Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Rispin Mansion

The Rispin Mansion, in Capitola, CA is a forboding structure. A concrete mansion built in the style of an Italian villa, both majestic and oddly out of place. And, of course, it’s haunted. Although numerous different stories are attributed to the place – ranging from the truly strange and difficult to explain to the just plain stupid* - there are four that show up in every written account that I have found (though, interestingly, I have never heard anyone tell any of these four, they just show up in the written sources).

The first holds that a woman in Victorian-era clothes can be seen walking the top floor (odd, as the place wasn’t built until the 1920s). The second is that a man wearing glasses appears near one of the fireplaces and vanishes. The third is that a man can be heard calling for help from the basement. And the fourth is that an angry dog can be heard growling and sometimes be seen.

Other stories that I have actually heard from locals tend to be fairly typical of haunted houses – strange whispers that nobody can quite make out, weird feelings of being watched, cold spots, and things just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

*it was at this place that I watched a well-trained professional photographer explain to a guy that the “orb” in his photo was actually a well-understood photographic artifact and not a sign of ghostly interference – and watched the guy tell the photographer that she was clearly wrong and knew nothing about photography.

Commentary: The Rispin Mansion was built during the prohibition era by H. Allen Rispin, who had hoped to further develop the resort area in Capitola. In addition to its use as a residence, the mansion was also used for rum-running, and for this purpose there are numerous secret passages and hiding places throughout the mansion. Rispin overextended himself and hit trouble in 1928 and lost his holdings beginning in 1930 (though, to be fair, the 1929 crash and ensuing depression probably helped there). The mansion was then bought by Robert Hays Smith, who also suffered from the Great Depression and eventually sold the house to the Catholic Church, who used it as a convent. In 1957, the nuns left, and the building was derelict for a while, until a commune moved in during the 1960s. During the 70s, the mansion became the favored living quarters for local squatters. By the early 80’s, the ghost stories appear to have surfaced.

This particular haunted house is near and dear to my heart. You see, I have met the ghost.

When I moved to Santa Cruz in 1996, I immediately began to collect local ghost stories. It wasn’t long before I came across the story of the Rispin Mansion. Over the course of the next few years, I would ask locals about the building. In 1999, I finally hit the jackpot. I met a local woman who had been fascinated with the building since she was a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s. She was able to give me a large amount of detail about the building, and the lives of the various members of the Rispin family – outside of the scope of this entry, but fascinating stuff nonetheless. She also made clear her disgust of the vandals who would routinely do damage to the place. And then she told me something very interesting – as teenagers, she and her friends would go to the house in the evenings, and find hiding places – in secret passages, in hidden corners, etc. When others would come to do damage to the place, this group of self-appointed protectors would jump out of the passages screaming, let loose with eerie moans, and generally do all that they could to freak out any would-be vandals.

Given her descriptions of the place and how she and her friends would try to frighten others and matching it with the descriptions of the local ghosts, it quickly became apparent that many of the stories associated with this place have their roots in her activities (a few others probably come from the simple fact that it’s a big, creepy-looking decaying structure). In other words, it was one of those rare Scooby-Doo moments when you unmask the monster only to discover that it’s Mr. Johnson who runs the carnival.

Regardless of the source of the original stories, the place does have a creepy-ass reputation, and there are those who have sought to profit from this. When plans were developed in the mid-90’s to renovate the structure as a hotel (plans that only now, 13 years later, appear to actually be getting under way), one of the many “psychic spiritual medium and healers” that are rather ubiquitous in the Santa Cruz area came forth offering to “help the spirits move on” – and apparently was welcomed by the developers, whether because they thought she could help or as a PR move is not clear.

Regardless, it does appear that the mansion will soon be refurbished, and people coming to the area will be able to spend a night in the mansion. I have to say, I’m tempted to book a room myself.

UPDATE: As of early 2010, the house has been severly damaged due to a fire last summer, and there is a good deal of debate as to whether or not it is savable. The building may be torn down, unfortunately, removing a piece of Santa Cruz County's historic landscape. However, if it is salvageable, it may yet be renovated. We'll just have to wait and see.

SOURCES: Local Folklore, Consultation with Members of Santa Cruz County Historical Society, Newspapers, San Jose Mercury News, Internet , Internet


  1. It's sad, I've been itching to get into this place, almost like its calling me. I'm 21 and I am a photographer who is also interested in haunted/old houses. I recently toured The Winchester Mystery House. I am so curious about this Rispin Mansion, it's upsetting I can't get in!

  2. If you find out who owns it, you may be able to get permission to get on the grounds and photograph it.

    If you are interested in older houses, try the Redman House in Watsonville. Not haunted, that I know of, but a great house to photograph.

  3. I'm so dissapointed about the damage from the fire. I've been visiting and photographing the interior and exterior of Rispin for years. I've been anxiously awaiting the day I could reserve a room there. Shame on those who've destroyed a beautiful part of Santa Cruz History!

  4. i have been in the rispen mansion,me and my 3 freind's.
    its was very dangoures and scary!
    we dident know what way to turn or look it was very big and burnt.thiere where tunnels in the wall and staircases that led underground
    check it out for yourself

  5. It's not that scary. I hate ftp disappoint but I've been in there hundreds of times and never heard or seen anything. I love that place though. I lived across the street on wharf road w my boyfriend and it was our secret mtg place. Sometimes when we got kicked out we would even sleep in there. Never seen any secret passages the.hundreds of times I've been there. It is a good photo opt though.

  6. I used to live just a couple of blocks away from it myself, and my girlfriend used to walk through the yard on her way to work. It is a beautiful place.

    I can vouch that the secret passages did exist at least up through the '80's. Deterioration inside the house made them not so secret over time, though. As stated in the article, they were used for rum-running.

  7. i have seen a dark figure pass by the window on the top floor. i snuck in and there was noone to be found.

  8. I was able to enter into this place in abt 1976-to early 1977, with permission. Took photographs and showed the entire house from the caretakers. Was awesome. I still have photographs of various rooms.

  9. I was in there in 1983 and there were secret passages, nooks behind sliding doors and at least one large basement wall with hinges. I too was sad to hear of the fire.

  10. Helped Sara Harvey do the "cleansing" and investigation for the owner in the Haunted By Beauty article in the paper.back in 97?