Last stand on 21st Street: To prevent demolition, Casa de Chaos residents and fans are hoping to win landmark status

City will nominate three Midtown homes for historic designation, but property owner has power to fight decision

New apartments are being built at Q and 20th streets, near the soon-to-be-demolished Sacramento Bee parking lot.

New apartments are being built at Q and 20th streets, near the soon-to-be-demolished Sacramento Bee parking lot.

“It’s like these three houses form a little island,” musician Mickie Rat notes over a cigarette, smoke drifting past the Doric columns of his century-old porch in Midtown. “We’re some of the last people who haven’t been pushed out yet. Most of my friends who lived here before now live in Oak Park or Southside Park, and are getting pushed farther and farther off the grid.”

The trio of houses forming Rat’s conceptual island were built between the election of President William Howard Taft and the night the Titanic sank. Their white balusters, gabled dormers and broad colonial canopies are emblematic of what makes the central city picturesque.

But these three structures—at 1616, 1620 and 1624 21st Street—could be getting demolished to make way for newer-style living units, ones that would likely resemble a major modern building project happening across the street. From where Rat sits, longtime residents of his neighborhood are evaporating just as quickly as its timeless ambiance.

The threatened houses on 21st Street stand one address away from the flat-brick facade and glass art déco cubes of the Press Club, a post-Victorian throwback to Old Sacramento’s nightlife. The house that Rat’s been renting for 14 years is the most famous of them, known as Casa de Chaos, an underground music venue that launched dozes of rebel punk performers in the region.

“For those of us who have lived here, this house was always a place where there’s been a lot of art and a lot of music,” Rat said. “When we were bored, we’d just gather people together and go down into the basement to start a band.”

Together, the endangered houses reflect a history beyond the heyday of Sacramento’s musical underground. Silvered photographs show trolley cars gliding by their porches months after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Records indicate one was a bustling fraternity house for Kappa Sigma back when Elvis Presley’s first hit came on the radio. For locals who love Midtown’s character, those memories still linger up and down the street.

However, change is coming. Developer Sotiris Kolokotronis is preparing to build 253 new apartment units at the corner of 21st and Q streets, on top of the former Sacramento Bee parking lot. The complex will be known as The Press and stand immediately next to the historic homes on 21st Street. For Sacramento officials wrestling with the supply-and-demand forces driving the county’s affordable housing crisis, this new inventory of living units is desperately needed.

Early renderings of The Press show a boxy, five-story complex of glass and steel. The Sacramento Planning and Design Commission has already approved its aesthetics, though the developer is working with city staff on minor adjustments. Even though The Press brings an ultra-contemporary look to the street, Sacramento historian William Burg is glad it’s going up on a parking lot rather than causing the demolition of historic structures or displacement of current renters in the area.

“If they do need to create more housing, then those types of empty spaces across the city are where it makes sense,” Burg said.

What does not make sense to Burg is tearing down the three homes next to The Press, and he’s been helping the nonprofit Preservation Sacramento try to stop that.

In August 2016, the real estate company that owns all three houses, Rohenco Inc., requested a city assessment to determine if the houses were eligible for demolition—something required by Sacramento’s zoning code, since they’re more than 50 years old. Burg said the owner of that firm, Ron Henry Jr., told Preservation Sacramento members that he wanted more “high intensity” housing on the properties. Henry confirmed to SN&R this week that his company had explored building a new project on the site, but said it hadn’t gotten very far into what that project might look like.

Preservation Sacramento conducted its own study of the houses and issued a 26-page report highlighting their rare architectural features, as well as their place in Sacramento’s turn-of-the-century “City Beautiful” design movement. Reviewing that research, outgoing Sacramento Preservation Director Roberta Deering deemed the three houses eligible to be included in the nearby Winn Park Historic District. But Deering retired weeks later, bringing the process to a standstill. Flash forward a year, occupants of the three addresses have been given no updates from City Hall.

