By John Hibble
One of the few remaining icons of the lux Rio Del Mar Resort and Country Club era is the Sea Breeze Tavern building on the Esplanade at Rio Del Mar beach.
Before there was an Esplanade, the location was part of an estuary where Aptos Creek joins the Monterey Bay. In 1875, Claus Spreckels, the sugar millionaire, opened the largest and finest summer resort in California. His Aptos Hotel was located on Spreckels Drive. The hotel was torn down in 1896. After Spreckels died, his heirs sold the property in 1922.
By 1924, development had begun. Leo Monroe, William Lyon and Larry Miller purchased the lands that would become Rio Del Mar.
In May of 1926, the Sunset Grading Company of San Francisco was hired to clear and build up the Aptos beach. Steam shovels, tractors and dynamite changed the contour of the beach. Aptos Creek used to meander around Treasure Island, then onward to Sand Street and Lake Court, before entering the bay on the eastern side of the estuary. A large hill that had occupied the area of today’s Rio Sands Hotel, was used to fill in the estuary. The top and face of the bluff, where Rio Del Mar Boulevard descends to the beach, was shaved off an added to the fill, raising the area approximately seven feet.
By August, Aptos Creek was diverted to the western side of the estuary. The new channel was created initially with a wooden retaining wall but was eventually cast in concrete. This created a lake on the Seacliff, or western side of the area. A small seawall was built along the beach and faced with brick. The beach parking lot and the streets were laid out and improved with gravel. The area was called Rio Del Mar Estates.
By the summer of 1928, the western side of Aptos Creek was contained inside a second retaining wall. A dam was constructed across the creek to create the ‘world’s largest freshwater swimming pool’ and a large bathing pavilion was built on the western side of the creek with changing rooms, canoe rentals and swimming. A small walking pier was built onto the beach to help direct the creek away from the beach and get people out to the surf. The remains of that pier are still visible today. The streets were paved in 1929.
The Sea Breeze building was the first building in the area. It was constructed by A. A. Liederbach in 1928. Liederbach was a farmer in Pleasant Valley. He also owned a campground on the Watsonville Highway, (Freedom Blvd). His son, A. G. Liederbach, was the Aptos Construction Superintendent for the development. I suspect that the son gave his father the inside scoop on the opportunity.
The Liederbach building was an elegant Spanish Revival design which originally had five arched entryways, two on the ocean side and three on the creek side of the building. There were 2 apartments upstairs with Spanish tile over the balconies and roof. It became the first sales office for the Rio Del Mar development. William Lyon leased one of the upstairs apartments.
The signature, resort hotel for Rio Del Mar opened on May 1, 1929, just in time for the “not-so-great” depression. It was built on the bluff above the Esplanade in just seven months at a cost of $100,000. It was a first-class hotel of Spanish Colonial Revival style with 22 rooms. The entry foyer was decorated with items from the estate of the film star, Rudolph Valentino. Because of Prohibition, the inside and outside walls were built far enough apart so that bootleg liquor could be stored out of sight. It was called Hotel Don Rafael de Castro.
In April of 1929, Frank Busser of Sacramento opened a coffee and sandwich shop in the Liederbach building and the following year, a Mrs. Braden opened the coffee shop for the summer season. In 1931, Liederbach leased the building to Rachel Kramer who served hot dogs from the ocean side of the building to tourists and beach-goers and she would also rent changing rooms to swimmers at the rear of the building.
The beaches in Aptos had not had any major storms for almost two decades but in 1931, five significant storms hit the coast. The dam across the creek and the Bathing Pavilion were severely damaged and eventually torn down. This left the Liederbach building as the only tourism area of the Esplanade, with rest rooms, changing rooms, hot dogs, and a walking pier to the beach. Alterations to the building were completed in May of 1932 with improved dressing rooms for bathers and a restaurant. Mrs. Liederbach was in charge of the business that summer.
After Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933 and the depression was easing, plans were made to expand the hotel. The new additions were dedicated on New Year’s Eve, 1936 which included an additional 9,000 square feet of space including 18 new bedrooms, a cocktail lounge, a detached casino, a dining room, and ballroom that could accommodate 500 people with 120 feet of windows overlooking the bay. It would be five years until World War II threw its shadow over the country.
In 1944, Steve Beusan and Nick “Shorty” Butriza purchased the property. Shorty also owned and operated the popular Deer Park Tavern which is Bitersweet Bistro today. The arched entry at the rear of the building was converted to a garage door.
In 1996, Peter and Olaf Harken the owners of Harken Yacht Equipment were in town on business with West Marine in Watsonville and they visited the museum. They had been refugees during World War II and lived in Aptos in a house that is now the Hideout restaurant. They remembered the cement ship fishing pier and the army from Camp McQuaid doing beach landings at Rio Del Mar. They remembered the hamburger restaurant in the Sea Breeze building and how cute the owner’s (Dick Barnes?) daughter was.
The original “Sea Breeze” tavern opened on the first floor of the building around 1956. The building entrance was reconfigured and the two arched entry windows in the front and two on the side were replaced with rectangular aluminum windows.
On March 17, 1963, on St. Patrick’s Day a large party was being held at the hotel. Shortly before midnight a fire broke out. Three hundred guests were evacuated safely. Many guests walked down the hill to the Sea Breeze bar and ordered additional sustenance. The hotel burned to the ground.
The next owner of the building was Georgia May Derber. She was born in Columbus, Georgia, raised in New Orleans, then moved to San Diego and graduated from La Jolla High School. She attended San Francisco State College, Foothill College and De Anza College. She worked for Stanford Research Institute and for Lockheed as an assistant engineer, compiling data for Defense contracts. She moved to Santa Cruz in 1970 and worked at the Sea Breeze. She purchased the “Sea Breeze” tavern at age 29, with $60,000 in inherited money.
Georgia closed the bar in 1988 after neighbors complained about fighting and noise. Georgia retired to the upstairs apartments as a hermit and alleged alcoholic. She allowed the building to deteriorate for the next 16 years, and she had also become a hoarder. The community rallied to help do some repairs and to paint the building. Georgia died of breast cancer on June 8, 2004, at the age of 61 with no heirs.
The building was sold to Sarah Unger and Rich McInnis, who spent two years renovating the tavern, as well as the two one-bedroom apartments upstairs. In September 2007 they re-opened the Sea Breeze Tavern as a restaurant and bar.
Sarah and Rich began to have troubles with permits, fire codes, and eventually cash flow. Rich and Sarah parted ways.
In July of 2015, McInnis was arrested on suspicion of selling marijuana, and for alcohol violations.
The property changed ownership in May of 2020 and was transferred to Hollywood Rental Holdings LLC./Champery Rental Reo LLC, Torre Gurmin and his father.
The building caught fire on the evening of June 14, 2020, and the blaze quickly grew out of control. In August, the Fire Marshal and the owner’s representative toured the building with county Code Enforcement and found that damage was limited to the attic and the back wall. The owner’s representative said they might want to rebuild.
In January 2021, the building was resold to Mr. Omar Billawalla. A final engineering report determined that the property was not structurally safe and not salvageable and should be demolished.
The Sea Breeze building was one of the first commercial buildings to be constructed in the Rio Del Mar resort and one of the last to remain. That ended on May 4th, 2021 when the building was torn down.
Rotary, August 20, 2020
Coffee, Tea and History, November, 2020
Aptos Life, December 2020
Updated May 5, 2021