Gardens of the Sea Beach

The brow of Beach Hill, facing out on the ocean, was slow to develop. It had a couple of cottages in garden settings, that grew into the Seaside Home resort by the end of the Civil War, and the Liddell House, with its Long Branch Bath House at the foot of the hill on Beach Street.

The castle-like Sea Beach Hotel on Beach Hill, had world-renowned gardens, featuring 40 varieties of pelargoniums. (contributed)

Their modest one-story accommodations served a limited number of vacationers. But TV Johnson felt this was a magnificent setting for a first class hotel, so he bought a large property bounded by Beach, Main, Second, and Drift Way. He then hired SA Hall as architect, a former ship-builder known for constructing the Soquel Congregational Church, who now erected a two-story hotel.

Named the “Ocean View House,” it sat at the head of today’s First Street, looking out over a large hillside lawn, with an unobstructed view of the waterfront. Yet it’s front door on Main Street was near the entrance to the Powderworks Wharf, which served the Pacific Coast Steamship Company passenger ships. This gave the Ocean View House the first opportunity at steamship passengers looking for a place to stay. Yet the wharf entrance was flanked with a brick gunpowder warehouse on one side, and a wooden Steamship Co. warehouse on the other. It was a workingman’s waterfront, with views of the Limeworks Wharf off Bay and West Cliff, and the Railroad Wharf, about where today’s Municipal Pier is located.

Douglas House

Either due to the high cost or its wharf-side location, the hotel was a money-loser. Chicago artist AH Douglas was in town in 1882 looking for subjects to paint. He loved the waterfront, and when he learned the Ocean View House was for sale, and the Powderworks Wharf was being demolished, he bought the hotel, and the two wharf warehouses. When dismantled, the warehouses gave him a large quantity of bricks, and 50,000 feet of lumber, with which he added a third floor and chimneys to the hotel, and a wrap-around veranda facing the ocean and Main Street. He renamed the establishment “The Douglas House,” and filled the rooms with a collection of oil paintings. Then in 1884, he opened an art studio in San Francisco, finding no time to run his Santa Cruz hotel.

In 1886, Douglas sold his hotel to David K. Abeel, who had founded the “Kansas City Journal” in March 1862, five months after Missouri joined the Confederacy. During the Civil War, Missouri was sharply divided on the issue of slavery and secession, a state claimed by both North and South, with 110,000 Missourians serving in the Union Army. In the 20 years after the war, Abeel made a fortune with his newspaper. Abeel renamed the Douglas House as the “Sea Beach Hotel,” after a large railroad hotel on Coney Island. Abeel had his hotel remodeled in Queen Anne Style, adding a fourth floor and a corner tower.

John T. Sullivan

Abeel placed the Sea Beach Hotel in the charge of recently arrived New Yorker, John T. Sullivan, a friend of abolitionist Horace Greeley, and a Union veteran who’d been captured twice during the Civil War. Sullivan had successfully managed the Bay State Cottages on Beach Hill the year before. As a trained botanist, Sullivan took the opportunity to landscape the Sea Beach Hotel grounds in an astonishing array of flowers, including his own hybrid varieties. He used California poppies, nasturtiums, calendulas, marigold, geranium, verbenas, marguerites, alyssum, petunias, oxalis, roses, freesias, hyacinths, flour-de-lies, Canterbury bells, tobacco plant, forget-me-nots, heliotrope, and Roman anemones. He also had his own seedlings of pelargoniums, single chrysanthemums, carnations and pansies. The grounds also included lawn space for tennis and croquet. Meanwhile, Abeel built his Victorian mansion at 110-112 Pine Place in 1887 on the slope of Rincon Terrace overlooking the Downtown Basin.

For a hotel with a spotty record of success, Abeel and Sullivan transformed the Sea Beach into an attraction so crowded, overflow guests were booked into nearby cottages throughout Beach Hill. In 1889, Abeel hired architect George W. Page of San Jose, to design a massive new wing in a rambling Queen Anne style. Lumber had already been delivered to the site by mid-August. In February, Sullivan obtained a five-year-lease on the hotel with Abeel at $4,000 a year, then Sullivan took his wife Sadie on a tour of the latest hotels in Southern California. He was most impressed with the Del Coronado in San Diego, for its beauty and innovative versatility, from which he sought to learn.

grand opening

In June 1890, the Sea Beach opened to great acclaim. The facade was painted beige with redwood-colored trim and shingles. Elevators carried guests to their rooms, each having a bedroom, parlor, bathroom, fireplace, electric lights and telephone. The lobby had its own telephone exchange, a telegraph office, and a pigeon postal service to a San Francisco hotel.

