Rethinking the aging dingbat

The often maligned ‘mushroom apartment’ turns 50

About 50 years ago, in the shadow of historic Victorians, boxy apartments started springing up like mushrooms. Now they could be deemed “historic,” too.

About 50 years ago, in the shadow of historic Victorians, boxy apartments started springing up like mushrooms. Now they could be deemed “historic,” too.

Photo By Larry Dalton

They were the early enemy of historic preservationists—ugly, boxy, cheaply constructed apartment buildings described as “mushrooms,” “bread loaves,” “shoeboxes,” and SN&R’s personal favorite, “dingbats,” which usually refers to the L.A. walk-ups built atop ground-level parking spaces. Dingbats, or whatever you call them, muscled into historic neighborhoods all over Sacramento in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

“They started popping up,” said Paula Boghosian, architectural historian and former Historic Preservation director for the city of Sacramento. “People said, ‘We’ve lost that little Victorian and this is what they put up in its place?’… That’s one of the reasons the preservation program was so embraced. We were having these things thrust upon us.”

The long skinny apartment buildings, often paired up and built side-by-side on deep narrow lots, are ubiquitous downtown and in Midtown. Some have shingled roofs; some are covered entirely in stucco. Two-stories tall and perpendicular to the street, they rarely include any ornament that distinguishes one from another. With their bare, square metal windows, they often squat right next to some heavily adorned example of frenetic Sacramento Victorian design. And that’s the issue: They’re obviously outsiders, but these dingbats are now part of the evolving fabric of the city. The oldest are nearing their 50th birthdays, and when they get there, they become potential historic resources.

“That’s kind of a threshold date to start looking at them for historical significance,” said Gloria Scott, an architectural historian with Caltrans. It’s generally agreed that once a building is 50 years old, preservationists can probably make a good objective decision about whether to save it.

“Down in L.A., ’60s apartment buildings are on the radar,” Scott said.

Neither Scott nor Boghosian was aware of any dingbat research going on in Sacramento right now, but Boghosian said lots of preservationists are talking about how to survey this generation of buildings. The city’s preservation department will have to create a set of criteria by which to judge them. The quintessential example of dingbat design may then become much harder to tear down and replace. It will come to stand for a particular age in the city’s evolution.

Though these apartments rarely are compared to fine architectural designs, both Scott and Boghosian mentioned that their forms grew out of bastardized modernist ideals.

The streamlined modern movement was low on ornament, high on juxtaposed geometric shapes. Developed in the ’20s and ’30s in Europe, modernism, and the International Style specifically—parental unit to the dingbat—made its way to the United States, sometimes through architects who were fleeing the chaos of World War II.

Boghosian sees the Sacramento version as a bad seed, probably designed by contractors rather than architects, though local historians don’t seems to know for sure. She believes that Sacramento developers probably just saw an unadorned, cheap and easily reproducible design. They didn’t consider the forms, the balance of shapes or their juxtaposition at all.

Scott laughed when asked what could make these buildings historically significant enough to preserve. Then she reminded SN&R that everyone has an emotional response to designs they remember from their youth. Some reject them completely; others embrace them. There’s no telling what might strike a sentimental chord.

Boghosian, though she doesn’t much like the dingbats, does believe that some excellent, unaltered version could be preserved as an example of low-cost housing in the central city. “If someone finds a good example, it becomes important as a voice of that time.”