Original Sutter's Fort building gets face-lift

08/08/2013 12:00 AM

08/12/2013 7:27 AM

The only original building left intact at Sutter's Fort is getting an upgrade.

For the past month, California State Parks employees have been working to seismically stabilize and reshingle the roof of the historic Central Building at Sutter's Fort Historic Park.

When originally constructed in 1840, the 6,500-square-foot building was the largest in the region, and it has since served alternatively as an office space, an entertainment hub, an Army headquarters and a miners dormitory.

The renovations to the structure initially built from adobe bricks made on-site have been needed for years, according to Tim Gellinck, a restoration works specialist. However, it wasn't until the project secured funds through Proposition 84 that the renovations became a possibility.

In 2006, California voters passed Proposition 84, which sets aside resources for the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop and restore the state park system.

In the first phase of this project, which costs $295,000, workers are seismically stiffening the building's roof with plywood sheeting, and then linking its adobe walls to the newly reinforced roof, Gellinck said.

The roof will then be shingled with cedar shake wood, which is intended to mimic the historic sugar pine shakes believed to have originally existed.

"The central building hadn't been reshingled since the 1950s," Gellinck said. "You can look up and basically see daylight through the shingles."

The second phase of the project will begin in mid-September, and involve seismically stabilizing the walls in the lower portions of the building.

Visitors will be unable to enter the historic Central Building – which is closed off with construction fences and caution tape – until both of these phases are complete, Gellinck said. The rest of the historic park will remain open for self-guided tours seven days a week.

While the closure of the building, a tourist attraction, may be an inconvenience, Gellinck said, "We have to do it for safety reasons."

Clearing out the historic building has also resulted in some pleasant surprises, he added.

"We always knew that there was historic graffiti from the 1840s up in the attic of the building, but there was so much clutter up there that we couldn't get to it," Gellinck said. "Once the clutter was removed and the shingles were taken off, the light exposed quite a bit of graffiti that we didn't realize was there."

Some of the graffiti is what one might expect, curator Nancy Jenner said. For instance, it appears that plenty of tourists have etched their names on the building's wall.

She added that other graffiti marks may have historic value. Jenner said one mark in particular stood out to her: it includes the inscription "The Industrial Army Camped Here," and is dated May 4, 1894.

Because of this graffiti, Jenner said she learned that a local division of an activist movement, which marched on Washington to petition for more employment in government works projects, stayed at Sutter's Fort in the 1890s.

"It's not that I was the first person to hear about the Industrial Army," Jenner said. "But I never heard that they had occupied Sutter's Fort."

Jenner added that after the roofing project, she and a state archaeologist are planning to record all of the graffiti that can be found on the building's wall.

"There might be more that have names and dates," she said. "And we'll try to record it all."

The fort has previously served as an agricultural and trade colony, housed the offices of John Sutter, headquartered the U.S. Army during the Mexican War and served as a miners dormitory during the California Gold Rush.

In 1891, the city of Sacramento sought to demolish the Central Building, but fraternal service organization the Native Sons of the Golden West offered to purchase the building and surrounding lands to preserve them for history.

The organization re-created the outer walls of the fort and restored the Central Building, according to Gellinck, before returning the land and building to the state.

"This (was) one of the very first reconstructions of a historic site in California," Gellinck said. "It was quite the effort. That wasn't a common thing in the 1890s, so they really did us a huge favor."

California State Parks took possession of the fort in 1947.

Call The Bee's Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.


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