A new exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History features photos and artifacts from the castle that sat near the entrance to what is now Seabright Beach until its destruction in 1967. What in 1929 was a Hollywood-inspired Moorish fantasy now can be remembered by new generations of Santa Cruzans.
For many years, what is today Seabright Beach was known as Castle Beach, for one very big and obvious reason.
Contemporary beachgoers might have difficulty envisioning what their parents and grandparents remember vividly. Standing near the entrance of Seabright Beach on East Cliff Drive for almost 40 years was the Scholl Marr Castle, an enormous structure that catered to beach visitors with everything from dressing rooms to snack bars, designed to look exactly like those fortified and crenelated Moorish-style edifices that pops into anyone’s head upon hearing the word “castle.”
This month, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which stands right across the street from where the castle once stood, is going hyperlocal with a new exhibit called “Remembering Castle Beach.” It outlines the history of the Scholl castle and its effect on both Santa Cruz’s natural and cultural history. After a soft opening, the exhibit officially opens Saturday.
The castle itself was a kind of renovation of a neighborhood bathhouse called the Seabright Hot Salt Water Baths, originally built in 1903. There was nothing particularly castlelike about the bathhouse until 1929, when the property’s owner, Louis Scholl, converted it into a faux Moorish castle, perhaps inspired by Hollywood movies, then a relatively new entertainment medium. Almost 40 years later, in March 1967, after it was severely damaged in a fire, the Scholl castle was condemned and torn down.
In its lifespan, the castle (later renamed the “Casa Del Mar”) was the site of a number of different establishments serving a beach clientele. In the early days, that meant, for instance, swimsuit rentals — the exhibit features an example of the full-body woolen swimsuits used at the time. As time passed, the castle reflected the changes happening in beach culture itself as it moved from baths and swimsuit rentals to offering up treats like cold drinks and ice cream, supplies such as beach umbrellas and towels, and restaurant meals. For years, there was even an art gallery in the castle.
“There are so many community members who still remember the castle,” said Liz Broughton, the museum’s visitor services manager. “They used to get ice cream there. We’ve already had visitors reminiscing about their summers visiting the castle, and now they’re coming back bringing their kids and grandkids. And the exhibit has been a really lovely way for them to say, ‘Look, this is what it was like for me when I was here at your age.’”
A less noticeable but more fundamental change at Seabright Beach had to do with the construction of the nearby Santa Cruz Harbor, and, said Museum executive director Felicia Van Stolk, this is where the “natural history” part of the story comes in.
“It’s also an opportunity to think about how much the beach has changed, geologically speaking,” she said.
Photos from the heyday of the castle clearly show that the beach was much more narrow than it is today. Scholl, in fact, invested a lot of resources in fortifying the castle against winter storms and the encroaching ocean. But once the harbor was built in the early 1960s, the ocean deposited much more sand on the adjoining beach, and today Seabright is known for its enormous expanse of sandy beach.
The material gathered for the exhibit comes from the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts, with some significant contributions from Bob Watson, who grew up near the castle and whose mother was the manager of one of the shops. Among the artifacts on display is a Carnegie medal awarded to Louis Scholl for rescuing a swimmer from drowning, and a letter from Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Swanton, commenting on the castle shortly after its opening.
“I wish to congratulate you and the Seabright residents upon the wonderful and permanent improvement you have made on your beach property,” Swanton wrote in the letter. “The transformation in your bathing pavilion is fine.”
“Remembering Castle Beach” opens Saturday at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. On July 16, the museum will lead a historical walking tour of the Seabright Beach area, and on Aug. 11, Gary Griggs will present a lecture “Seabright and the Castle: Then and Now.” The exhibit closes Aug. 21.