Tower of rubble
The way an old record store was legally torn down could spark a movement to protect Broadway corridor
It may not have been paradise, and it may not have been paved over for a parking lot, but last month’s demolition of the old Tower Records building stung Sacramento historians and nostalgists alike.
“It’s always a mystery when an owner fails to understand the intrinsic value of these irreplaceable assets,” Gretchen Steinberg, president of Sacramento Modern, an architectural preservation nonprofit, wrote in an email to SN&R. “You can’t fake history—no amount of brick veneer (or slick marketing/new neighborhood nickname campaign) is going to bring that mojo back once it’s been removed or knocked down.”
The circa-1927 building at 2500 16th Street was technically the second storefront that late Tower Records founder Russ Solomon opened in the mid-1960s, part of a Sac-grown retail empire that would mostly thrive over the next four decades. Tower Records filed for bankruptcy and the record store closed in 2006, after which Dimple Records took the space, until its own going-out-of-business woes forced it to close up shop in September.
Two months later, the old, mural-caked building fell.
But was it historic?
On that point, the building’s owner and local preservationists disagree.
Local preservationists call the building’s destruction a loss for the Broadway corridor, as well as a warning sign for other neighborhood landmarks.
“Longtime Sacramentans know that these buildings had a very significant place in their hearts and minds, and were an integral part of the neighborhood’s and community’s collective memory,” Steinberg wrote.
But property owner Jon Gianulias has a much different view, calling the 1920s era structure “not historical.”
The city’s preservation director, Carson Anderson, cast the deciding vote whether the building could and should be left standing.
While sympathetic to those who believe that it should, Anderson determined that the former storefront was neither architecturally nor culturally significant enough to be protected as a city landmark, thus paving the way for demolition.
Anderson explained that the building lost most of its architectural noteworthiness due to various remodels over the years. To him, the iconic Tower Theatre across the street and Tower Records’ former location at 726 K Street—also featuring a mural commissioned by Solomon—are more central to the company’s history.
“In my judgment, those two buildings are more compelling in telling the story of Tower Records than a building that was not the first location and underwent several design modifications over the years,” Anderson said.
Solomon began selling records out of his father’s pharmacy in the theater building in 1941. He opened his first freestanding records store on Watt Avenue in December 1960. The franchise expanded to San Francisco in the late ’60s and Los Angeles in the early ’70s before going worldwide with hundreds of stores.
The visionary entrepreneur passed away in March 2018 at the age of 92 following an apparent heart attack.
A changing Broadway
Preservation supporters point to other old buildings with local history that were preserved in some fashion as part of redevelopment projects. They say the Hardin mixed-use apartment complex on K Street and the upscale Carlaw apartments on R Street, both of which incorporated existing infrastructure, are examples of what could’ve been done to Tower Records’ former home and a neighboring building at 1600 Broadway, which is also slated for demolition.
But Gianulias argues that repurposing the former Tower storefront and the connecting building that he owns was unrealistic.
“They had been [run] into by cars and were not reinforced and fell to ground very easily,” he said. “Surprised they lasted that long, given unreinforced brick.”
Still, advocates were caught off guard by the sudden disappearance of a building so synonymous with one of Sacramento’s most recognizable brands. After receiving a demolition permit on Dec. 6, Gianulias moved forward with the demolition days later despite advice from Anderson to first reach out to neighborhood residents and preservationist groups.
Some folks, such as New Helvetia Brewing owner David Gull, were able to salvage some mural paint-spattered bricks, but only after many had already been torn down and hauled away.
“It’s a tough balance,” Gull said. “I own and operate a business on a corridor that probably needs a little more help. And truthfully, more housing would be useful. But we also still need to try and respect the legacy of what’s lost when new things come into place.”
Gianulias is aiming to profit off the Broadway corridor’s renaissance with a new project. A development plan is about six months out, he said.
In recent years, the corridor has seen a bevy of new developments, such as the Mill on Broadway. Boosters see the area as the next to grow into an entertainment and nightlife draw, after R Street with its restaurants, bars and concert venue.
Others, however, worry that Broadway may be losing its distinctiveness.
New incentives to save old buildings
Even as development interest creeps south from downtown and Midtown, Joan Borucki, executive director of the Greater Broadway District, said she’s trying to maintain the corridor’s melting pot vibe.
“Broadway used to be a busy commercial hub,” she said. “And then it became just a corridor for commuters to get either from Interstate 5 or Highway 99. So we’re trying to bring back that Main Street vibe, but we don’t want to lose the eclectic diversity that goes on there.”
Two blocks from the demolition site is a two-story brick building built in 1925 that houses New Helvetia Brewing Co. A little further east down Broadway sits Pancake Circus in a Googie-style building designed in the early 1960s by renowned Sacramento mid-century modern architect Sooky Lee. Both of these buildings, among others in the area, are potentially in jeopardy without the proper protections in other parts of the city, says William Burg, president of Preservation Sacramento.
Despite its original brick facades, art deco architecture and plentiful neon signage, Broadway lacks a historical district status, which provides legal teeth for preservation efforts. Burg said the city conducted surveys in the early 2000s for a potential historic district, but stopped there. The Tower buildings weren’t part of the survey at the time, he noted.
Designating buildings as historic makes it easier for developers to pencil out redevelopment projects, Burg said. He touted the state’s Mills Act and its newly approved historic rehab tax credit as remedies to the high costs associated with rehabilitation projects. Enacted in 1972, the Mills Act grants cities and counties the authority to provide tax relief to owners of historic buildings who actively participate in the restoration and maintenance of their properties. Sacramento adopted its Mills Act program in August 2018. The city has since entered into contracts with 10 historic property owners.
The fate of the former Tower Records store could galvanize future preservation efforts, Burg suggested.
“There are still a lot of potentially eligible historic resources on Broadway, and sometimes a demolition like this is a wake-up call,” he said.