Part of Town's History Tumbled in Quake : Architecture: Quaint Santa Cruz shopping district may lose its designation in the National Register of Historic Places.


What used to be a scenic stroll through this city's shopping district is today marred by the ruins of ornate buildings that lent this city its quaint character and landed it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each fenced-off demolition site is a tribute of sorts to a turn-of-the-century building lost to the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Now, 16 months later, Santa Cruz stands to lose even more: the state Office of Historic Preservation wants to strip it of its federal designation as a historic district.

The downtown area as it was before the temblor--a thriving cultural center that welcomed tourists and students from the nearby University of California campus--exists only in old photographs and in the dreams of Santa Cruz natives, state officials say.

Although a ruling on the district's fate has been postponed for a year, the city's loss is all but certain, preservationists say. Planners fear such a move would not only end federal tax credits for restoration, but may further demoralize a town still struggling to rebuild itself.

City preservationists are enraged by California's plan to petition the National Parks Service, which keeps the register, to remove Santa Cruz's historical designation. They claim the state is trying to make an example of Santa Cruz after the city razed its two most famous landmarks, the Cooper House and the St. George Hotel.

Because of imminent danger of collapse, the city moved quickly to demolish many structures damaged by the quake and its violent aftershocks, against objections of preservationists who argued that the buildings were irreplaceable.

When the district joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, 36 of the district's 54 buildings were designated as "contributing" to the area's historical importance. As of January, however, only 17 of those buildings remained.

"They made a good case against losing the district," said Steade Craigo, California's deputy state historic preservation officer. "But there just isn't a district there any longer."

Missing from the city's landscape are buildings from bygone eras--the sturdy brick, castle-like towers of the Richardsonian style and the turn-of-the-century stucco structures that follow a Mediterranean motif.

Within 48 hours of the Oct. 17, 1989, temblor, the Cooper House, an indoor marketplace that was a cornerstone to the city's district, was demolished. The city manager, in consultation with a crew of architects, decided to level the yellow-brick structure instead of trying to restore it. People crowded around the cordoned-off building to watch in horror as their beloved landmark came down.

The St. George Hotel, another anchor for the historical district, was leveled in December. Residents and preservationists banded together to oppose the wrecking, even filing a court case. But a court ruled that the building's fate was up to the city. A mysterious fire set late last year eventually led to the building's demolition.

In Santa Cruz, historical landmarks now are few and far between. All that remains of one city block that edges part of the shopping district near Pacific Avenue is a facade, standing alone without support. Most of the shopping area is blocked off by tall metal fences, deterring curiosity seekers from a closer look at the cracks that scar the outside walls.

"I am not willing to let the historical district evaporate," said Sarah Ray, chairwoman of the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission, an advisory board to the city. "We have something worth preserving here. I think we need to re-evaluate what historical structures there are."

Craigo, who denied that the state's action was intended to punish Santa Cruz, said state officials decided to give the city more time to repair damaged buildings and allow owners to apply individually for inclusion on the register.

"We are absolutely not going after the city," he said.

But the state's intentions are seen as yet another setback for Santa Cruz. Preservationists contend that the absence of a historic designation will not only deny developers a possible 20% tax credit as an incentive for renovations but will also leave residents bereft of civic pride.

"Santa Cruz lacks the funds and the willpower to restore," said Sara Kane, another member of the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission. "They're losing a status symbol. Their civic pride is at stake."

Just a block away from the paralyzed shopping district, dozens of restaurants and small businesses displaced by the earthquake are sheltered under several pale, gothic-looking tents that were erected shortly after the quake.

Teri Haegele owns a hat store, nestled between a clothing shop and shoe retailer under one of the tarps. She said business has been fine but looks forward to returning to a new store by summer.

"If they take us off the historical list, that's the way it goes," she said. "We can't hang ourselves over these buildings that will come down anyway."

Other merchants sharing the tent echo her sentiments. At a swimwear store nearby, Laura Fisher, a salesperson, said she thought any decision to remove the former shopping district from the historic list would "probably not affect us."

It is generally believed among these vendors, in fact, that customers aren't drawn to Santa Cruz for its historic buildings, but for its famous beach and shops. And those are still around.

But preservationists are ardent about restoring Santa Cruz to at least part of its previous splendor. A group that calls itself Vision, whose members were nominated and elected by the City Council, has studied blueprints of the destroyed buildings and suggested replacing them with replicas that are true to the architectural mood of old Santa Cruz.

"We need something that will tip its hat to the original buildings in town, but not be imitating," said Sara Boutelle, an architectural historian who has participated in Vision's weekly meetings. "It has been done elsewhere. It can be done here."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World