Waves from the February 1983 El Nino-inspired storm hitting the sea wall in front of the Venetian Court and flipping into the building. Photo was taken from across the lagoon on the balcony of Mr. Toot's Coffee House with a telephoto lens. Note that the owner of the black unit seems to have left the door open.
Credit: Sandy Lydon photo.
El Nino's first visit to the Venetian Court – 90 years ago.
By-the-Sea Goes In-the-Sea – February 1926
A combination of factors in the mid-1920s brought Santa Cruz County development closer and closer to the sea. Cheaper automobiles, better roads, increasing vacation time and more discretionary income brought more daytime visitors and long-term vacationers to the beautiful coastline.
The Florida Land Boom Connection – 1920s
Part of the inspiration for Santa Cruz County's 1920s by-the-sea development flurry came from that experienced in Florida. California developers visited Florida, saw real estate prices quadrupling and quadrupling again, and returned with plans to replicate the Florida boom. Several Santa Cruz County coastal developments owed their origins to this mid-1920s wave of coastal subdivision, including Rob Roy (aka La Selva Beach), Swanton Beach, Seacliff, and Rio Del Mar. Even 50 year-old Capitola, the county's oldest seaside resort, experienced a spate of new coast side building, including the now iconic Venetian Court.
Miami newspaper headline announces the effects of the 1926 El Nino-inspired hurricane that, 90 years later, is still known as the "Great Miami Hurricane." The Florida ocean side real estate bubble was effectively ended by the storm.
Credit: Ray City Chronicle
Damage along ocean front, Santa Cruz, February 13, 1926. The storm destroyed both beach-level grandstands and tore up stairways and railings along the promenade.
Credit: Seaside Company
Seacliff Park sea wall, February, 1926. You can see how the sand was swept away from beneath the wall and then the waves were able to break the concrete as it was suspended in air with little support.
Credit: Barson family.
The February 1926 waves ran up against the Capitola sea wall and then flipped up onto the first floor roof of the Capitola Hotel breaking windows and doors. Surprisingly, the damage to the hotel was minor.
Credit: Mcdonald collection.
The February storm broke up the concrete walkway and wall in front of the Venetian Court. Visitors surveying the damage.
Credit: Nancy Lenox family.
The view of 1926 storm damage at the Venetian Court with unit #22 in foreground. The damage to the concrete pathway can clearly be seen, but there seems to be little damage to the actual structure.
Credit: Nancy Lenox collection.
By the time that the by-the-sea development wave had reached Santa Cruz County in 1925, the Florida land bubble was already beginning to burst. As all bubbles must.
El Nino Pays a Visit - 1926
Florida and Santa Cruz County were not only connected by visions of fortunes made on real estate speculation. They both were hammered by the very sea that the by-the-sea movement had inspired. During a major world-wide El Nino event in 1926, Florida's coastal comeuppance came in the form of a hurricane in September of that year. Still referred to as the Great Miami Hurricane, it is considered to be the costliest Florida hurricane in modern history. That hurricane helped bring Florida's land boom to an end and gave the state an early entrance into the Great Depression.
The storm that turned Santa Cruz County's "by-the-sea" development to "in-the-sea" arrived on February 12, 1926 and is also attributed to the 1926 El Nino. A combination of heavy rain, high tides and pounding surf shook the financial foundations of coastal developments between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.
Swanton Beach Park – In May of 1925, when Fred Swanton announced his grand vision for the natural bridge beach that he owned, he could not have known about the storm that was coming. His plans included a hotel, apartment building, subdivided lots, and a beach-level bathing and dance pavilion protected by a concrete sea wall. The sea wall was finished in December 1925.
The February 12, 1926 storm almost completely destroyed Swanton's concrete sea wall, and though he claimed that the wall would be re-built later that spring (Swanton was the eternal optimist) the funding for his grand vision at natural bridges never materialized. In 1933 Swanton sold the beach property to the state of California and it is now Natural Bridges State Beach.
Casino and Boardwalk - The storm made a direct hit at the Seaside Company's Casino, boardwalk and bandstands, tearing out all stairways down to the beach. A wave estimated at 20 feet rolled in and lifted the two beach-level bandstands and dropped them back on their pilings, with the poles bursting up through the floors. The San Lorenzo River was backed up as far as Lower Ocean Street, flooding basements and sidewalks.
