The Cooperhouse

cooperhouseIt was a true crosswalk of Santa Cruz. The location was absolutely perfect, right at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Cooper Street. Notice how even the space in front of O’Neill’s where the Cooperhouse stood, attracts people. If you came here after 1990 or you are under 20 “The Cooperhouse” is only a bunch of old photos and wild stories. Now it’s just a part of Santa Cruz history. It was once our County Courthouse and from June 1972 to 1990 it was the happiest, busiest, gathering, shopping-drinking place (or as we now say, “small locally owned business incubator”) in all of Santa Cruz. For a little while longer, while we older long time residents last, the Cooperhouse will be a bit more important than the Santa Cruz Mission or the vanished bridge at Natural Bridges because it was a real part of our lives.

Like Kennedy assassination fans or 9/11 plot finders many locals remain skeptical about the official destruction of the Cooperhouse. Michael Bates, the contractor who built 12 of the shops inside the Cooperhouse, including recreating all of the windows, later became the chairman of the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission. Michael and his company finished the complete seismic retrofit of the Cooperhouse—the week before the earthquake. That included the structural steel, the framing, the rebar, taking out the bricks on the second floor. Everything was complete from the foundation up, he said. “I was in the attic doing work most of that day, and taking a 5 o’clock break I raced back into the building to make sure everyone was safe … and they were. The Cooperhouse could have been saved, the owners of Lulu Carpenter’s next to the still empty pit hired us to re-build Lulu’s and we did.”
Paul Lee, retired UCSC professor, leader of The Penny University and co-owner of Wild Thyme Restaurant, formerly in the basement of the Cooperhouse, said last week, “the tearing down of the Cooperhouse was a ‘real rush to judgment.’ It and the McHugh Bianchi Building, plus the variety of trees and benches and the zigzag bending of Pacific Avenue were lynch pins of the Abbott Era of Downtown Santa Cruz.”
However our present Santa Cruz City Councilwoman Katherine Beiers was also on the city council before, during and after the ’89 quake. She told me there were no city deals with FEMA, no financial plot with Jay Paul, the new owner of the Cooperhouse … it was an obvious decision to take it down. “The City brought in many engineers from all over to inspect it; they all agreed,” she says. “The damage to the Cooperhouse was so great that it was too dangerous even to enter. Every expert’s opinion was the same—bobody should go in there. It was a shame because The Cooperhouse was the closest we ever had to a downtown plaza.”
The weird part about that 1989 earthquake was that about a year before the quake the city decided to have earthquake experts make a detailed survey of all the buildings downtown to determine just how safe they were. The survey results showed that a majority of the downtown buildings especially the brick ones, should all be made safe. What did the city do? They said thanks a lot for the survey and the guy left town. Only a few buildings like the Cooperhouse were made safe. The rest resulted in those dramatic disaster scenes we’ve seen over and over for the last 20 years. The debate on whether it was necessary to remove the Cooperhouse will go on a few more years amongst those of us who loved it. It’s like the argument: ”how cruel were the Padres who ran the Mission Santa Cruz?” Or “Why do they keep building Downtown Santa Cruz and the Tannery, too, in well known flood plains?” We’re going to get more floods; and we’re going to get more earthquakes. Such questions never get answered for some reason.
Sarah Yahm is a Community Studies student at UCSC. She is just finishing a several month’s long sound and visual documentary on the 1989 Earthquake. I worked with her on it. Asking her to sum up the dozens of interviews relating to all of above, she says, “Each time I’d bring up the topic of the 1989 quake people would visibly start grieving then, as they talked about it, they’d seem to actually cheer up. You could sense the visceral pain that the loss of the Cooperhouse meant to them. I think that economically it may have made sense but, community-wise, it was a real loss.”  She told me Mike Rotkin told her that even re-built, it wouldn’t be insurable, and that no-one would rent it without insurance. More than that, Rotkin said that if they didn’t tear it down in so many weeks or days the state and FEMA wouldn’t pay for the removal.
Michael Bates the Cooperhouse contractor is worried and thinks about The Cooperhouse “all the time.” What have we learned from 1989? he asks. “Owners of historically significant buildings shouldn’t be able to determine their fate. They should know that when they buy a special building. We need to make a map of all of Santa Cruz’s historically important buildings right now! We haven’t yet determined a disaster policy to save other buildings in the future. We’ll do the same thing again—under pressure no one’s perfect and we all make mistakes. And these are important cultural mistakes. Tourists come to Santa Cruz for a lot of reasons, one of the biggest ones is to see and enjoy our beautiful and unique buildings, and it’s those buildings that create character. The Cooperhouse was like our California State Capitol we wouldn’t let it be torn down, we’d re-build it. Now’s the time, make sure plans say that the state will step in and stop all demolition…and give us time after the next quake to sort it all out. We can’t afford to wait until the week after the next earthquake happens”. That was Michael Bates and a lot of community members with deep memories.

Read Bruce Bratton’s weekly column at brattononline.com. Send comments on this article to [email protected] To read this column in its entirety, visit goodtimessantacruz.com

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