision of Baghdad at the foot of Beach Hill. Edward Van Cleeck was the architect of the casino, probably the largest commission he ever had.

The casino burned to the ground on June 22, 1906, at an uninsured loss of half-a-million dollars. While the embers

were still smoking, Swanton took his partner and financial angel John Martin up to Beach Hill to survey the ruins and persuaded him to invest a million dollars in a second casino. Work began the day of the fire and was completed a year later, in time for the scheduled opening date of June 15, 1907. John Philip Sousa’s band was there, as was Queen Liliuokalani’s band, the Royal Hawaiians. President Theodore Roosevelt telegraphed his congratulations.

Originally, the present casino’s central, semicircular domed pavilion was flanked by twin obelisks. At either end of the casino were hipped-roof pavilions with bulbous domes. It was designed by William H. Weeks, though Joseph Cather Newsom had been mentioned as a prospective architect in a Santa Cruz Sentinel article of June 26, 1906.

Italian artist Michelangelo Garibaldi was hired to ornament the interior with rococo design and statuary. Garibaldi often got roaring drunk on the weekends and would have to be bailed out of jail.

A newspaper story recounted this tale of Garibaldi at work on a statue of Venus: “Suddenly a group of handsomely dressed

ladies from the Alisky theater appeared in the doorway, chatting and laughing, strolling aimlessly about on pleasure bent. The stately Miss Alice Douvee was modestly taking the lead. Almost before the gentlemen present had realized the situation, the timid actress was noticed by the gallant Ez (Ezra Goodwill) to blush at perceiving the unveiled Venus. With the chivalry of Sir Walter Raleigh coming to the aid of his queen, he spread his cloak around the soft form of the shrinking mermaid. As a result of Ez’s abrupt action, Venus, queen of form and beauty, was very much broken up.

‘“Help! Murder! Fire! Police!’ cried the infuriated Michael Angelo Garibaldi [sic] in splendid Italian. ‘My Venus, my sweet,

my lovely Venus is crushed beyond recovery. She has been squeezed to destruction. Oh Bocaccio, Oh Vespucci! Oh Christefer Colombo [sic]. Yet unhardened by the elements of this world, so young and faultless, my Venus is maimed for all time’” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 18, 1907). When Neptune’s Kingdom was built, Garibaldi’s cherub and King Neptune panels were taken down and placed in storage. In 1907 Swanton anchored the barkentine Balboa in the bay, beyond the Pleasure Pier, which had been constructed in 1904 as part of the development of the first casino and boardwalk. “The Balboa was originally built in Bath, Maine, in 1874 and sailed as the J. B. Brown. In 1906 she was refitted in Oakland and rechristened the Balboa,” noted Chandra Moira Beal and Richard A. Beal, in Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Preceding similar ventures in Southern California by ten to twenty years, it was run as a “pleasure ship,” providing dancing, gambling, dining, drinking, and “pleasures” illegal on shore.

The Pleasure Pier was torn down in 1962. At the same time, the Boardwalk’s plunge was converted to an indoor miniature golf course. The Boardwalk merry-go-round was moved here from Riverside, Rhode Island, where it had been constructed by the Danish woodcarver Charles I. D. Looff in 1910-11. Looff was a factory worker who became a skilled wooden-horse carver in his free time. His first merry-go-round was completed in 1875 for New York’s Coney Island Amusement Park.

The Santa Cruz merry-go-round is carved from Japanese white pine. It accommodates seventy-three passengers. Musical accompaniment is provided by the Ruth and Sohn band organ, which was made in Germany in 1894 and has 342 individual pipes.

The first roller-coaster on the beach was constructed in 1884 with a fivehundred- foot circumference and a daring top height of twenty-four feet. In June 1908 the L. A. Thompson’s Scenic Railway was opened, the longest (1,050 feet) in the United States at the time. It was replaced by the existing roller coaster in 1924. Constructed by Looff’s son, Arthur Looff, it has a top height of seventy feet and a one-minute-and-fifty-second ride.

Viewed from close up, it is the purest possible expression of its own structural elements, stick upon stick. By repeating this one element, over and over again, an abstraction of the balloon frame has been created. The oldest full-sized roller coaster on the West Coast, it is a structure of regional importance and a reminder of the unsanitized, pre-Disneyland amusement park. When illuminated at night, it is the electric Eiffel Tower of Santa Cruz, a free-form landmark visible from much of the central city. On sunny days the lights glance off the whitewashed beams, and the structure looks like the bleached skeleton of some prehistoric leviathan that had crawled up on the beach to die.

In 1912, a year after Swanton had completed the Casa del Rey Hotel, the Boardwalk Company went bankrupt during the President Taft-era depression. Swanton later became promotional director for the 1915 San Francisco Panama- Pacific International Exposition under President Charles C. Moore, also a Santa Cruz resident. The year of the exposition, a local syndicate of investors, including Swanton, took over the Boardwalk and reopened it. The business, known as the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, has been a powerful political and economic force in the area for many years. Swanton himself was mayor of Santa Cruz from 1927 to 1933. He was the town’s greatest promoter but died virtually penniless in 1940, at the age of seventy-eight.

The section of the Boardwalk buildings that is closest to original appearance would be the facade of the former plunge in the eastern section of the main building facing Beach Street.