First Theatre

The Building

In 1846-47, the first year of the American occupation of California, an English adventurer of Scottish ancestry named Jack Swan built a one story frame lodging house with attached bar room. In 1848, at the conclusion of the US-Mexican War, a company of New York Volunteers convinced Swan that the building should be used to stage theatrical performances. At $5 a head, admission was exorbitant. All the players were male and so, it was expected, would be the audience. The actors played to a full house on opening night, but the locals were even more shocked to learn that five women had been in attendance. When Swan went off to seek even greater fortune in the gold fields, he closed the building. Upon his disillusioned return, he reopened it to a clientele of whalers. Until 2001, the building still operated as a theatre, housing the Troupers of the Gold Coast, who regularly performed the same mid-nineteenth century melodramas that Swan’s contemporaries would have enjoyed. (The theatre is closed for restoration.)

The Gardens

In l906, the Hearst Foundation purchased Swan’s estate and donated the First Theatre to the State of California. The Monterey cypress trees and giant sequoia predate this phase, while the paths and edgings of local “chalk rock” would have been laid out in the 1920s. The present garden design is a legacy from Forrest Denhart, who was in charge from 1948 until his retirement in 1967. Currently, the garden is maintained by the local staff of California State Parks with assistance from Historic Garden League volunteers.