.A Brief History of the Cooper House

“This was the county jail as recently as the 1980s,” says Nicholas Ibarra, pointing to the red building on the corner of Cooper and Front streets. He’s giving me a tour of the newly renovated—soon to be opened—Abbott Square. The 1,750-square-foot area will be the home to six restaurants, two posh cocktail bars and a Secret Garden open to the public for free music, art shows, or just catching up over drinks. The idea is to make Abbott Square a “cultural hub” for a community that has longed for public spaces. The location couldn’t be more appropriate considering the history of the property, especially for those who remember the once-vibrant Cooper House.

The Cooper brothers originally sold the land to the county in 1866 to be used as the county courthouse. At the time, the local press called it, “one of the neatest, most convenient, best proportioned and at the same time, perhaps the cheapest public building in the state.” The Octagon—which most recently housed the Lulu Carpenter’s coffee house extension—was built in 1882 as the Hall of Records. The property went through some literal trials by fire, starting with the massive fire of 1894 that destroyed many downtown buildings, along with the courthouse. Once rebuilt in 1896, the courthouse would stand only 10 years before the 1906 earthquake struck, rendering the building completely unsafe.

Abbott Square itself was dedicated in 1972, named after Charles “Chuck” and Esther Abbott. The two photographers moved to Santa Cruz in 1963 and played essential roles in establishing many of the city’s famous landmarks. Along with contributing to the design of the once-twisting Pacific Garden Mall, they also single-handedly funded the iconic Mark Abbott Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive in 1986, dedicated to their son after his untimely death in a surfing accident. The same year Abbott Square was dedicated also saw the establishment of the Cooper House.

“The bar was the place to hang out,” says local historian Joan Gilbert Martin. The local resident of more than 50 years has many fond memories of the Cooper House. “There was always music, and always people dancing.”

For anyone living in town during the 1970s and 1980s, the Cooper House was the place to congregate. Located in the heart of downtown, the impressive building, with its decadent windows and ornate staircases, quickly became a hub for people to gather, chat and celebrate life—from national figures like Timothy Leary to local celebrities like Ginger the Rainbow Lady. Unfortunately, after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the Cooper House was deemed unsafe and demolished, much to the chagrin of local residents.

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“Since the earthquake, we’ve never had anything like it,” says Museum of Art & History Collections Catalyst Marla Novo, who played a key role in the Abbott Square revival.

The almost 30-year void is exactly something the MAH hopes to fill with the launch of Abbott Square. The MAH knows they could never recreate the Cooper House experience; instead, they want to reboot its cultural essence for the modern era.

“This will be a place where you can walk in, hang out, eat, drink, read, or people watch. Plus you can take part in the free programs [the MAH] will be offering” Novo says. “It was important for us to keep alive the spirit of what the Abbotts wanted as a gathering place.”


  1. The Cooper house was never the jail. the jail was located around the corner on the same block, facing the river. it closed in the early 80s when they opened the new jail across from the county building on Water Street.


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