A literalist sees history in every patch of ground, developed or not. Every looming building and dusky alcove, every gabled mansion and tin shack holds a story of life and times otherwise preserved only in the amber of memory.
Some sites, of course, are more steeped in civic and cultural lore than others. These, presumably, are the ones to be saved and protected from the whims of development and the tyranny of the wrecking ball. Slap a bronze plaque on the facade, and that might ensure that future generations will visit on school field trips or lazy Sunday outings, or maybe just drive by obliviously en route to some terribly important errand.
Sacramento County boasts a hefty 94 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, not surprising given the area's triad of epochal periods American Indian settlement, Gold Rush migration, state capital status.
Sutter's Fort. Old Sacramento. The Governor's Mansion. The Folsom Powerhouse. The Southern Pacific Railroad Depot. These places you know. They are our greatest hits, icons shrouded in adobe, redwood and steel. If these walls could talk, well, we'd have to deal with a cacophony of voices.
But most of the entries would not fit the average person's definition of truly historic. The Travelers Hotel on J Street, anyone? How about the Blue Anchor Building on 10th Street? Or perhaps you often give a fond nod to the Old Tavern Building when you stop to dine at Biba on Capitol Avenue?
Overlooked as these architecturally or archaeologically noteworthy places may be, at least they still exist. Several sites on the historic register have vanished into the mists of time; not even the obligatory plaque remains.
The Alta Mesa Farm Bureau in Wilton? Burned to the ground in 1987, a mere year after gaining entry into the register.
The Merrium Apartments on 14th Street, where many a family raised their young? Razed in the 1990s so the Sacramento Convention Center could expand. Oh, but the demolition contractor did save a few bricks to resell to collectors.
The Coolot Company Building, constructed by Leland Stanford himself in 1861, replete with ornamental tiles on the facade? Gone, all gone. Residential lofts now occupy the space.
Then there are the registered places that not even Sacramento's history intelligentsia immediately recognize.
It took some delving into the recesses of The Bee's archive, Google and the minds of city and state historians to suss out that this is an Indian village site near the archery range at Discovery Park, where artifacts of the Misipowinan Indians of the Maidu tribe were exhumed in the 1930s. Its name comes from the Portuguese fisherman, "Joe," who stumbled upon the mound.
No need to tread lightly around the archery range. There is nary a marker at the site nor really even a mound. As Joseph McDole, a state parks historian explained, "archaeological sites tend to be confidential in nature. Vandalism."
Right. Several of the registered sites cannot be easily viewed and, therefore, forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind?
Take the J Street Wreck, not widely known even by the likes of city historian Marcia Eymann, a veritable font of arcane knowledge.
"I'm not familiar with it," she said, apologetically.
Turns out, the J Street Wreck is the remains of what is believed to be the brig Sterling, once used as a floating warehouse off J Street. It sank in 1855.
Her shipwreck lapse notwithstanding, Eymann is a tireless preservation advocate in a city steeped in history but often so hell-bent on modernity that it chooses to wipe the slate clean.
"We're a society with a really short memory," Eymann said. "What happens is, we destroy things and then we say, 'Darn, it would be nice if that were still around.' We're very shortsighted in that respect. We are disconnected from our past.
"Take the river district. I drove by it for years and it was just abandoned buildings. But that once was where they canned all the tomatoes and gave Sacramento the nickname 'Sacatomatoes.' They tore that all down."
Eymann is a preservationist, not an absolutist. She knows that everything cannot be saved. Choose wisely, her thinking goes.
"We walk on history every day," she said. "Cesar Chavez Park, where City Hall is, all that area is where Native Americans lived. At one time it was all a burial ground or living area. So we tread on that history every day. We can't mark every single one, and the unfortunate thing is most Native American sites are lost. We've just built over them and stand on top of them on a daily basis."
What elevates one site from mere interesting oddity from the past to receiving the full-blown National Register imprimatur is objectively defined but subjectively carried out.
The National Register of Historic Places criteria state that sites must be at least 50 years old and associated "with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history."
Wait, there's more.
A site could be chosen if it is "associated with the lives of significant persons" or if it "embod(ies) the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction," or if the edifice "possess(es) high artistic values," or if it contains artifacts that "may be likely to yield information important in history or prehistory."
Or and how's this for confusing bureaucratic-speak? the site "represent(s) a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction."
