The look of towns and neighborhoods in MoCo reflect and define community personalities.
Thursday, April 23, 1998
Driving through a community, it''s often easy to read its history. Stamped in the architecture and layout of component neighborhoods, one can read the stories of economic growth and decline, the vision of community leaders and the lack thereof, fads in architecture, and immigration trends. And as much as the look of a community reflects its history, it defines the area''s future personality. Pacific Grove without Victorians, or Carmel without trees, would be radically different communities, and would attract radically different residents and investors.
When I first moved to the Monterey Peninsula in 1976, Pacific Grove was second only to Seaside as a place for inexpensive rents and living. With their peeling paint and crumbling foundations, many of the city''s now-stately Victorians looked more like horror-movie set pieces than reminders of an elegant past. What are now charming bed-and-breakfast inns, were flea-infested flop houses and low-rent apartments for the city''s large population of struggling artists, under-employed carpenters and other bohemian types. You could buy a pair of jeans at Put Ons, a can of beans at Top Hat market, and a quart of paint at Kidwell''s. It was an unpretentious town.
Closely huddled on their narrow lots, the homes stretching toward Cannery Row from Forest Avenue on the ocean side of Ocean View Boulevard provided, and still provide, a nearly communal setting. Although the homes themselves are a mix of architectural styles ranging from Victorian to revival to utilitarian tract, their tiny lots are a reminder of the city''s history as a Methodist retreat.
As early as 1875, San Francisco Bishop J.T. Peck decreed that lot sizes in the Pacific Grove retreat should be a cozy 30 by 60 feet, plenty big enough for the tents that were occupied primarily only during the summer months. Lots sold for an average of about $50, and were eagerly snatched up both by Methodists looking for a place to collect their religious thoughts, and those looking for a place to invest their money.
Those investors so incensed the leaders of the retreat that in 1888, they issued a statement saying, "We are met by the evil which has arisen from unlimited speculation in the purchase and sale of lots in the land set apart for moral and religious uses. Unscrupulous and greedy men and women who are not and never have been friend of this or any other moral movement have entered into this heritage of good order and have sought to ruin the Retreat by placing the price of property above the reach of those not possessed of wealth..."
By the early 1980s, the city''s personality began to change. Pacific Grove''s nascent preservation and restoration movement began to develop clout, fueled by longtime residents'' desire to see the city reclaim its Victorian splendor, new residents'' desire to avoid the big-citification they had fled in Southern California or the East Coast, and business interests'' desire to capitalize on Pacific Grove''s unique combination of architectural charm and spectacular ocean front.
As the city repainted, enacted policies for historic preservation, and began actively promoting itself as a destination for Monterey Peninsula tourists, the nature of the town began to change. According to census data, the median age in the town rose nearly five years, from 34 to 38.7 between 1980 and 1990. Many of the small businesses that once served the town closed their doors, replaced by antique boutiques and home-furnishing shops. Although the town still boasts one of the few true barber-shops in the area, with the closure of both Sprouse Reitz and Holman''s/Ford''s department stores, it''s difficult to buy a pair of socks in the downtown area.
And home prices in Pacific Grove have continued to soar, to the extent that it is no longer feasible for most young families to buy a home in the town. As one Pacific Grove politician, running for mayor in 1990 told Coast Weekly, "they will have to look somewhere else." For some, that somewhere else is Seaside.
At about the same time Pacific Grove was re-discovering its architectural resources, Seaside was wrapping up the first stages of a multi-tiered urban renewal plan that continues in fits and starts today. In his booklet Seaside 1887-1976, Seaside historian Everett Messick wrote that by 1976, the redevelopment had "demolished 762 substandard housing units, moved 122, and rehabilitated 1,097 others...Sixteen parks and an estimated 24.5 miles of streets, 39 miles of sidewalks and 42 miles of curbs and gutters were built. The process required the relocation of 517 families, 228 individuals and 108 businesses. Of the 1,099 dwelling units in the Hannon Project area [roughly the area between Noche Buena and Soto streets, and Lasalle and Broadway avenues], only three were found that met building code requirements..."
A drive through the neighborhood now reveals closely clustered tract housing that has been maintained with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Iron bars armor many windows. It''s a far cry from what Dr. John L.D. Roberts described when he bought property in the area in 1887 and began selling 25 by 75-foot lots intended for a resort community. In brochures for his dream, he described the area as "the new Seaside resort and rival to Pacific Grove."
