A century before the dog parks and the coffee shops and the high-end condos started popping up around midtown Sacramento, a bartender by the name of Alex Fourness built a home near the corner of 21st and Q streets.
There wasn’t anything unusual about the home – it looked a lot like many of the other houses built around 1910 in that part of town. A gardener who tended to Capitol Park and his wife moved into a similar house next door. Another house on the block was full of renters.
Over the years, many houses in the neighborhood were torn down. An office building replaced a Victorian mansion down the street. Today, the blocks surrounding the intersection of 21st and Q streets are seeing more construction – and more change – than perhaps any other part of the city.
But the old wooden building that Fourness and his wife, Lillian, called home still stands. So do two other homes on the block, both built before World War I.
And they will likely remain standing. The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to extend the boundaries of the Winn Park Historic District to include the three homes at 1616, 1620 and 1624 21st St. Doing so will make it far more difficult for the buildings to be torn down, which was the plan of the buildings’ owner until the city intervened.
The campaign to save the homes was led by local preservationists and by Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents midtown. Hansen lamented the lost buildings of midtown's past. It was a path he didn't want to take again with the homes on 21st Street.
"Everywhere around Sacramento where you see a parking lot or a building that maybe is a bit ugly, you wonder what was there before," he said. "We have all this history we just wiped away. That doesn't mean every structure can be saved, but it does mean we owe it to the next generation to preserve cultural inheritance."
Irene Henry’s family owns the three homes on 21st Street, along with the Capitol Park Hotel at Ninth and L streets downtown. The family wanted to demolish the houses and build a new apartment building on the site, so they evicted the tenants in January.
“We were hoping to take them down, but the city says no, and there’s not much else we can do,” Henry said. “I think it’s unfair.”
Now the Henrys plan to renovate the buildings.
“We’re not going to just put a few dollars in there,” she said. “The city should be proud of it by the time we’re done.”
The houses have a long history in the city's cultural scene. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg is believed to have done a reading there in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the houses became an epicenter of midtown's punk rock scene. One of the houses was known as "P House," for nearby P Street. Another was called "Casa de Chaos."
When punk bands visited Sacramento, the musicians often crashed in one of the houses. A pirate radio station operated out of one house. William Burg, a local historian, lived there for a few years and said he paid $125 a month in rent.
"It was a hub of arts, of music, of poetry, of activism," Burg told the City Council. "And more ideas than I care to count."
Burg said in an interview that the commingling of modern buildings with historic structures is part of what gives midtown character. That theory is on display near his old pad on 21st Street: Hundreds of high-end apartments and townhouses are being built within a few blocks.
"Part of the appeal of the central city is the historic architecture and the contemporary culture are not in contradiction," he said. "You can't have one without the other."
By preserving these homes, City Hall is trying to avoid repeating mistakes.
Three blocks south, a cluster of modern-looking brownstones occupies an entire city block. But for decades, that block was filled by a Victorian mansion surrounded by opulent gardens. The mansion was torn down in the 1970s to make way for a drab state office building that, in turn, was torn down to make way for the homes that stand there today.
"We don't win all the battles," Hansen said, "but I hope our wins start to add up."