Originally built in 1937, the home at 1307 West Cliff Dr. has gone through many different owners. As the property gets a facelift, locals wonder: What is the history of the home, and why is it the only one directly up against the Pacific Ocean? What’s your question? Ask Lookout at firstname.lastname@example.org, and put Ask LO in the subject line.
QUESTION: During my morning runs along West Cliff Drive, I’ve recently noticed the lone home on the Pacific Ocean side of the street undergoing renovations, with the home down to the wood. It got me wondering: Why is that home the only one on that side of the street? And what’s the history that makes the iconic home so impressive?
It’s hard to miss 1307 West Cliff Dr.
The prime seaside home — off the intersection of Fair Avenue and West Cliff — has been situated on the cliff’s face since it was originally built back in 1937, and was expanded with a separate cottage in 1943. In the 85 years since, the home has become somewhat of a beacon for local passersby, as the final house on the south side of the street, and a sign of the historical challenges to building in Santa Cruz itself.
“What makes it so special is this home is right on West Cliff Drive,” says contractor Greg Howerton. “It’s a super highway — everyone in Santa Cruz goes by this house at least once a day.”
Its value in the current real estate market is about what you think it might be. Based on current Zillow estimates, the property — a four-bedroom, three-bathroom, 2,904-square-foot home — has an estimated market value of $8.34 million. At its most recent sale, three years ago, it went for only $5.5 million.
Just in the past month, the house was stripped down to its bare bones: the original redwood frame. Howerton says the property’s extensive renovations will include new insulation and new foundations, which required raising the buildings 10 feet in the air. Still, the house’s wood frame is intact, with the construction team focusing on maintaining the property’s original structure as best it can.
By Howerton’s estimates, the home will likely be ready for move-in by the end of 2023. All of the permits to this point have been approved; now it’s just a matter of getting the home back to its special standing.
“We want to make sure that the integrity of the house is maintained … when you’re offering to make changes to it, alter it in some way, that’s when people start to take a closer look,” said Ross Eric Gibson, a local architectural historian. “The only other property on the seaward side of West Cliff Drive has been the lighthouse, and the lighthouse had to be moved inland because the land underneath it was crumbling.”
Because of spacing and permitting restrictions, Howerton said the home’s square footage cannot be increased, and his team has to modernize the property for earthquake safety.
Reconstructing the place is complicated, of course. At least five to six different departments and commissions, including the Army Corps of Engineers, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, have reviewed project plans over the years, but none of them needs to provide new approval, Howerton said. In fact, the prolonged timeline to attain that permitting dissuaded the home’s previous owners from proceeding with their own renovation.
“It’s right on the Monterey Bay so everyone has a little bit of jurisdiction there,” said Howerton, who was brought into the project by its current owners, who chose to remain anonymous both in the purchase and renovation, and the home’s land use consultant, Deidre Hamilton.
The property was purchased via a private transaction through 1307 West Cliff Holdings, an LLC, with current representation by Jordan Ciliberto.
The house was originally considered for the historical register, but does not apply by the city or state standards: “It’s an old structure, but not a historic structure,” Hamilton said.
Still, Howerton said, “We couldn’t tear [the home and cottage] down and start over — we’d lose all our preexisting permits.”
The new owners got those permits when they bought the house in July 2019. The previous owners, Shigefumi and Amy Honjo, worked for more than four years to restore the property after purchasing the home in July 2014 for $3.99 million. Hamilton worked with the Honjos to remodel the house during that time, with the couple’s goal to preserve the original wood frame through the shou-sugi-ban method.
Due to the difficulties surrounding all of the required permits, agencies and time, the couple decided to sell the property instead of continuing with the renovation. Before the sale, the property had all of the necessary permits to move forward with renovation. Howerton says the current owners wanted a simpler, classic renovation of the property; they are still very much in the beginning phases, as evident by the current bare structure.
“The house they’re going to end up with is very consistent with what was there, just updated,” he said.
Even with all of the difficulties surrounding the renovation over the past few years, the home holds a special place in the hearts of some Westside neighbors.
“It’s one of my favorite buildings … most people say, ‘Wow, this is an amazing structure,’” said longtime Westside resident Alan Ritch, who previously worked as a director of collections for UC Berkeley and describes himself as a “cultural geographer.”
Ritch brought his interest in the home to the radio, sharing his queries on the home with KSQD-FM for a 90-second segment for the station’s “First Person Singular” feature. In its current form, the home — which made an appearance in the 1983 Clint Eastwood movie “Sudden Impact” — is stripped down to its original redwood frame, allowing those along the path to stare straight through its “skeletal nature” right into Monterey Bay.
“It’s like having a house tour,” Ritch said during a visit to the site with Lookout. “I’m just a sentimental romanticist who loves the place.”
Gibson said that even if the home is not considered historic, it is “quite a prominent landmark.”
Since arriving in Santa Cruz permanently in 1973, Gibson has studied a great deal of the area’s architecture, and works with homeowners to address how to add on to historic buildings respectively and gives guidance on restoration practices. With 1307 West Cliff Dr., he has merely admired the property from afar, and was able to complete a historic survey of the property many years ago.
According to Gibson’s research, Bessie Boyd Miller, a local Santa Cruzan and talented cellist, first built the home as a modest Cotswold cottage in 1937. The home was dubbed the “Tide Cliff Studio,” with views to the east of the secluded Philbrick Cove and beach, and the Pendleton Brothers flower fields to the west. The home also housed a separate music studio annex with a grand piano.
When Miller reunited with her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Douglass Frazer, the two wed in 1938 at the cottage, with a special performance by Metropolitan Opera singer Sophia Sumorukova.
In 1943, building contractor D.A. Richardson and his wife, Zia, purchased the home and expanded the studio and stone house over the next decade.
After that, as Gibson has found, the house has gone through many different owners, which he attributed to Santa Cruz’s status as a “summer getaway,” similar to many of the other homes in the area. But 1307 West Cliff Dr. is the only home on the seaside portion of the road, and has always been — from Gibson’s findings — the only home on that side of West Cliff Drive.
In the Honjos’ and the current owners’ attempts at restoring the property all these years later, Gibson acknowledges how difficult of a property it is, both to develop and maintain. He notes that the style of the home — still in the Cotswold look, associated with Carmel or Pacific Grove — is not as common in Santa Cruz anymore, and leads to the question of whether it should be maintained as such a prominent fixture on West Cliff Drive.
Ritch, who said he walks by the house every day, feels a certain kinship with the structure, being nearly the same age.
“That definitely got my interest in the intersection of nature and culture,” he said. “When you see this house, it reminds me of how far you’ve gone and how far you have to go … also in terms of the walk itself.”
Even Gibson says the home is not just a symbol of what development can look like, but also how a home can relate to its surroundings.
“The ethic of the house is that it blends with nature — it’s the front porch of all of Santa Cruz,” he said. “We want it to be homey, we want it to feel like something that’s been there forever, and that is part of the land rather than imposed on it.”