Sacramento overhauling vintage train station

The city of Sacramento is in the midst of a $30 million renovation project at the Sacramento Valley Station – covered in shrink wrap – on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. Standing tall in the background is the federal courthouse.
The city of Sacramento is in the midst of a $30 million renovation project at the Sacramento Valley Station – covered in shrink wrap – on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif. Standing tall in the background is the federal courthouse.

Sacramento’s downtown train depot has earned a spot on every historic register – federal, state and local – but city officials say this is one building they can’t afford to let get stuck in the past.

The vintage 1926 station is the latest civic site to undergo major reconstructive surgery, following Memorial Auditorium, old City Hall, the state Capitol and, decades ago, Old Sacramento. The $30 million, two-year upgrade underway at Fourth and I streets is one of the city’s most aggressive historic preservation efforts in decades.

Large portions of the building have been gutted, readying it for a modernization that will expand its role as a depot that can handle more train passengers, but also as a civic gathering point with offices, retail areas, a cafe and possibly even a rooftop cocktail lounge.

The redo comes at a pivotal moment. Once a lonely outpost in the far northwest corner of downtown, the depot known as Sacramento Valley Station soon will sit squarely between a new Kings arena, an entertainment district under construction two blocks south, and possibly a new development including a soccer stadium in the railyard directly to the north.

The work will breathe new life into a building that had become outdated and unsafe, but faces a heavy workload ahead, city officials said. They estimate that travel alone could bring 2 million people through the building and surrounding grounds annually in future years, including users of Amtrak, light rail, buses and potentially streetcars.

The city’s historic preservation chief, Roberta Deering, said she’s pleased with the ambitious remake. It’s respectful of the building’s history, she said, and follows federal and state requirements for historic buildings.

The city, which owns the American Renaissance-style building, will preserve and freshen its main historical elements, including the vaulted waiting room, its massive wall mural and chandeliers, the marble floors and travertine trim, the exterior’s arched corbels, pilasters and rooftop balustrades, and the transoms above office doors in back halls.

“We value saving Old Sacramento,” Deering said. “We really value our significant places. This will make the building usable. Most people have no idea there are three stories to that building, and side wings.”

Part of the facade is covered for now by sheets of white, shrink-wrapped construction plastic, giving it the look of an installation by Christo, the artist known for wrapping landmarks in fabric to help people see them with fresh eyes. The plastic, in fact, hides scaffolding where workers are scraping lead paint from window mullions, and cleaning and repairing the masonry and terra cotta exterior.

The interior of the main hall is a cluttered combination of work zone and waiting room, where train passengers wind their way through metal supports for platforms that separate them from workers above.

“We’ve been very conscious of making sure we keep work separate from the public,” said project manager Greg Taylor, a city architect. “It’s a challenge. It would be simpler to close the building down,” but the central area is too busy to do that.

The depot is the seventh busiest train station in the national Amtrak system, and the second busiest west of Chicago. Despite that, many areas had fallen into disrepair. For years, rows of back offices sat empty, paneling slumping from the walls. Broken windows allowed pigeons to lay claim to upper floors. The building had no air conditioning or fire sprinklers. The roof leaked. Plaster walls were crumbling.

The city bought the building from Union Pacific in 2006, and officials readily admitted they were buying a major fixer-upper. The city since has invested more than $100 million in federal funds, local sales taxes and other revenues in the building and surrounding site. That includes a major seismic retrofit last year.

Amtrak will require only a portion of the building for its operations, leaving plenty of space for other uses. The city plans to hire a leasing manager to market the extra spaces. City officials say they are open to suggestions.

There is talk of landing technology companies or using some of the space for college classrooms. Rail buffs have spoken of a hotel overlooking the railyard. Taylor and some others say they’d love to see a rooftop lounge with views of downtown and the railyard.

The city plans to build an elevated patio on the building’s east facade, with spaces for retail and food outlets, similar to the promenade at the MARRS building on 20th Street. Taylor said there will be a bike parking area next to a patio and a glassed-in retail site next to the path that leads out the back door toward the train passenger platforms.

“If we can find somebody who wants to do a little ‘Bikes and Brew,’ something cool and funky,” Taylor said.

There appears to be little controversy at the moment about the transformation. That wasn’t always the case.

Fifteen years ago, city officials talked about building a new depot closer to the new tracks, which eventually were moved a few hundred feet to the north, away from the depot, to make room for development. Historic preservationists cried foul, fearing the city would end up turning the depot into, as one said, “a glorified T-shirt shop.” A group called the Save Our Rail Depot formed. City officials then briefly considered hoisting the structure onto rollers and moving it a few hundred feet closer to the relocated tracks, to keep it viable as a depot.

City officials say they still expect to add some new train and transit facilities between the depot and the tracks – perhaps ticketing machines and waiting areas – but that they believe the historic building will continue to play a key role in the larger transit district that will form here in coming decades.

In some instances, the rehabilitation project will allow the building to function more as it did in its early years. The original rear portals for passengers, walled off for years by cinder blocks, will be reopened. Workers will clean years of tobacco smoke, soot and dirt off the mural depicting the groundbreaking for the transcontinental railroad.

Workers also will repaint the walls, likely mixing river silt from beneath the building into the paint to match the original grainy texture. The city’s preservationists have found a company in Indiana that makes amber window panes similar to those that need replacing in a second-story hallway.

Historian William Burg, president of the Sacramento Old City Association, says his group’s board toured the building recently to see and hear what the city intends to do and came away “pretty wowed” with the plan.

“The purpose of historic preservation is not to draw a velvet rope around a historic building and treat it as a fragile object that cannot be touched,” Burg said. The idea is “to assure the economic and social viability of those places and ensure their use for the future.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.