The public spaces were ornamented with frescos, and a forest of potted palms and ferns. The dining room, and its cozy annex was toward the back of the main wing, and the distant kitchen in the older building solved the problem of food delivery with a miniature dinner plate railroad. Chef Charles W. Smith came from Hotel Del Monte and Chicago’s Palmer House, and for special occasions served nine-course dinners. One such was on July 26, 1897, when the Santa Cruz Beach Combers baseball team won against San Francisco, and celebrated in high style. Star athlete William “Brick” Deveraux was made the team spokesman, gathered around a long banquet table, headed by California’s Lt. gov. William T. Jeter, with author CW Doyle cracking jokes.

The ballroom was just downstairs, a large space outlined in electric lights. One end had a stage, and the other a wall of windows looking out on the bay and bathhouses. Dance was taught during the day, and every summer evening George W. Parkman’s orchestra played, including his own composition “The Sea Beach March.” The ballroom also hosted conventions, exhibits, shows, and high school dances. And while there were many famous guests, the one folks were most excited about was in 1891, when US President Benjamin Harrison stopped in front of the hotel for a speech and a photograph.

World’s Fair

In 1892, Sullivan went to Chicago to tour the Columbian World’s Fair grounds while they were under construction. Not only did he meet his old friend John Thorp, now chief of the fair’s floral department, Thorp was working for former Santa Cruzan Rudolph Ulrich, the fair’s Superintendent of Landscape Design. Two months later, Thorp visited Sullivan at the Sea Beach in March, to order California-grown flowers for the world’s fair, and was surprised at the hundreds of hybrids Sullivan had created. Yonkers nurseryman Timothy Ryan was also staying at the Sea Beach, and was likewise amazed at the varieties of pelargoniums Sullivan had developed. Ryan brought a seed distributer from JR Thorburn & Co., to catalog 40 of the varieties, which would be sold at the World’s Fair as “Sullivan’s Santa Cruz Collection of Pelargoniums.” They were given names like “Columbus,” “Sea Beach Beauty,” “Pride of Santa Cruz,” “Loma Prieta,” “Mrs. HR Judah,” and “Mrs. J.T. Sullivan.”

In 1898, Sullivan had to give up the hotel due to a serious illness. Poor management following his departure almost led to the end of the hotel in 1901. Sullivan and Abeel had a falling-out over this decline, until Fred Swanton came to the rescue, getting Abeel to agree to sell it to St. George Hotel owner JJC Leonard. This solution pleased both Abeel and Sullivan. Leonard hired architect Edward Van Cleeck to build a connecting wing in the same style, bringing the guest room count to 178. The old ballroom became a banquet hall, and a new ballroom was built on Second Street. Leonard hired former Del Coronado manager Mr. KD Van Zandt as manager, and the hotel’s popularity increased, as boardwalk attractions were built nearby. Leonard found managing two large hotels allowed him to book any size conventions.


In 1911, the Casa Del Rey Hotel was constructed nearby, and at last the waterfront had enough hotel rooms for their normal influx of summer visitors. In 1912, the Sea Beach was given a $2,000 upgrade, all ready to open for the season. The new manager had just arrived, named Carl Sword, who’d worked at the Palace Hotel at the time of the 1906 disaster. On the morning of June 12, the gardener Fritz Heinze was awakened at 3:25 am by fishermen leaving the wharf. Heinze smelled smoke, and went outdoors to see where it was coming from, and found the hotel roof on fire. He quickly raised an alarm, evacuating the structure as hundreds gathered on the beach to watch.

The heat from the blaze was so intense, it could be felt by spectators two blocks away. In the four-hour inferno, firemen managed only to save the ballroom. Many mourned the loss of their elegant and renowned hotel. But the saddest sight was Heinze wandering around his destroyed gardens, bemoaning the loss of this horticultural delight.

Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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