.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.”

14 COMMENTS

  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.

  2. I spent many weekend brunches on the patio here in the 1970’s and early 1980’s enjoying eggs benedict and New Orleans Jazz. When I heard they razed the building as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, I thought it would be a blessing for me to buried in its rubble. But life is for the living and history best left to the past. Just pray that you will all have someone to tell you the stories.

    I was raised in an Irish Catholic heavy drinking family and not one of them could tell a decent story so I made up my own leprechauns enjoyed by every ear I could engage in a playground without a pediphile accusation. Magic is not an illusion, it is the last breath of life.

    When I was very young my mother told me a story about a young man who found himself locked in a cellar with twelve doors. Each door hid behind it a prize or a peril. My choice was to stand helplessly in the middle of the room or seize the day. I am 70-years-old today with some prizes and promise and some scraps and scars. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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    • Love your story!….. remember watching them trying to knock down the damaged Cooperhouse with many other teary eyed Santa Criuzians…. It didn’t go down without fierce resistance as the wrecking ball repeatedly struck it with a dull thud…. Seems like it was yesterday!!❤️?

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  3. I remember seeing Tommy Smuthers of the Smuthers brothers hanging out at the Oak Room Bar inside the Cooperhouse!
    I.loved that place and cried when they prematurely took it down..

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  4. It was the courthouse in the late 60’s . Also had a decent mexican restaurant in the basement in the early 70’s .. Maximilianos .

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  5. Downstairs in the Cooper House there were a couple of holding cells for prisnors facing trial. They were made into restrooms during the Cooper House hey days.

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  6. When I was a little girl, we used to go into the Cooper house to get our candy treats at the candy counter with the beautiful Stainglass by John Forbes and then go to the toy store with the best toys ever real wooden toys and the best stuffed animals ? when I was older, I worked upstairs at camouflage and then just throughout the years enjoying all the little shops and hanging out there it was definitely the the hub of Santa Cruz downtown a perfect meeting spot…I’ll meet you at the Cooper ?house

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  7. I spent my teenage years hanging on the pacific garden mall getting treats at morros nut hous and bagels at the stand out front my mom and I lived in the St. George hotel when I was a teen

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  8. I grew up between the Cooper House and Bookshop, my mom worked at both places. It was absolutely magical. I wish I had more photos.

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    • Absolutely Loved& Enjoyed “The Cooper House”
      I’m so grateful for the memories & song that fits this very missed place…
      “Those were The Days My Friend
      We thought they’d never end we’d sing&dance forever&a day,
      This is the life we’d choose we’d fight&never lose
      those were the days oh yes those were the days.
      La La La La La La La La La La Those were the Days Oh yes those were the days!

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  9. Does anyone know any of the bands that played music there or if there was any albums released

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  10. Loved the Era, vintage clothes. Run by Clancy. Loved sitting in the big windows in the bar watching it rain and drinking Amaretto and tea.

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  11. I have a belt buckle in a box. The inscription on the box reads “ Cooperhouse-pacific garden mall- Santa Cruz. Anyone interested??

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