So long, Poverty Palace

Building restoration brings end of era for community of do-gooders

In 1925, the Cal West building was the height of downtown class. Later, it became a haven for nonprofit organizations and the companies that catered to them, like direct-mail consultant Matt Kuzins.

In 1925, the Cal West building was the height of downtown class. Later, it became a haven for nonprofit organizations and the companies that catered to them, like direct-mail consultant Matt Kuzins.

It’s a cool summer morning in downtown Sacramento, and Lynn Sadler’s office windows are wide open to welcome the breeze and enhance her views of City Hall and Cesar Chavez Plaza. When the smog clears, she’ll be able to see Mount Shasta and the Sierras from her eighth-floor office at 926 J Street. And on Friday evening, if she works late enough, she’ll enjoy the sounds of a free concert across the street.

Not bad digs for the executive director of the modestly funded Mountain Lion Foundation. “I love my view. Given that the goal of our organization is to protect the environment, it’s nice to be able to see it, to open the windows and breathe the air,” she said, “even if that air is not so clean.”

The view is not the only reason Sadler was drawn to the office at the former Cal West building. When she moved into the space three years ago, the historic old high-rise was nicknamed the “Good Guys Building” (or sometimes “Poverty Palace") because it housed more than 20 nonprofits or public-policy advocates. They came to be near the Capitol, their clients and their colleagues, and to tap into a close-knit community where business often took place in elevator rides and advice was only a flight of stairs away.

They also came for the cheap rent—somewhere around $1.40 per square foot compared with $1.65 and higher for comparable office space nearby.

Now that’s all changing. In April, the building was acquired by Rubicon Partners Inc., a real-estate development firm, which is planning to restore the building and transform it to Class A office space—in other words, too pricey for the likes of its current tenants. Most have already moved out, settling for smaller spaces in other downtown facilities or relocating to different parts of the city where rent is cheaper and parking more plentiful. For those who remain, good-naturedly overlooking temperamental air conditioning and persnickety plumbing, there’s a sense of sadness at the end of an era.

Of course, 926 J Street was not always a Mecca for the budget-deprived. When it opened in 1925 as the first “skyscraper” in Sacramento, it was hailed as one of the city’s architectural gems. Its first owner, Cal Western Life Insurance Co., selected renowned San Francisco architect George Sellon to give its Sacramento headquarters high-class flair. The result was a classical- and Renaissance-inspired high-rise topped by a two-story French chateau-style structure. The arched entrance opens to an ornately decorated lobby complete with mosaic tile walls, a sweeping marble staircase and a decorative plaster ceiling created by Sacramento artisan Thomas Scollan.

The price tag? An even $1 million, paid in full before Cal West even unpacked its boxes.

“This was the height of roaring-'20s exuberance,” said Roberta Deering, preservation director for Sacramento, who is helping guide Rubicon’s renovation of the building. “They used excellent materials, perfect scale and proportion. Everything was done just right.”

Don Rinella, 84, a native Sacramentan, remembers being swayed to take his first job at Cal Western in part because of the fanciness of its headquarters. “There was a prestige about working there,” he said.

Cal Western occupied the first six floors of the building. The rest were leased mainly to doctors and lawyers. Hats and suits on men were the standard. Women were required to wear dresses and pantyhose. As they arrived in the lobby on weekday mornings, a uniformed elevator “starter” would direct tenants into the elevators and instruct the elevator operators when to leave.

The building took on another valued role in the ‘40s when it doubled as an observation post during World War II. Rinella, who served on one of the nighttime crews, said volunteers would scan the skies and report the position and direction of any aircraft to a central station. “Not too much happened,” recalled Rinella. “We were excited when any airplane passed through the sky.”

In the ‘60s, Cal Western moved out of the building and sold it to a private investor. State offices moved into the space for a time, which forced the owners to bring the historic building up to state safety standards. The glass doors, which once had poured natural light from offices into the hallways, were replaced by wooden doors that would better contain a fire. An internal fire escape was added, also.

And gradually, over the next four decades, decisions about 926 J Street came down to money. Paint the Philippine mahogany doors rather than refinish them. Carpet rather than replace tile. Patch, rather than replace, aging plumbing and electrical systems.

“It got to be a challenge to keep the equipment going. We were always on pins and needles when big storms came. With 14 stories, water was bound to find a way in,” said Gary Herald, who served as chief engineer of the building for 33 years starting in 1972.

The former belle of J Street was now a fading beauty, destined to lose her prominence—not to mention her real-estate value—in the shadow of her new or better-preserved neighbors.

That’s when something special happened at 926 J Street. Somewhere around the ‘80s, nonprofits and public-interest groups started grabbing up offices abandoned by retiring doctors and dentists. There was the Planning and Conservation League, the Green Party, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and the National Council of La Raza. There were conservative groups (the Committee on Moral Concerns), religious groups (the Quaker’s Friends Service Committee on Legislation), and groups advocating for the young (the Children’s Advocacy Institute) and for the old (the Older Women’s League). And there were those who cater to those groups, like Kuzins and Kumpany, which creates direct mail for nonprofits.

“Why did I move here? Because rent was cheap, I have a great view, and a lot of my clients were either in the building or right downtown,” said owner Matt Kuzins. “It made work fun, because you’d run into friends, and they’d say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a project for you.'”

Kuzins’ corner office on the 12th floor was patched together from the examining rooms of a former doctor’s office. He enjoys the space’s quirks, including built-in cabinets that used to house medical supplies. True, the bathrooms only have cold water, and the air conditioning is temperamental. And don’t mind those missing ceiling tiles. But the view makes the sacrifices worthwhile: a bird’s-eye view of City Hall and, speaking of birds, a close-up look at red-tailed hawks out on the hunt.

While Kuzins has taken advantage of his long-term lease to linger in the building a bit longer, other tenants have moved on, settling quite happily into new office spaces around town. Lobbyist Lenny Goldberg relocated to a Victorian-style office building at 717 K Street, where his office is smaller but more efficiently designed. “When you have low rent in a peculiar space, you really don’t use the space very efficiently. I needed a kick in the butt to throw stuff away.”

Other former tenants have struck a deal with Rubicon to move into another building the firm owns and has restored, the Forum Building at 1107 Ninth Street. And some, like attorneys Jim and Tom Martin, whose father also worked at 926 J Street, say they’ll probably leave downtown in search of cheaper rent and better parking. “There’s some sentimental attachment to this building, but you have to be realistic,” said Jim Martin.

As the caravan of moving trucks in front of 926 J Street starts to slow, and the procession of construction trucks moves in, both longtime tenants and new owners share one view in common: 926 J Street deserves to be restored. The yearlong restoration will include a seismic upgrade, new electrical and mechanical service, new restrooms and new finishes throughout. Under Roberta Deering’s guidance, the exterior of the building won’t be touched—even the original windows will remain. The lobby, corridors and marble staircase also will be preserved. And builders will harvest materials from various floors to reconstruct a historically accurate office space on the fifth floor.

The result will be stylish and comfortable office space suitable for the types of clientele that filled the original tower: doctors, lawyers and investment firms. But, with rents at twice the price of current ones, few of the current tenants are likely to remain.

“It’s bittersweet. On one hand, I’m glad the building will be restored. But I just wish there would be more of a mixture [of tenants] so groups like us could still afford it,” said Sadler. “It really feels like the end of an era.”