Exploring Sacramento’s Architecture
What do a Swede, Mexico, gold, a railroad, and California’s first licensed female architect have in common? They all had a huge impact on the landscape of Sacramento. While the city’s natural position at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the early indigenous Miwok settlements, and even Spanish sea captain Gabriel Moraga, who named the river and the valley after the “holy sacrament,” have influenced the traditions and build of the city, it is these latter people and events that have most shaped the architecture of Sacramento.
A Brief History
In 1834, John Sutter fled Switzerland to avoid debtor’s prison. After traveling to other areas of the Americas, he arrived in Monterey, California (part of Mexico at the time) where he met with Governor Juan Alvarado to ask permission to settle a colony in the area. It was two miles upriver of the mouth of the American that, in 1839, he built Sutter’s fort, an adobe citadel that would become the commercial center of a new settlement.
Upon returning to Monterey, Sutter became a Mexican citizen, was inducted into their army, and was granted 115 square miles of land surrounding his fort that he named “New Helvetia” (New Switzerland). It was, perhaps, this union between the European and the Mexican that would later influence such architectural styles in the city, such as Tudor, Greek Revival, Mission, Italianate, and some of the more idiomatic crossovers between styles that would characterize Sacramento’s buildings.
In 1848 Sutter partnered with James Marshall in the hopes of building a lumber mill to support the settlement’s growth. Instead, the two found gold. Nine days later, the area was signed over from Mexico to the burgeoning United States for a payment of $15 million dollars. Though Sutter and Marshall tried to keep their find a secret, sawmill workers who had witnessed their discovery spread the word, and almost overnight, the newly acquired U.S. settlement became a bustling town of European immigrants, Mexican mineworkers, and gold-seekers from around the country who would have an impact on how the city developed.
The real sea change in the landscape occurred in the 1850s when, after several devastating fires that ravaged the mostly wood structures of the city, a fire protection ordinance required all commercial buildings be built of stone, iron, and brick. The die was cast, and this mingling of cultures and materials would shape the city’s designs for the century to come.
In 1854, just four years after California was declared a state, Sacramento was able to overcome competing areas to become the state’s capital. This led to one of its earliest and most auspicious architectural undertakings, the construction of the capitol building in 1860. Built in just over 14 years, the capitol showcases a combination of Neoclassical, Palladian, and Greek Revival styles.
A second, nearly simultaneous event that hugely impacted the population, economy, and status of the city was the completion in 1856 of Theodore Judah’s Sacramento Valley Railroad. Judah envisioned a railroad system that connected California with the rest of the nation, and in 1861, with the backing of a group known as the “Big Four,” Central Pacific Railroad of California was created. In just one short year, the company was authorized to build east to link up with Union Paciific Railroad in Nebraska. By 1869, Judah’s dream of a transcontinental railroad had become a reality, not only making Sacramento a hub of travel that increased the population, but also offering access to the nation’s wealth of building materials. Anything seemed possible!
It was from this richness and diversity that Sacramento’s architecture would develop over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries. It is, therefore, apropos that the new century would begin with the rise of Sacramento’s most notable architect, Julia Morgan. Morgan graduated from University of California in Berkeley in 1894 with a degree in Civil Engineering. After completing the program and working for a year, Morgan embarked on her notable career of firsts. She travelled to Paris to apply to the celebrated Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts where she became one of the first women to be accepted, and the very first to receive a certificate of architecture from the school, and in just three years of the typically five year program.
Morgan would become best known for the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, a family with whom she would work closely over three generations. However, her home in Sacramento stands testament to her architectural impact on the local area. Built in her favorite Mediterranean architectural style, the Julia Morgan House is on the National Register of Historic Places, testifying to her widely regarded status as America’s greatest female architect. In 2014, she established another impressive first, when she was posthumously awarded an American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, becoming the first woman in her field to receive this honor.
Sacramento Architecture Across the Centuries
Sacramento has much to boast about its architectural history. The Crocker Art Museum, for example, is the oldest operating museum in the United States west of the Mississippi. Indeed, its modern facade accented by rich period interior speaks to the broad range of the Sacramento architectural experience.
While covering the entire range of styles developed over the 19th and 20th century is better suited to a book, it is worthwhile to look at some of the major movements that typify the history of architecture in the city. The major developments in building developed over the latter half of the 1800s so the timeline below begins from that period and emphasizes some of the more notable styles that typify Sacramento.
1850s: One of the most ubiquitous house styles stemming from the period is the Delta -style home built in response to frequent flooding of the period. Typified by its raised basement or first floor, exterior steps and front porch, the Delta style would stretch into the early 1900s.
If you take a look at the gray, imposing exterior of the Hubbard Upson House on F Street, you’ll see an example of another dominant style of the 50s, Gothic Revival. The steeply pitched gables and pointed arches were popularized by A. J. Downing’s publication of Cottage Houses.
