Excavating Sacramento

Relics from the 19th-century Philadelphia House offer clues about our city’s history

Recovered opium bottles and serving dishes will help archaeologists reconstruct the life and times of a long-demolished Sacramento saloon.

Recovered opium bottles and serving dishes will help archaeologists reconstruct the life and times of a long-demolished Sacramento saloon.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Home to saloons and boarding houses 150 years ago, the block between Eighth and Ninth streets on J Street may have a storied past, but much of the evidence was demolished or buried deep underground. Only this summer did a team of archaeologists uncover 76 boxes of artifacts on the site, which they’ve just whisked away to their Dixon lab, safe from looters and “bottle hunters.” With their offices full of dirt-encrusted dishes, glass opium bottles, porcelain figurines, shoes and buttons, the archaeological team of Tremaine & Associates now has a chance to learn something about the visitors to the old Philadelphia House, once a boarding house and saloon that faced Eighth Street and catered to Sacramento’s working-class populace, a blue-collar portion of the citizenry that’s often left out of the history books.

Even before the discovery of the Philadelphia House ruins, the block between Eighth and Ninth streets had been identified as an archaeological showcase. Until 2003, the last remaining retail building on the block, known as the Coolot building, sat 10 feet above a portion of Sacramento’s original street level. Because downtown was so susceptible to flooding from the Sacramento River, the streets were raised in the western part of the city around the turn of the century, burying the original street level with its preserved ornamental facades and walkways (see “The past below” by Cosmo Garvin; SN&R Cover; July 17, 2003).

In 2002, the city approved the building of Plaza Lofts, a seven-story loft and retail project that would cover the city block on which the Coolot building sat. Proposed by CIM Group, a Southern California developer, the loft project was designed to integrate a portion of the underground city. Design Review Director Luis Sanchez explained that visitors would have been able to take an elevator down to the original street level. Enclosed in glass, visitors could look at the beautiful Batchelder tiles that decorated the original facade of the Coolot building.

Unfortunately, while the loft project was held up in litigation, the Coolot building was lost in a fire that also demolished part of the underground vault. While workers were cleaning up the site, a portion of the underground sidewalk collapsed, injuring a crew member. The city’s Public Works Department deemed the site an “imminent danger” and, after surviving tiles were salvaged, demolished the remainder of the underground cityscape.

In order to highlight the remnants, the plans for Plaza Lofts were altered to include a street-level display window that would house the remaining tiles, a column that was rescued intact and a scale model that would show what recently had been lost.

While the plans were under discussion at a July 21 Design Review and Preservation Board meeting, board members learned that the underground sidewalks were not the only artifacts found on the property.

To meet the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), archaeologists Tremaine & Associates had been overseeing the early construction of the loft project in case human remains were unearthed. Previous construction projects at Cesar Chavez Plaza and City Hall had identified the area as a high point in the terrain preferred by prehistoric American Indian tribes.

It was mid-June when owner Kim Tremaine’s team examined a corner of the property where ground-penetrating radar had discovered some anomaly. A thick concrete slab was removed, and team members found what looked like a brick patio or walkway. There also appeared to be some evidence of a brick wall and ceramics at the site.

Tremaine and project manager Wendy Nelson hurried out of a meeting and over to the J Street site.

“We started looking at it and went, ‘Whoa!’” said Nelson. A crew of six or seven archaeologists watched over the dig while a backhoe operator pulled away more of the dirt.

As the archaeologists cleaned and exposed the brick, what emerged was the northern wall of a building. South of the wall, the ceramics turned out to be a stack of heavy white serving dishes, remnants of a functioning kitchen on the original first floor of a saloon. And what surprised the archaeologists further was the discovery of yet another layer under that one. The building known as the Philadelphia House, according to the Sacramento County assessor’s records, was apparently one of the only buildings in the area with a basement under its original first floor. And when the streets were raised, the original first floor of the boarding house had become its new basement.

In the backyard of their Dixon lab, archaeologists comb through shards looking for manufacturers’ stamps and identifying marks.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Tremaine speculated that the two underground floors both had been flooded and filled with sediment. Though the original basement was more or less empty of artifacts, the floor above it was a treasure trove, at least near the back of the building. The front half, facing Eighth Street, was not, leading Tremaine to wonder whether the back half of the building might have been filled by the collapse of an upper floor before residents had time to retrieve their belongings.

While the dig continued, city staff joined the team along with a small crowd of onlookers who filled the alley while archaeologists uncovered personal items like picture frames; candlesticks; a child’s teacup saucer; and an odd, unidentifiable sculpture made of abalone shells, terra-cotta pots and green concrete.

Nelson explained that if there had been no cultural or historical value to their discovery, the archaeologists would have stopped there.

Tremaine & Associates had paid attention only to the southeast corner of the block because the developer planned to sink pilings there, which would have disturbed any artifacts the archaeologists didn’t remove.

“[Buried artifacts] are supposed to be a nonrenewable resource,” said Nelson. “We destroy things as we excavate.”

In the future, she expects that archaeological tools will improve, meaning that the longer artifacts lie undisturbed, the more likely archaeologists will be able to analyze and identify them when they’re exposed.

Because the discovery of the Philadelphia House artifacts was considered culturally significant, construction was halted while the archaeologists continued their work, excited by the fact that this was the only building in the area with a basement and that it was the only well-preserved, excavated boarding house and saloon in the area.

“We had a food-preparation area!” said Nelson. With bones and plates, archaeologists could tell what cuts of meat working-class people dined on; they could possibly tell by the size of the plates whether they ate well or sparingly.

Throughout late June and early July, the archaeologists quietly collected and removed the artifacts to their Dixon laboratory for cleaning and cataloging, nervous that once word got out, looters would take advantage of the site’s riches. A rumor started circulating that an antiques dealer was handing out his card to construction crews and asking to buy bottles or other discoveries.

While the artifacts are cleaned, Tremaine and Nelson are reconstructing the story that those remnants tell. Buttons and shoes will give a sense of how early Sacramentans dressed, and the dishes and cutlery, some with logos from Glasgow, may lead to information about the original owners.

Volunteers searching through newspaper archives already have found late-19th-century ads promising that the Philadelphia House “is kept in the best German style” and that “none but white help [is] employed around the house.” Board and lodging, they discovered, cost $5 per week.

Tremaine and her team hope to be able to fill in the story with details about early families who owned the property. Once the archaeologists have developed a report on their findings, the artifacts themselves will be turned over to the city. The CIM Group and the Design Review and Preservation Board already foresee that many of the most interesting artifacts will join the remnants from the underground cityscape in the street-level window display of Plaza Lofts. The remaining artifacts likely will be donated to the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, or SAMCC.

The Philadelphia House took up only a narrow sliver of a large commercial block that once featured the William Tell Hotel, the El Dorado Saloon, a drugstore, a shoe store and a horse-and-carriage stable. The Clunie Theatre once sat across the alley. There was even a henhouse belonging to an early owner of the Philadelphia House. Though little was found during the excavation of these other historic sites, the Philadelphia House artifacts may illuminate what life was like at a time and place central to the history of Sacramento.