"It has the most even climate on earth. It is the healthiest place in the world. It has no extreme heat in summer. It is protected from the fogs and ocean winds by live oak-covered hills, which surround us on three sides. It has no malaria. It has Monterey Bay on one side for bathing and fishing and a fine lake on the other side for boating and duck hunting, while the suburbs abound with rabbit and quail. There is no better place to locate a summer home than here."
Roberts had begun his dream community in the area of town across Canyon Del Rey Boulevard from Roberts Lake, roughly in the area now occupied by KMart and up to California Avenue in Sand City. Ultimately, Roberts'' resort was washed away by the Great Depression, which forced investors to sell their properties for pennies on the dollar.
Messick quotes Charlie Bentley, an old-time Seaside resident as saying, "Cheap land is what built Seaside. People bought lots for $1 to $5 at tax sales, put down a well, built a little house and fenced their property."
Another anonymous longtimer describes the Hannon area and Del Monte Heights (the area between Soto Street and Fort Ord, and LaSalle and Hilby avenues) in the early 1950s as: "covered with shacks and connected by unpaved sand tracks which were marked as streets on city maps. There were whole blocks which had no utilities of any kind...
"A lot of the shacks were occupied by squatters--soldiers who had come to Fort Ord during the war and just built houses with whatever material they could find...The houses themselves were so substandard that some had dirt floors, cardboard or tarpaper walls, or four- and five-foot ceilings."
Urban renewal eliminated the shacks but they were replaced with utilitarian dwellings that have little intrinsic character. And the areas remain as some of the least expensive housing areas on the Peninsula, and the only hope for many would-be, first-time homebuyers.
If Seaside has come to be dominated by a utilitarian sense of aesthetics, Carmel-by-the-Sea''s history as an artist colony is evident throughout the city.
Between Robinson Jeffers'' hand-built, stone Tor House and Hawk Tower at the south end of the city, to the La Playa Hotel--which began life as the studio for painter Chris Jorgenson--the city is dotted by architect/builder Hugh Comstock''s "Hansel and Gretel" style homes. The fairy-tale style of the homes was partially inspired by the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, a popular turn-of-the-century interpreter of children''s stories and tales.
The first Comstock homes were built in the early ''20s near Torres Street and 6th Avenue. These first homes were built for his wife, Mayotta Brown Comstock, as a studio and place to exhibit her "Otsy Totsy" rag dolls, the Beanie Babies of her day. According to Rick Janick, an instructor at Monterey Peninsula College, "When he came to town to build a little cottage, Comstock was an amateur. Next thing you know, everybody in town wanted one."
Comstock''s contributions to local architecture didn''t stop with fairy-tale cottages. By the 1930s he had developed the Post Adobe style of construction which basically combined post-and-beam construction (to handle seismic loads, as well as to carry electrical conduit and plumbing) with weather-proof clay blocks he called "acradobe." Long-time residents will remember the old Union 76 gas station across from the Nielson Brothers market as an example of his work. (He didn''t patent the technique, and his innovative building style can be seen in Pacific Grove, near the juncture of Highway 68 and Forest Avenue, and also in Carmel Valley.)
At about the same time, builder M.J. "Rock" Murphy--whose lumberyard was located where Carmel Plaza sits today--was developing his own artistic architectural interpretations. Today, probably the most notable example of Murphy''s work is the Harrison Memorial Library, which he built by interpreting the sketches of architect Bernard Maybeck.
Simultaneous with the artistic inventions being built by Comstock and Murphy, community activist Perry Newberry was battling to preserve the city''s rural appearance and resolutely anti-commercial attitude. In 1916, Ocean Avenue was a sandy, dirt street that turned into a quagmire when it rained--making it difficult for buyers to shop downtown. Business owners, naturally, wanted to pave the street to create easier access and the issue was placed on the ballot; a majority of voters approved the paving.
Newberry, however, continued his opposition to the project, taking the case to court. In a move that would make latter-day activists like Noel Mapstead or David Dilworth proud, Newberry argued that the electorate had been improperly informed of the vote: Notices had been posted by the city''s marshall Gus Englund, from horseback and therefore, claimed Newberry, the notices were too high off the ground for most people to read--and the judge bought it. Ultimately, of course, Newberry could only slow progress--the street was paved in 1922.
By the mid 1980s, business interests--with high-visibility champion Clint Eastwood--had largely turned the tide against the preservationists in downtown. Carmel''s main street had lost most of the businesses that support local residents, and had become a virtual strip mall for tourists.