Seacliff – Fred Swanton's sea wall did not satisfy the ocean's appetite for concrete. Another 1925 by-the-sea development included the subdivision up on the terrace that is still there, but also a grand ocean level esplanade that was to be protected by a 2,200 foot long sea wall anchored by pilings driven deep into the sand.
The storm's waves pushed onto the beach and scoured the sand away leaving the wall standing high above the beach. And then the waves ate over 300 feet of the wall leaving it scattered in the sand.
The President of the Seacliff Company, Mr. W.I. Morgan, characterized the storm that ate his sea wall as an "unusual storm," and stated that it had "disclosed information to us which could not be obtained any other way." There's an understatement.
The Seacliff Company repaired the wall, but building anything substantial and long-lasting directly on the beach never worked out. In one last paroxysm of development energy, a development company towed the SS Palo Alto down from San Francisco Bay and sank it off the beach. The writing was in the sand, however, and the State of California had begun to acquire much of the beach in 1931.
The ocean's appetite for concrete was unabated. A 1932 storm picked up the concrete ship and slammed it on to the ocean floor breaking its back. The State finally purchased the ship in 1936.
Capitola – Even though Capitola had been visited many times over the years by the ocean-that-eats-concrete, a new owner (Henry Allen Rispin) arrived with a new infusion of optimism, and brought new development, a bath house, paved streets, and a mansion that still bears his name. One of the new ocean side projects was the Venetian Court development begun in 1924.
Our concrete-eating-storm paid a visit to Capitola on February 12, 1926. The waves rode in over rain-swollen Soquel Creek, smacked up and over the esplanade's sea wall and flooded much of downtown Capitola.
Local newspapers tried to suggest that the storm damage was mostly cosmetic, and that the Capitola Hotel would be able to repair it for a measly $200. But, the damage to the hotel included the waves rushing beneath the hotel and tearing out the plumbing, part of the building being lifted up and off its pilings but—mercifully-- settling down directly on the pilings.
The Venetian Courts – Just as in 1983, the waves rolled in atop Soquel Creek, hit the sea wall in front of the complex and flipped into the front wall. The newspapers suggested that the damage to the building itself was negligible, and only the sea wall and sidewalk had suffered any damage. They would be able to conduct "speedy and permanent repairs." And they did, and when the units sold, you got a set of storm shutters that could cover windows and doors.
The Return of El Nino, February 1983. Most ocean scientists (including our local Ocean Dude, Gary Griggs) believe that the 1982-83 El Nino was the most significant such event of the 20th century. Capitola was particularly hard hit by sets of huge waves that rolled in and pretty much destroyed the Esplanade restaurants, broke off the end of the Capitola Wharf, and smacked the front of the Venetian Court.
Historian Carolyn Swift was working at Mr. Toot's Coffee House up on the second floor of Esplanade Row, and when the waves began to break one morning (I think it was February 10, 1983), she telephoned me and urged me to come down and bring my camera. I drove in from Corralitos and joined a group standing on the balcony overlooking the lagoon. The building shook with each successive wave, and I shot a number of photographs with a telephoto lense, watching with amazement as Venetian Court residents scrambled to get their "storm shutters" up.
If you look closely, you'll note that the door of the black unit is open. Come on in, El Nino!
A Federal Disaster – The storm of early 1983 left behind an estimated $13 million worth of damage in Santa Cruz County and President Reagan declared a Federal disaster. Over time, the memory of the 1983 storm has been overshadowed by the 1982 tragedy of Love Creek.
As we snuggle down into the warm sand on this 90th anniversary of the 1926 El Nino and look out over a Monterey Bay that seems so benign and smooth, we might consider the prospect of an ever-rising sea that Gary Griggs and others continue to describe to us.
Ocean view properties might be easier to find in the years ahead.
Venetian Court #22 is on the market. At this writing, unit #22 is for sale. Originally listed for $6.5 million, the price has been slashed to a measly $4.8 million. Click here to visit the news article announcing the listing and HERE for the listing agent's website.