This week, Kelli Trapani, a spokeswoman for the city’s Community Development Department, told SN&R the new preservation director, Carson Anderson, hopes to bring the nomination forward next year.

“The tenants should understand that the properties have been found eligible for landmark listing and we are treating the properties as historic resources based on that,” Trapani wrote in an email.

But Rohenco Inc. has a right to contest any historic designation. Henry said this week his company hasn’t yet made a decision if it will do that or not.

Sean Decourcy, a board member of Preservation Sacramento, said if the issue becomes contested, the public’s voice could matter a lot. “Bringing the process forward does gives people a chance to be heard,” Decourcy stressed.

Rat is holding out hope the public would come down on the side of local history. “I really love these houses,” he said. “In the end, I just can’t imagine them not being here.”

Preservation Sacramento was formed in 1972 during a time when legacy buildings from Third Street to East Sac were falling apart. For young professionals interested in buying and fixing them up, it was no easy task. Burg said that banks rarely gave loans because the shabby vintage houses were considered nearly valueless, and the city’s permitting policies encouraged owners to knock down old structures rather than restore them. Over time, the volunteers of Preservation Sacramento helped establish many of the central city’s 33 historic districts.

But for one quarter of town, it was already too late.

“They demolished all of the historic neighborhoods downtown,” Burg noted. “There were entire neighborhoods down there that just don’t exist anymore.”

In 2017, shades of downtown’s yesteryear can still be seen in a dozen commercial landmarks. Some, such as the Elks Tower, the Masonic Hall and the Citizen Hotel, are thriving business hubs again. Others, including the Biltmore Hotel and Marshall Hotel, ultimately became run-down, single-occupancy living centers for the lowest-income residents and people surviving on Social Security. The Biltmore now sits empty due to a fire. The Marshall, which was vacated in 2014, displacing 57 people—many with physical and mental disabilities—is now preparing for a complete makeover.

The Marshall stands at the corner of Seventh and L streets, neighboring the new Sacramento Kings practice facility and the Golden 1 Center. According to a city staff report, that proximity has led Hyatt Hotels to enter into an agreement to purchase the Marshall for a “full-service boutique hotel offering.”

Hyatt representatives have already turned in conceptual plans for their $56.6 million renovation of the Marshall, which involves demolishing its interior, as well as its east and south exterior. According to the renderings, half of the Marshall’s five-story exterior will remain, with another five stories of an entirely new hotel rising out its top. The addition will be built with ultramodern architecture, presenting an image of a new structure hatching out of the top of an old one.

Burg said this tactic is called “façading,” and it’s considered a mixed bag by preservationists. “It’s discouraged, because you lose a lot of the energy and character of the building that existed,” he explained.

City Council members are enthusiastic about the Hyatt’s plan. At least, enthusiastic enough to help fill a $4 million funding gap in the project with public tax dollars. In September, the council voted to allocate $3.6 million from the sale of properties it owned at the 800 block of K and L streets and 731 K Street to fill in a shortfall in the Hyatt’s investor pool.

Given downtown’s dearth of historic authenticity, Preservation Sacramento members, along with an array of local business people, have been asking City Hall to create a Mills Act program, which would give the owners of historic structures a tax break for agreeing to preservation efforts. In most cities, Mills Act contracts run in 10-year increments.

“We’re one of the only cities this size that don’t have a program,” Decourcy observed. “It’s kind of an embarrassment that we don’t.”

Downtown Councilman Steve Hansen has been working to create a Mills Act proposal that his colleagues can eventually vote on. Matt Read of Hansen’s office said their team is confident that program will become a reality some time next year.

From Burg’s perspective, between the development push around Sacramento’s housing crisis and big money dreams attached to downtown’s revitalization, there’s no time like the present to get that program into place.

“It’s literally a win-win for everybody involved,” Burg said. “And it’s about maintaining that sense of walking through the past. That’s part of what makes great downtowns and great cities.”