Henry Rice opened the Steamboat Exchange as a hotel in 1853, to be luxurious by frontier standards, eventually with a stage coach terminal that made it an important travel hub. The hotel was sold to William Moore & 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 July 20, 1865, the result of a Confederate firebug.
Yet before the ashes were cold, Santa Cruz and San Jose financiers offered from $50,000 to $125,000 to build a new hotel of the finest quality, as an example of postwar prosperity. The hotel lot was cleared, and that August, ground was broken on a large, fireproof redbrick hotel, in an Italianate style by San Francisco contractor and supposed architect, AC Latson. The redbrick Alfred Baldwin building north of the hotel, now Lulu Carpenter’s, was completed in 1866.
During the hotel’s construction, businessmen found the two-block Main Street unable to expand south of Soquel Avenue, as Mrs. Williams wouldn’t allow a road through her apple orchard. To grow, businesses started moving to a narrow road called Willow Street at the backs of Main Street businesses. Street names reflected this shift, with Main Street renamed Front Street, and Willow Street becoming Pacific Avenue, as it was the road to the Pacific. So the new hotel was named the “Pacific Ocean House,” under the management of George T. Bromley, known as “Uncle Bromley” for his genial personality. Some who booked rooms from afar, were surprised the hotel was nowhere near the ocean. The only compensation was its Victorian elegance. It had 24 guest rooms. At the top of the stairs was a parlor with a piano, opening out onto the long veranda fronting both the hotel and Baldwin Building. There were lovely gardens in back, and a ballroom, dining hall, men’s club style billiard hall and palatial bar.
California experienced an economic downturn around 1869-70, and tough times demanded more personal banking that didn’t require a trip to San Francisco. So 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, victim of a frugal public, and sold all its furnishings and fixtures to pay its debts. This was an unfortunate development, as the local travel industry was starting to bounce back, and the abandoned hotel was sorely missed. Yet reduced to a mere shell with only storefront leases, it could not reopen hotel services without a 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 the Pacific Ocean House was a “precarious enterprise,” bought the hotel, then invested $20,000 to furnish it in high style. He saw the building as well-made, centrally located, and a transit hub. He staged a lavish grand opening all-night ball for 150 locals and visitors, showing off his chefs from top San Francisco hotels during a midnight buffet of ornamentally arranged foods, pastries and pyramids of fruit.
Guests were astonished at the hotel improvements. The lobby contained a Western Union and Star Telegraph service (the internet of its day), plus a Wells Fargo Express office, and the Santa Cruz Savings bank. Hoadly hired Turner & Heath to fully outfit the first local hotel with gas light, placing mirrors between windows to reflect the sense of light and openness. Costly paintings adorned the walls. The principle rooms had a battery-powered electric button to ring staff in the office, and the main guest hall had a speaking tube for messages. Hoadley established a meteorological station on the roof to provide hotel weather reports, which were regularly forwarded to the Smithsonian Institute as the town’s official weather statistics. Prices were $15-$20 a week with meals, $12 a week without, $3 a day with meals, children half-price, and babes under 3 were free.
Amasa Pray built an 1873 building south of the hotel’s alley (now Plaza Lane), and Hoadley extended his hotel rooms into the second floor, then added rooms above the Baldwin building to the north, and a back wing, until he had 70 guest rooms . Eight were suites, two of them Bridal Suites. His dining room overlooked a lush back garden with a Russian Tea House and croquet court. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were announced with a gong.
Given the risk of fire, Hoadley placed a Babcock fire extinguisher in the lobby, an invention only three years old in 1873. Hoadley was one of the biggest customers of the Santa Cruz Gas Company, which charged customers $8 per 1,000-feet of gas. Yet even with Hoadley’s discount of $6 per 1,000-feet, his yearly gas bill for 1875 was $1,869. So following the lead of Spreckels Hotel in Aptos, Hoadley installed a Union Gas Machine at the Pacific Ocean House in 1876, costing only $2.50 per 1,000 feet for home-made gas, to supply 150 lights.
