By Ross Eric Gibson
Special to the Sentinel
In 1970, Sentinel historian Margaret Koch said that while it seemed there wasn’t much people could agree on these days, Santa Cruzans were united on historic preservation, adding “…one of the oldest, most meaningful landmarks is the McHugh & Bianchi Grocers….” This fancy 1886 Italianate building stood prominently at the southwest corner of Pacific and Mission streets, built for “Whiskey King” Anson P. Hotaling by local architect LeBaron R. Olive. The specialty grocery was as beloved as the building, with bins of produce and flowers out front, exotic gourmet foods inside, unusual kitchen gadgets and hard-to-find items, drawing foodies from far and near.
What a difference a decade made. In 1960, there was a recommendation to demolish the entire downtown, eliminate roads for parking and freeway cut-throughs, and rebuild in the anonymous Freeway Vernacular style of chainstore boxes and apartment towers. Chuck & Esther Abbott were famed Arizona Highways magazine photographers, who retired to Santa Cruz in 1963 for its colorful Victorian charm and pedestrian appeal. They were dismayed at modernization plans, especially when the Odd Fellows Building removed its clock tower and covered its facade with aluminum sheeting, and Leask’s department store removed its ornamental facade to become a blank box.
Chuck said there was more value in restoring these buildings to their former glory, as they exhibited a level of detail and craftsmanship not easily replicated on today’s market. He recommended landscaping the downtown as an open air shopping mall with Victorian gardens, and designate it a National Downtown Historic District. Through slide shows and gentle persuasion, he convinced the majority of the merchants to back his plan, and in 1968 construction begun on the Pacific Garden Mall.
The mall’s theme landmarks were the Octagon Building, the Cooper Street court house, and the McHugh & Bianchi Building. The county was going to demolish the Octagon, until a plea came from the California Historical Society to save it as a rare example of octagon architecture. It was restored, and became the Santa Cruz museum in 1972. Likewise, the court house was slated for demolition to make way for a downtown parking lot. But Max Walden bought it, and turned it into the downtown’s top destination as the Cooper House, with Victorian shops, restaurants, and galleries, and a popular sidewalk cafe featuring the band Warmth.
McHugh & Bianchi
The McHugh & Bianchi Building sat on an odd-shaped lot with its facade in three angled sections that flowed around the corner into downtown. It joined the Octagon to be the city’s first landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.
Then Golden West Savings & Loan acquired it, and announced plans to demolish the McHugh & Bianchi in favor of a modern building. The California Heritage Council objected, along with the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. The City Council objected, but lacked a local preservation ordinance. So they passed an emergency moratorium on demolitions until an ordinance was completed.
The bank received a petition to save the building with 2,280 names, and later another with 4,000. Sentinel columnist Wally Trabing wrote that the fate of McHugh & Bianchi could very well decide whether Santa Cruz retains the mellow look of its heritage, or “open the floodgates to a conglomerate of architectural whims and egos.” Even Monterey Savings & Loan president Robert Littlefield noted his bank saved Monterey’s Estrada Adobe when they built their building, while American Savings & Loan destroyed Monterey’s adobe “first post office in California” in favor of a modern building. Local hard feelings prompted customer transfers from American Savings to Monterey Savings.
Golden West president Herbert Sandler said he received 10 letters a day objecting to the bank’s plans for a starkly modern building. He said the building would actually be sympathetic to the community, doing what they did in Sonora, where a local architect practically begged for the job designing their bank, to make sure it would fit the historic character of that town. In this spirit, the mall’s landscape architect Roy Rydell offered a sketch showing how the landmark could keep its facade with a third story mansard, and Max Walden proposed using historic teller grills. But Sandler said his architects thought historic preservation was Disneylandish, and didn’t want that. (An odd thing to say about a historic district). He expected his award-winning architects to produce a notable modern design.
With so many organizations opposing demolition, they created a committee to save the landmark on Jan. 4, 1972, headed by Max Walden. The same day, City Manager David Koester wrote a letter to Sandler, saying support for saving the building was overblown, most people want the monstrosity torn down, and that the only thing holding the building together was termites holding hands. Sandler publicly repeated these talking points without attribution, ignoring his 10-letters-a-day opposition to now claim widespread support for a modern building.
Architects Roy Rydell and Richard Cutts had the structural knowledge to explain the building was not unsound, being constructed of virgin heart redwood. Cutts said, “Other cities have turned their historic sections into real moneymakers. It’s good for business.” While custom-built for the site, the bank offered the landmark to anyone who would cart it away. Yet when a group accepted this offer, Golden West refused to loan them the money.
The Preservation Ordinance wasn’t ready by June, 1972, but on a 3-to-3 vote, the city council rejected a Planning Commission request to extend the demolition moratorium. Soon after, the city council rejected the Preservation Ordinance as well, favoring voluntary compliance over mandatory protections. As a result, the Planning Commission approved the landmark’s demolition permit on Aug. 24, and abandoned attempts to create a voluntary Preservation Ordinance.
On the morning of April 19, 1973, two days before their permit was to expire, two Golden West employees took some metal siding from a shed at the rear of the landmark. Rumors led the bank to state there were no plans at this time to demolish the building. Doni Tunheim, president of the Santa Cruz Historical Society, said they were doing token demolition to keep their permit active, because if it expired, they’d have to reapply under a new law requiring an Environmental Impact Report.
Jim Franks posed for a Sentinel photo installing a landmark plaque on the building, while Max Walden, Doni Tunheim and councilwoman Virginia Sharp painted the windows with messages: “Golden West Is Killing Me;” “This Is A National Landmark;” “Rape! Help!;” “Undesirable Transient Developers At Work.” Golden West characterized this as “regrettable vandalism.”
The Special Council Committee to find a compromise, issued its final report July 15, 1974, agreeing with Golden West’s architects (who were committee members) to demolish the building. But Tunheim noted the committee had held only three meetings, two of them in San Francisco, all secret, excluding preservationists. On July 23, the city council met with Sandler’s wife, Marion, a Golden West vice president, to assess the report, and work out a compromise on the landmark. Tunheim called the report “…a whitewash job from a white-feather committee given the Golden West seal of approval.” Reaching a stalemate, mayor Bert Muhly proposed a 90-day hold on demolition, which once again was defeated on a 3-to-3 vote.
Few knew Mrs. Sandler was about to alert a wrecking crew standing by at the landmark. But before she left, she was served with an injunction by the Committee to Save the McHugh & Bianchi. Mrs. Sandler charged she’d been set-up by the city. Mayor Muhly said he had no idea about the injunction, but was appalled at her secret wrecking crew during negotiations to save the building.
Gary Patton, attorney to protect the landmark, charged that insufficient demolition had been done to keep the permit alive, and the shed was a separate structure. But the judge ruled that, as the tin shed could not stand except against the back wall of the landmark, it was part of the landmark. This might have been answered in an appeal, that the tin shed was not a protected part of the National Register Landmark’s design. But the committee couldn’t afford a $10,000 appeal, nor even a $1,000 bond.
I was on a bus headed to Cabrillo College, when I heard people gasp in horror. I looked up from my book, thinking I’d see a bloody accident. Instead I saw the landmark in mid-demolition. We all felt helpless as the bus carried us away.
The name of Golden West Savings had become so hated, the bank switched to a subsidiary’s name: World Savings.