City Beat

Could historic downtown mansion be torn down or moved to make way for state offices?

The Heilbron House at Seventh and O streets was built in 1881 by German immigrant August Heilbron, who made his money in the cattle business. The state is planning to build a high-rise office tower on the site and is debating whether to demolish or move the historic mansion.
The Heilbron House at Seventh and O streets was built in 1881 by German immigrant August Heilbron, who made his money in the cattle business. The state is planning to build a high-rise office tower on the site and is debating whether to demolish or move the historic mansion. Sacramento Bee file

August Heilbron had a vision when he built a home for his family at the corner of Seventh and O streets well over a century ago. He knew that as his family grew in that home, the city around them would grow as well.

Sacramento was a bit of a lawless town in 1881. It had been destroyed by floods and fires, then rebuilt. Heilbron made his fortune in cattle and was a founding member of the Sacramento Hussars, a cavalry militia unit formed to safeguard the city.

The streets were eventually paved and law was enacted. The Heilbron family owned their Victorian-style home until the 1950s. Then it was a restaurant, a bank and, later, an art gallery and then a state parks office.

As time passed, almost all the old buildings around the home were destroyed. State office buildings and apartments were built. The downtown skyline grew. But the Heilbron Home remained, as it does today.

“It’s just a very, very special place,” Fritz Heilbron said this week, “and I’d hate to see it lost for a parking lot.”

Fritz Heilbron is worried because the home his great-grandfather built is sitting in the precise location of a planned high-rise office tower. The state owns the land and is moving through the process of planning a tower at Seventh and O streets to replace the decrepit Resources Building on Ninth Street.

The new tower will be between 600,000 and 800,000 square feet and hold at least 3,000 workers. That’s gigantic. It will likely be one of the tallest buildings in the city. And the Heilbron House is standing in its way.

It it seems unlikely the state will demolish the home, although that option is under consideration. There’s also a scenario in which the massive state building is constructed surrounding the Heilbron House. That also seems far-fetched.

What seems far more likely is that the home will be moved, as other historic homes downtown have been moved. The Llewellyn Williams mansion, which houses a hostel at 10th and H streets, has been moved three times. The state thought about moving the Heilbron Home a decade ago when the site was first eyed for a new office tower.

Saving the Heilbron House has become an important crusade for the city’s active and well-respected preservation community.

Garret Root, a board member of Preservation Sacramento, said his preference is for the building to be relocated, perhaps next to the historic Stanford Mansion at Eighth and N streets. Root likes the image of two of downtown’s grand old homes standing side-by-side. The only other building in that immediate neighborhood remaining from that era is the Crocker mansion, part of the Crocker Art Museum complex.

“The rest are parking lots or towers,” Root said. “Obviously, we don’t want (the Heilbron Home) torn down. I think people really see this as an example of a vanishing resource.”

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman with the state’s Department of General Services, stressed “there is no definitive plan for the future of that site.” The state is seeking public feedback on the high-rise plan and is expected to finish its environmental review of the project this summer. It could start building the new high-rise as early as late 2018.

“I would say everything is on the table,” Ferguson said.

In the meantime, Fritz Heilbron will wait. He is the descendant of one of Sacramento’s renowned families that put a stake into the dusty ground at Seventh and O streets more than 130 years ago. Preserving the mansion would, in a way, honor August Heilbron’s optimism.

“He was an early pioneer who came here when it was nothing but dirt,” Fritz Heilbron said. “This guy saw something.”

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