In 1876, FA Hihn helped established a county railway reaching Pacific Avenue, which in 1877 was relocated to Chestnut Avenue, and the Pacific Avenue tracks were used for a horse-trolley service. Hoadley made sure to keep an access alley open via a breezeway through the Pray Building, so carriages picking up passengers at the station (site of today’s Goodwill) could pass through to the front of the Pacific Ocean House. Their Paris-made carriage was pulled by horses once owned by New York millionaire Adam Grant. Now the hotel was a multi-modal hub for Stage Coach, Train, and a Trolley that linked to the Steamships.
In 1878, Hoadley made the hotel’s 100-foot long balcony 13-feet wide. Thus, on balmy summer evenings, one could walk down Pacific Avenue, and listen to a dance band at the Pacific Ocean House, playing on the front balcony, as couples danced under the stars.
In 1882, FA Hihn became co-owner of the Pacific Ocean House. Hihn’s old firehouse in back of the hotel was turned into Chestnutwood’s Business College in 1884, then became the Olympic Club around 1886, a gymnasium popular with men. But when a roller-skating fad hit, both men and women skaters used the Olympic Club as a roller rink.
In 1887, trolley-owner EJ Swift became manager of the Pacific Ocean House, plus the Kittredge House on Beach Hill and Pope House on Mission Street, all located along his trolley line. When Swift died unexpectedly at age 41, JB Peakes took over Pacific Ocean House management. Peakes wanted to emphasize the exclusiveness of his clientele, so he put on special balls for “The 400,” a reference to the One Percenters of East Coast Society.
All went well, until Santa Cruz Surf reporter, John Cooper, pointed out one of the bright young men they all enjoyed at various balls, was no less than a waiter at the Pacific Ocean House. Embarrassed, Peakes evicted Cooper from the hotel, then Peakes was arrested for barring Cooper from his place of residence over a trifle. The waiter had actually been given an invitation on several occasions in Peakes’ own handwriting. A jury trial followed with twists and turns along the way. In the end Peakes won, but couldn’t 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 fixtures throughout, the gas being a back-up whenever the electricity failed. In 1891, McCollum placed several incandescent lights in front of the Pacific Ocean House, along with an arc lamp, to make this a bright part of downtown after dark. And to enjoy the hotel garden on hot summer evenings, Mrs. McCollum placed strings of electric Japanese lanterns overhead, covered the back porches with potted plants, and decorated the garden view Dining Room with snowy callas and clematis.
Hihn added a wooden third story in 1892, installing new carpets, lace curtains, folding beds and new furniture styles. But a year later, Whiskey King AP Hotaling built the luxurious and artistic Hotaling Hotel, giving Hihn new competition across the street and down the block. Hihn leased the Pacific Ocean House to the management of Sullivan & Chace for three years. Then in April, 1894, a devastating downtown fire burned most of the Tri-Corner block bounded by Pacific, Front, and Cooper Street, as well as the one-year-old Hotaling Hotel. The Pacific Ocean House was untouched, but looked out on ruins.
Sullivan sold his interest in the Pacific Ocean management team in August 1894. Hihn bought-out the hotel’s co-owner in 1896, then had to evict an insolvent JR Chace, who was prepared to take all the furniture in the Pacific Ocean House. Hotaling rebuilt larger, buying up surrounding properties, and named his replacement inn the St. George Hotel. He was still Hihn’s chief competition, until the St. George management of Leonard & Walsh was hired to manage the Pacific Ocean House too. This allowed them to book larger conventions into town, and distribute the attendees among their various hotels.
A decade later, just as the Hedgpeth Bros. management installed a number of attractions in the Pacific Ocean House, including an elevator, the 1906 Earthquake hit. Yet it hardly caused any damage, making the hotel a popular destination from a devastated San Francisco. The Ocean House Grill restaurant had an Italian band playing from 6 to midnight each evening. Then on Nov. 3, 1907, the Pacific Ocean House roof caught fire, destroying the wooden third story. Hihn leased the Pacific Ocean House to the St. George as a boarding house. In 1937, part of the hotel was demolished for the Coast Counties Gas & Electric Company offices, founded by Fred Swanton.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.