So, given the criteria, a Victorian home in midtown with leaky plumbing can possibly make the list, if its owner endures the tedium of paperwork and the National Park Service officials sign off on it. More often, it's a grass-roots group banding together to preserve a beloved building or a civic historic agency doing due diligence.
"Reasons are varied, like so much of human behavior," said Robin Datel, professor and chair of the Department of Geography at California State University, Sacramento. "There is the motivation of just wanting the kind of recognition to something you have pride in and care about and feel has some important basis of identity to your neighborhood or town. I call that the bronze plaque effect."
In other instances, though, community organizing and political machinations come into play. Seeking historic register status can inoculate a property from being razed for, say, a federally funded freeway or a private housing or retail development.
Old Sacramento was one of the first areas to attain historic register status, spurred by the construction of Interstate 5 in the mid- 1960s. One of the proposed routes for construction would've run alongside the Sacramento River, the exact spot where the Gold Rush-era buildings stand and tourists trod.
"It was a tactical decision to make that a historic area to protect it from what they called 'urban renewal' back then," Datel said.
Another building that largely owes its place on the register to attempts to circumvent destruction is the UC Davis animal science building, a Spanish Revival structure built in 1928 by William Charles Hays.
"It is not the most historically significant building on campus, but at one point it was under threat," Datel said. "A person might scratch their head and say, 'Why is this one building out of all the older clearly historic significant structures on the UC Davis campus listed?' It's precisely because it was being threatened. They had wanted to tear it down or do radical surgery on it."
Datel did postgraduate work in Philadelphia, studying historic preservation in that history-steeped city. She found that historic register status can be wielded like a political cudgel.
"I'd look at these blocks of row houses and I'd say, 'Why are these two or three blocks listed and all this other stuff that looks identical is not listed?' It was because there'd been a (development) project proposed in that specific area. Because it's grass-roots, and it's not some architecture historian sitting in his or her office and doing this from a strict criteria point of view, you can get these weird inconsistencies."
You also get properties that were once jewels of a community but now either no longer exist or are in disrepair. One example is the Alta Mesa Farm Bureau building in Wilton.
Built by community volunteers in 1913 as a meeting place for area farmers, the Alta Mesa building "remained one of the most important places associated with the history and development of the rural Alta Mesa community (until 1985)," wrote local historian Jane Bilello, who has since moved to North Carolina.
During World War I, residents gathered in the hall to roll bandages for the troops and, in World War II, women made quilts inside while the local branch of the state militia practiced drills outside, Bilello wrote. After the hall's closure, Wilton residents nominated the building for the register. It was accepted in 1987. A year later, the structure burned to the ground, an act of vandalism, Bilello wrote.
Today, all that remains on the corner of Alta Mesa and Blake roads is a dilapidated shack with a spray-painted message, "Keep out" on a warped door, while an alpaca chews grass and stares impassively at the fallow field.
It takes work, and a motivated team of volunteers, to maintain a site, Eymann said. She points to the grassroots efforts to elevate the Stanford Mansion to register status. "They've really kept history alive there," she said.
Eymann said the city is putting together a nomination to anoint the Historic City Cemetery on Broadway to historic register status. Not many cemeteries make the cut, Eymann said, because the National Park Service believes a site needs to be more significant than merely a place where prominent citizens are buried.
"The cemetery is an amazing part of our history," she said. "Walk around that place, and you can see the age, the diversity of the population. Everyone got buried there Chinese Americans, African Americans, you name it. No discrimination. It gives you an indication of who came here for the Gold Rush. There's a mass grave for all those who died in 1850 of cholera epidemic. But it's also strikingly beautiful. There's an amazing group of people started an adopt-a-plot program, turned them into gardens."
More than just civic pride is at stake. Places on the historic register are eligible for federal funding for improvements and upkeep. "The cemetery needs a new irrigation system and new signage," she said. "We'd like to make it like an outdoor museum."
Beyond the grants available, historic places can be an economic driver for an area, Eymann said.
"They add variation to our landscape," she said. "You go to cities and come back, and the things you find interesting aren't the strip malls but things that make the unique. What makes Sacramento unique are the Victorian houses, Old Sac, Sutter's Fort, the Stanford Mansion. They provide a unique aspect to the landscape. They give us an identity that's different than any other place.
"Look at assets Sacramento has to offer. Well, OK, we're in a bad economy, so how do we get people to want to visit and live here? Part of it is our cultural assets. We have a tremendous offering for history."