City Beat

City Beat: Activist Karen Jacques preserves pieces of Sacramento history

All around the central city, there are reasons to thank people like Karen Jacques.

Jacques and her kind are a pain in the you-know-what. But they’re also the kind who would stand in front of a bulldozer to save something they thought was worth saving.

They are part of a preservation movement in this city born out of necessity, out of a hundred bad decisions that led to the destruction of old homes and places like the stately Alhambra Theatre, torn down in the 1970s to make way for a grocery store.

“Our society treats houses like paper plates,” she said. “They’re kept around for 20 years and thrown away.”

She backs up this talk with her wallet and her time. Jacques and her husband, Ken Wilcox, own nine old homes in the central city. One house on U Street had been gutted by a fire before they bought it. Another was leaning to one side and they fixed it up.

This week, the City Council will add three homes the couple owns to the city’s historic registry.

“I think what makes places great is a sense of history,” she said, sitting at the dining-room table of her restored 1911 home.

She also thinks great downtowns have variety. They have old homes built by immigrants a century ago and modern apartments where young professionals live. There are poor people and rich people, farmers markets and restaurants.

“I think it will fail if we don’t have that balance,” she said. “A sense of individuality is when you have that experience of walking through time.”

Her life’s pursuit isn’t about stopping everything. Jacques loves a lot of the development happening right now, like the big artist loft building going up on R Street and the plans for the 700 block of K Street. There’s a big cluster of new energy-efficient homes on R Street two blocks away from her home that she also likes.

Jacques admits she and her friends have been a headache to some. That’s their gig. Jacques used to run a tour of old homes that had been left to rot, calling out the slumlords and land speculators who wanted the old “Fainted Ladies” to fall over and make way for something else.

The battle is starting again. Jacques and her friends are gearing up to fight a plan to put up the tallest residential towers in the city on a huge “superblock” downtown.

Sacramento Commons is a big deal. It would bring hundreds of new residents downtown. To the untrained eye, the buildings that stand there now aren’t all that pretty. Some of them would probably come down if the development is approved.

But, Jacques will tell you, those little buildings are nice examples of mid-century modern architecture. “Time moves on,” she said, “and things that weren’t historic become historic.”

They get to that point because of people like her.