No discussion of the 50s would be complete without mention of Greek Revival, its block composition and large windows and shutters. The J. Neeley Johnson house is not only the oldest example of this style, but also the oldest remaining home in Sacramento.
1860s-1880s: The two most predominant styles of this period would be the Italianate and the warehouse/industrial style. The Llewellyn Mansion demonstrates the angled bays, hip roofs, and parapets of the more ornate Italian style. In contrast, the warehouse style presents large stretches of brick facade and includes large first-floor entryways to allow access to wagons and train cars.
1880s: Stop by the La Raza Galeria Posada art gallery to see one of the most interesting idiosyncrasies of the period. The Mansard or Second Empire style is most easily identified by its incorporation of the top floor into the roof of the building. This oddity sprung from a Parisian tax law that assessed buildings by the number of floors. In an attempt to skirt high taxation, architects of the period began disguising the upper floor as part of the roof.
Sacramento’s central city showcases another architectural standout of the 80s with the Eastlake style. Named after British furniture designer Charles Eastlake, the styles characteristic ornamentations–grooved moldings, carvings, sunbursts, and spindles–bespoke the machine worked elements of the furniture Eastlake produced. A sister style often combined with Eastlake, was the Stick Style.Using simple slats of wood and sticklike vertical and crosshatch ornamentation, the style lent itself well to the sense of machine worked elements that also marked Eastlake.
Victorian architecture emerged in the mid-80s with Queen Anne style being the predominant subset found in the city. Stained glass, complex roof lines, corner towers, and intricate woodwork announce the style designed by Robert Shaw in 1860.
1890s-1910: Turn of the Century: Probably the most prolific and diverse stylistic period of the city’s history, the turn of the century spoke to the growing population of Sacramento and the needs of an industrialized society. The Cubic style, for example, presented elevated square facades that were economical and repeatable to accommodate apartment buildings for the growing city workforce.
In contrast, Shingle Style offered a simplicity that seemed contrary to modern development. Derived from Bay Area architecture, this style can be identified by the steeply pitched and shingled roofs of some of Sacramento’s buildings. It also incorporates curved interior walls and simple detailing.
This period was also the setting for a number of revival styles, most notably the Spanish and American Colonial revivals. Spanish Colonial’s red tile roofs and stucco walls would set the scene for the later and more influential Mission style. The Georgian style American Colonials, with their gambrel roofs and symmetrical facades, were unusual for the west coast and were usually found primarily in eastern cities of the U.S. To a lesser degree, this period also saw some Classical and Renaissance Revival architecture.
The Fab Forties neighborhood of Sacramento speaks to a particular influence of Tudor architecture. Characterized by decorative exterior timbers, heavy doors, and steep roofs, the style speaks to yet another revival indicative of the city’s increasingly diverse population.
It was, however, the Mission Style, which reconnected the city to its Mexican heritage through hipped roofs of red tile, stucco walls, arches, and parapets, that most stands out during the early 20th century. The style not embraces the hispanic origins of the city, but also echoes indigenous roots of the early territory.
Another functional but important movement of the era was the steel framing and curtained walls of high rises in the city. The combined high strength and lighter framing ushered in the taller commercial scape of the city, often sporting Romanesque and Gothic facades.
1910-1930: If Mission Style spoke of origin, it may have been the Craftsman style that became the emblem of California. These earthy brown homes with wide porches known as California Bungalows were valued for their artisanship and stood out not only in Sacramento, but all over the state as truly Californian.
Though it developed in the first decade of the century, Prairie Style came to prominence during the second decade. This typically midwestern style, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, was often combined with other styles in the city, especially Colonial Revival. It can be identified by its low-pitched roofs, its incorporation of horizontal themes, especially along window lines, and its overhanging eaves.
The Beaux Arts style emerged during this period because of the influence of Julian Morgan’s study at the Ecole and the prominent mansion she built in the city. This influence of French culture would carry on later into the 1920s when Art Deco came to prominence because of the International Exposition held in Paris in 1925. The influence of Cubism and Expressionism can be seen in the experimental zig zag and chevron ornamentations and the use of rich materials of the style such as at the Tower Theater on Land Park Drive.
1940s and beyond: The last major movement identifiable in the city’s history is what has been deemed International Style by architect Philip Johnson and the architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock. This style merged American technology with the European design philosophies of such notables Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Its constrained use of rich materials in combination with a lack of ornamentation speak to a truly modern aesthetic.
The City Like a River
In the same way a river gathers the detritus of its shores, the city of Sacramento has gathered the pieces of its past in the buildings that now make up its landscape. The combination of European and indigenous, the floods and the fires, goldstrikes and railways, all are gathered and come together like the confluence of the American and Sacramento on which the city is built. And in these remnants of the past, the student of architecture finds a rich loam deposited on the shore, a composite of time and the various styles that have influenced the city.