With a click of the mouse or a tap on the smartphone or tablet, scenes from Sacramento’s fading past fill the screen.
J Street circa the late 1960s glows with neon signs and plenty of parking. Children (who may very well be grandparents now) cool off at a long-defunct public pool called the Plunge. The Tower Theatre’s marquee beams “Kim Novak as ‘Lylah Clare,’” and a liquor store called The Garden Basket occupies the space later more familiar as Tower Books and The Avid Reader.
As Sacramento’s cityscape continues to evolve, with plans for a new arena to be plunked into the heart of the Downtown Plaza, Will Peterson seeks to preserve Sacramento’s old-time character in an online format. Peterson oversees Vintage Sacramento, a popular Facebook page and stand-alone web site at vintagesacramento.com.
“I love midcentury architecture and any kind of vintage neon or vintage signage,” Peterson said. “It’s a time and place that appeals to me. It’s exciting to see how many people are invested (in) stuff that could so easily disappear.”
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Peterson, 47, works by day as a graphic designer for a Folsom video distributor. He has lived in the Sacramento area since third grade, and still remembers when the K Street Mall was lined with giant stone sculptures and the station wagons of the era came with wood paneling.
Some of these moments come back to life as Peterson spends his down time studying old photos, either those he has found on his own or posted by Vintage Sacramento followers. He favors photos circa the 1950s through the early 1970s, but other 20th century decades are fair game as well.
The scenes depict Sacramento in what look like simpler times, including the former Camellia Parade through downtown with a squirrel float and Capitol Mall around the moon-landing years. Cars with sharp tail fins and boys with flattop haircuts help fuel Peterson’s digital time machine.
Far from looking like Small Town U.S.A., many of the photos show a vibrant city that is flush with street and sidewalk traffic. Spots that might now be considered part of city’s blight take on a new perspective through Vintage Sacramento’s rear-view mirror.
“One of my favorite images is the former Greyhound station on L Street that I think came from the late 1950s,” Peterson said. “It was a beautiful, streamlined modern building in great condition. You saw the bustle of activity on the street and traffic going in the opposite direction (than it does now). I love details like that.”
While www.vintage sacramento.com hosts a limited archive of photos, most of the action’s on the Vintage Sacramento Facebook page. Part of the fun comes from identifying locations and other information through crowd sourcing. Threads about the former Stone-Benson building (page followers chimed in about its past lives as the original Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op and now as Naked Lounge) and removal of the Townhouse neon sign in midtown drew lots of responses from local history buffs.
Peterson launched Vintage Sacramento in January, inspired by the success of Vintage Los Angeles. While Vintage-themed Facebook pages have been created independently for a variety of cities – including San Francisco, San Diego Phoenix and Palm Springs – Vintage Los Angeles perhaps reigns as king of the bunch. More than 127,000 people who have “liked” its Facebook page, while Vintage San Francisco has logged more than 3,000 “likes.”
Vintage Sacramento meanwhile claims more than 1,800 “likes” and counting, a respectable figure that’s more than three times the amount of Vintage Portland.
After all, nostalgia traditionally has held plenty of pull on social media, whether it’s users trying to reconnect with high-school crushes, or those “You know you’re from (insert city here)” groups where followers post favorite memories of their hometowns.
Peterson is more interested in photos of past eras than text-only threads of, say, “Who remembers going to the State Fair when it was near Broadway and Stockton Boulevard?” And in particular, Peterson seeks original vintage slides that he later scans for the site.
Slides might be to photography what the 8-track tape is to music, but Peterson loves handling this now antiquated photo format. He searches for them at garage and estate sales, thrift stores – anywhere where people are unloading old belongings. He’s even been known to host slide shows at his house, just like a doting dad might do when relatives came to town.
For him, the slides represent a time when taking a picture required more purpose; they couldn’t just be discarded with a click of the “trash” icon. Peterson appreciates the intentions of the photographers, both pro and amateur, and the chance to see glimpses of Sacramento that might otherwise be forgotten.
“I’m trying to preserve as much slide history I can find in Sacramento,” Peterson said. “This is before everyone had smartphones and took selfies. If you had 24 exposures, you had to think about what you were taking. I’m thrilled they did. It’s fascinating to see stuff I don’t remember or never knew of.”
The truth is few photos make the Vintage Sacramento cut. Many of the amateur photos that Peterson finds capture vacations taken out of town, or interior shots of birthday parties that don’t really give a sense of Sacramento’s uniqueness. In a box of 140 slides, Peterson says he’s lucky to find one or two that work for Vintage Sacramento, like a needle in a Kodachrome haystack.
His collection of Vintage Sacramento photos currently numbers between 250 and 300 images (more appear on Facebook than the website). That means he has sifted through thousands of photos and slides, and now wonders if the opportunities may soon wither.
“It’s tough because the film photography generation is fading away,” Peterson said. “When someone passes away, the family usually comes in to clear the old junk and just ends up in a landfill. I’m kind of in a race against time.”
The nuggets that Peterson has found have generated some lively discussion from longtime Sacramentans and others interested in the city’s past. Vintage Sacramento is a go-to site for William Burg, a Sacramento historian and author who has shared some of his findings with the page’s followers. One of those includes scans from a locally published film magazine circa 1922 called “Screen News.”
Burg also has a fondness for Vintage Sacramento’s midcentury photos, which capture the city in color.
“People almost always think of the past in black-and-white, but color makes it almost more real,” said Burg. “It’s about a sense of connection and importance of place. A lot of people say downtown doesn’t have any character, but, well, it did. That sense of place and identity was very prominent. Truth and information help dissolve myths and assumptions.”
Right now, there’s no time like the past, and present, for Peterson.
As Vintage Sacramento grows, Peterson has more plans and scans to accomplish. He ultimately would like to publish a book and curate a collection for the Center for Sacramento History.
“It’s an exciting time for Sacramento,” Peterson said. “Ever since I was a kid it was a ‘cow town,’ or ‘Sacratomato’ or whatever, but it’s growing up and coming into its own. I hope we can do that while still respecting the historical elements and original character of the city.”