Ten Reasons to Love The Castro Adobe

A June 7 open house at Castro Adobe State Historic Park offers a peek into the rancho hacienda's renovation as celebrated graphic artist Michael Schwab unveils his "Adobe Series" of art prints.

by Traci Hukill

June 2, 2014—Festooned in the dark summer green of grapevine and wisteria, its shaded whitewashed walls cool to the touch, the Castro Adobe stands hidden in a South County neighborhood like a secret portal to another, more gracious dimension where people really knew how to throw parties and build houses. Here are the top 10 reasons to go see this closed-for-reconstruction state historic park, Santa Cruz County's newest, when it opens the gates on Saturday, June 7 for an afternoon with Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks and graphic artist Michael Schwab.

1. Getting There. To get to the Castro Adobe, first make your way to Larkin Valley, the kind of rolling bucolic paradise God would choose for a homestead if He were a hipster looking to raise some chickens and do some coding on the side. Once there, you drive up a single-lane road lined with mailboxes and fences—the very same road used by dignitaries and travelers making their way by carriage and horseback to Don Juan Jose Castro's place 160 years ago. Ye shall know it by its name: Old Adobe Road.

2. It Makes History Fun! Not only is the Castro Adobe now considered one of the best examples of Monterey Colonial architecture and a grand specimen from the Mexican Rancho period (1821-1848), it was also a big deal in its own day. Built around 1848 by Juan Jose Castro, son of one of the original members of the De Anza Expedition, the two-story hacienda served as headquarters for 8,800-acre Rancho San Andres, which ran from the Pajaro River to Seascape and from the coast to Corralitos. It was the most lavish residence in Santa Cruz County. It was also reportedly the nerve center for the entire Castro empire, which included territories from present-day Richmond to Salinas.

The Mexican Rancho period, by the way, was that phase after Mexico gained independence from Spain but before California became part of the United States. After statehood the ownership of the ranchos—huge tracts of land granted by Mexican presidents to wealthy families—was, shall we say, "challenged." Eventually Rancho San Andres was finally whittled down to a single acre, which State Parks purchased in 2002 for $950,000.

3. Picturesque As All Get-Out. With its second-story balcony, carefully restored exterior, grapevine- and wisteria-shaded portals and the massive walnut and pepper trees in its outer yard, the Castro Adobe is begging to be photographed, Instagrammed, sketched, videoed and modeled in toothpicks. We'll settle for a print by the supremely talented Michael Schwab, who has created a poster of the Castro Adobe for Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. (You've almost certainly seen the other posters Schwab created for Friends.) Together with his poster of the Mission Adobe, also commissioned by Friends, it forms the "Adobe Series," and you can get your mitts on it during the June 6 First Friday at Mission Adobe or at the June 7 Castro Adobe Open House. Schwab himself will attend both events.

4. Inspiration for Better Manners. Hospitality was a different kind of thing in those days. You didn't have to pay to visit the rancho, where you would be housed, fed, feted and even sent on your way with a few extra pesos and a fresh horse in a Zipcar-like arrangement shared by all the wealthy landowners (the one request being that you drop off your mount at the next rancho). The arrival of visitors would occasion fandangos, parties with dancing and feasting in the large upstairs room built for that purpose. Granted, some customs, like bull and bear fights—evidence of which are suggested by the finding of the iron ring and tang, which held the animals in place, on the property—are best left by the side of history's superhighway. But they had hospitality down cold.

5. About Those Fandangos... The Castro Adobe's fandango room was the scene of all-nighters set to guitar and fiddle music. We swoon when we think of the romance of stepping out onto the balcony for a breath of fresh air, our corsets being a bit snug for the dancing and all.

In truth, one of the most exciting things, historically speaking, about the Castro Adobe is the cocina downstairs where the cooking was done for parties and daily life alike. It's one of only four or five surviving rancho cocinas in the state (they tended to burn down) and has a meticulously reconstructed brasero. This masonry range will one day be used to cook up tortillas and nopales for visiting third- and fourth-graders studying California history.

6. 85-Pound Handmade Bricks. In July of 2007, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks got 150 volunteers together to mix sand, silt and clay together in just-so proportions, pour the mixture into 14" x 28" wooden molds and babysit the 85-pound adobe bricks while they cured in the sun over the course of a few weeks. The California Conservation Corps also helped with this historically accurate process, and the resulting adobe bricks—2,500 of them—were used to shore up the end walls of the hacienda, which had suffered severe damage in the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Seismic retrofitting of the cocina, crack repair, reroofing and whitewashing—all up to modern code while preserving the appearance of the original—followed, along with the purchase of 9 surrounding acres. When the stabilization of the second floor is complete, the lift is installed, the visitor center is built and the exhibits are constructed, Friends will be into the project for about $2 million.

7. It Has A Pedigreed Garden. The Potter-Church Garden, renovation of which was completed in March 2014, is named for David and Elizabeth Potter, who lived there in the 1960s and early 1970s, and renowned landscape architect Thomas Church, considered one of the fathers of California Style (and the guy who helped determine the amongst-the-redwoods layout of UCSC, as well as the UC-Berkeley master plan). Church, a friend of the Potters, often stayed at the Castro Adobe and helped with the design. The garden features columbines, roses, foxglove, matilija poppy and cork oaks. Hey, the late 1960s in California was history too!

8. 1930s Graffiti. In the 1930s, when the adobe's owners were using it as a barn, people would write their names on the walls in one of the rooms. One day, perhaps after Rancho San Andres Castro Adobe State Historical Park opens to the public (anticipated in 2015), you may be able to gaze upon the handiwork of "Cookie," "Tim Washington 1935" and "John Rocha" and ponder the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

9. Imagining Weddings You Will Have or Attend There. As with Mission Adobe, Friends hopes one day to make the Castro Adobe available to the public for special events. Seems like a nice place to get hitched, have a quinceanera or hold a fundraiser if you ask us.

10. Charlie Kieffer. Chances are Charlie will be there when you make it to the Castro Adobe, and if you're lucky he'll be in his snappy red period shirt with the fancy collar tips. This Friends board member and tireless volunteer is a fount of knowledge about the Mexican Rancho period and the Castro Adobe in particular. He discovered he was a Castro family descendant after getting involved in preserving the Adobe and learning that the Castro and Majors families, the latter being his kin, had intermarried. Now he's available to give tours of the Castro Adobe to small groups (fewer than 10). You can reach him at 831.251.9825 or

The Castro Adobe Open House is Saturday, June 7, noon-2pm at the Castro Adobe State Historic Park. To get there from Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 to the Buena Vista Exit. Turn left at the bottom of the ramp to cross under the highway. Turn left onto Larkin Valley Road but immediately veer right onto Old Adobe Road. The park is about a mile up the road on the right. To learn more about the Castro Adobe renovation, visit The Castro Adobe page on the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks website.