Home & Garden

Sacramento’s second oldest home ready for its close-up

Dan Hood stands alongside his antique Chickering piano inside the J. Neely Johnson House on Thur., Aug. 10, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif. The historic home owned by him and his wife Susan Hood will be on the 42nd Annual Historic Home Tour, Sunday, September 17, 2017.
Dan Hood stands alongside his antique Chickering piano inside the J. Neely Johnson House on Thur., Aug. 10, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif. The historic home owned by him and his wife Susan Hood will be on the 42nd Annual Historic Home Tour, Sunday, September 17, 2017. rbyer@sacbee.com

“If these walls could talk,” said Dan Hood, who saved Sacramento’s Johnson House from certain destruction. “That’s a story I want to hear.”

In the parlor, J. Neely Johnson helped shape early California history. As the young state’s fourth governor, he gave his inaugural speech from its upstairs balcony.

Facing F Street in Alkali Flat, the porch still offers a commanding view. It’s easy to imagine this stately home as Sacramento’s oldest surviving governor’s mansion – or on a southern plantation.

Built in mid-1800s Greek Revival style, it’s the only single family home of its kind in present Sacramento (even perhaps west of the Mississippi) and the highlight of the upcoming Historic Home Tour, presented by Preservation Sacramento. Set for Sept. 17, this year’s event focuses on Alkali Flat, Sacramento’s oldest existing residential neighborhood. Named for the white alkali deposits left by floodwaters, that storied neighborhood rode the capital’s fortunes through good times and bad.

Blocks away from City Hall, the Johnson House encapsulates much of that history, withstanding redevelopment, a massive fire and condemnation. It dodged wrecking balls and kept its distinctive profile through major renovations.

Long after its fashionable heyday, its pretty parlors and high-ceilinged bedrooms were cut up into nine apartment units. Thieves stripped many of its original trimmings such as marble fireplaces and hand-painted ceiling medallions.

A 1970s fire nearly destroyed the structure. That’s when Dan and Susan Hood rescued the Johnson House.

The couple bought it – blackened and condemned – for $14,000. It took them nearly three years to clear all the initial hurdles and take possession.

Among the challenges: Evicting hundreds of pigeons that had taken up residence in the attic. (They had to remove the guano, too.)

“That’s what blew me away – the pigeons in the attic,” he said.

Dan Hood knew what he was getting into. He was a preservation architect for the Office of the State Architect.

“I was doing preservation for the state while also working on my own home,” he said. “It was like laboratory work in my house.”

Since buying the house in 1976, the Hoods have worked on nonstop renovations, lovingly bringing dignity and mid-19th century style back to this historic home. Recently, they finished the last step: Turning the house back into its original intention as a single family home instead of rental units.

“This has been Dan’s labor of love,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who lives next door to the Johnson House. “I see him out here every day. It was just a shell when he started.”

While working on the house, Hood also researched its original owners and occupants. They all led colorful lives.

“It was owned by one governor and lived in by another,” he noted. “The records were really hard to untangle.”

Transplants to California, the home’s early owners ranked among Sacramento’s political elite, creating what would become the capital. The property was originally owned by Peter Burnett, California’s first governor and Tennessee native who may have inspired the home’s southern feel. Seldon McMeans, the home’s first owner and an early California state treasurer, let Johnson live there.

The house also may have served as unofficial headquarters for the anti-immigrant Know Nothings, a pre-Civil War chapter of California history most people never knew. Also among the home’s famous residents was Judge Davis Terry, a Supreme Court justice best known for shooting a California senator in a duel.

With renewed interest in Victorian homes, the Johnson House was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 after an intense local, private effort led by Hood. Vandalism to the home on Christmas Day that same year made national news.

This tour represents a great reveal for renovations to the Johnson House, which is better known than Johnson the man.

After 40 years of work, Hood recently completed restoration of the large structure back to its original design, or as close as possible. The 15-room home was built without indoor plumbing or electricity.

“When I started this project, I thought it would take two years, maybe,” Hood said. It’s now been 40.

Who was Johnson? California’s youngest governor, Johnson was just 30 years old when he took office in 1856. A native of Indiana, he came to Sacramento as a gold prospector, turned mule driver and eventually lawyer, his original trade before venturing west. That combination also made him an ideal frontier politician.

During his tenure, Johnson approved the funds to build the future Capitol. After office, he became a Nevada Supreme Court justice.

Hood decorated one parlor of the house with furnishings appropriate to Johnson’s era including Gold Rush- and Civil War-era pieces.

Hood continues to work on the Johnson House, which is available for rent via Facebook.

“I’ve still got lots of plans,” he said. “You can’t just stop once you get going.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

42nd annual Historic Home Tour

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. next Sunday, Sept. 17

Where: Start at Johnson Park, next to the Johnson House, 1029 F St., Sacramento

Admission: $30 in advance, $35 day of tour

Details: www.PreservationSacramento.org

Also, a free street fair featuring local artisans and renovation experts will be held at Johnson Park.