Still, on a drive through the residential districts near downtown, while dodging trees and looking for landmarks in the non-streetlit night time, one can see the architectural influences of Comstock and Murphy--even in the new buildings which ape their styles--and the preservation efforts of people like Newberry, Frank Devendorf and Gunnar Norberg.
Monterey''s county seats, former and current, Monterey and Salinas, similarly reflect their early histories.
In the downtown area of Monterey, streets curve and slash, in seemingly random directions. These streets follow the paths formerly used by cattle drivers as they made their way to the wharf, where the cattle were loaded on board ships. Along the way, the vaqueros were forced to move along and around the rivulets and gullies carved into the land by winter rains.
The most visible structures in the city, probably, are the many adobe buildings still extant and refurbished from the days when Mexico''s flag flew over Monterey. But throughout the city are scattered neighborhood reminders of other historical periods.
"Spaghetti Hill," at the western ends of Hellam, Franklin, and Roosevelt streets, with its Mediterranean-style architecture is a reminder of the days when the predominantly Italian fishing fleet was flush from harvesting huge boatloads of sardines. And "Motel Row," stretching down Munras Avenue from the freeway nearly to Fremont Street, marks the death of sardine fishing and investors'' search for a new industry to replace the failing fish market.
Near the top of Prescott Avenue, where Monterey threatens to smash into Pacific Grove and the Presidio, is Monterey''s "Huckleberry Hill" neighborhood. There, in the 1930s and ''40s, a band of artists, including Steinbeck crony Bruce Ariss made their stand. This, at the time, was "the country," reasonably undesirable to developers because of its steep slope and dense huckleberry ground cover. Of course, this general undesirability made land prices cheap--and very desirable to struggling artists trying to establish themselves in the area.
They built their homes from salvaged materials, following no particular architectural style whatsoever. Ariss, for instance, had done a fair amount of his salvage work from old boatyards. His original house, begun in the ''30s was more or less in a constant state of construction until it burned down in the early ''90s. Taking his cue from the materials he used, the house had taken on a ship-like appearance: His upper-story deck was complete with a ship''s deck rail and smoke stacks.
Although Ariss'' house may have been the biggest and most elaborate of the bunch, the streets between Taylor and Divisadero streets, Irving Avenue to the Presidio, are still pockmarked with unusual houses that no contemporary building inspector would likely approve.
(In the same neighborhood are a couple of homes by another builder/contractor who left his unique stamp on the Peninsula, Gino Buschini. Near the corner of Taylor Street and Prescott, just before one enters the Presidio, are a pair of almost-Spanish style houses, one of which has walls that can only be described as "undulating." Buschini''s distinctive aesthetic can also be seen in Seaside, where, at the peak of a hillock, a three-unit apartment at the corner of Terrace Street and Amador Avenue rises high above anything else in the neighborhood, with picture windows that capture the Monterey Bay from Pacific Grove to Santa Cruz.)
Befitting its varied history, Salinas is a melange of architectural styles and neighborhoods. From its early days as an outpost in Mexico''s northern expansion, through the days when it was a destination for Dustbowl Okies looking for work, to today''s role as county seat and home for some of the county''s wealthiest agri-business leaders and poorest migrant workers, Salinas'' architecture reflects the changes.
By the turn of the century, Salinas had become a prosperous ranching and agricultural town, and two distinct areas of town were beginning to take shape, east and west of Main Street. On the east side, along streets with tree names (Acacia, Oak, Pine, Willow, etc.), prosperous merchants were building pictorial-style homes (Spanish revival, Tudor revival) and today that area remains a tidy neighborhood of middle-class bungalows.
Meanwhile, the building of the courthouse and city offices on Alisal Street inspired county employees and bureaucrats to build homes and take up residence in the nearby area. John Steinbeck''s father, John Ernst, was for a time Salinas'' city clerk, and the graceful Steinbeck family home still stands on Central Avenue in that neighborhood.
Relatively unaffected by the Great Depression, Salinas continued to grow through the ''20s and ''30s, when the Maple Park subdivision was built and became somewhat of a model neighborhood. The large, wood-frame houses in the Maple Park area became home to the city''s elite: the doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
Thanks to Rick Janick, Kent Seavey, Rose Manestar, Peter Casavan and Winston Elstob for their help in compiling this story. If you''re interested in learning more about the history of specific communities, look for Lucy N. McLane''s APiney Paradise, Everett Messick''s Seaside Salutes America, Harold and Ann Gilliam''s Creating Carmel.