What would Jesus do?

Demolition was God’s plan. But the city got in the way.

The Rev. Darryl Heath and Francene Weatherspoon are moving heaven and earth to get rid of this dilapidated but historically important Victorian home.

The Rev. Darryl Heath and Francene Weatherspoon are moving heaven and earth to get rid of this dilapidated but historically important Victorian home.

Photo by Larry Dalton

From its crooked foundation to what’s left of its roof, the petite Victorian on U Street needs extensive and expensive repairs. In a neighborhood dotted by 100-year-old homes with graceful porches, the plain white two-story on the absurdly narrow lot lists slightly to the east, only a few feet from its nearest neighbor. The disintegrating steps leading to the second floor have been removed. So has the once-decorative balustrade. A fire took out a portion of the roof, and rain has dripped through the damaged interior for a decade. A chain-link fence and boarded up windows keep the transients out—for their own good.

The house’s condition, its very existence, in fact, is a symbol of how difficult it can be to preserve old homes in Sacramento, especially when competing city departments, and competing community interests, clash.

In 1997, Sacramento’s Code Action Team, which identifies and demolishes decrepit buildings, sent a letter to Francene Weatherspoon, a trustee of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. The house, which the church had bought in 1992 as part of a larger parcel of land, was “an immediate danger and threat to the public’s health, safety and welfare,” said the letter, and the owners had to either shore it up or “commence demolition.”

St. John’s was prepared to do just what the city ordered.

“It was never safe,” said the Rev. Darryl Heath. “We began the process of trying to take it down. At every juncture, someone threw curves into our path.”

Along with the Victorian at 324 U Street, the church’s land includes two large but inconveniently located buildings that church officials envision as classrooms. There may be room for a senior service center or child-care services. Without the Victorian, the long, narrow lot on which it sits could facilitate foot traffic to these buildings from U Street. Demolition, Heath and Weatherspoon feel, is the first step in a plan God gave them for growing with the city. The church has served the neighborhood for almost 60 years with charity work and also has founded a well-attended Christian academy. The house, by contrast, looks as though its best days are over.

“Not all old things are worth saving,” said Weatherspoon.

But, as in the case of this old workingman’s residence, one city department’s safety hazard is another city department’s historic treasure.

Under Sacramento’s new Historic Preservation Ordinance, passed in July 2001, the preservation director grants or denies demolition permits for any property older than 50 years. Preservation Director Vincent Marsh denied the church’s request for demolition based on the building’s age and Victorian architecture as well as its past importance in the fabric of the city. That left the church with only two options: begin the renovation or appeal. The church appealed, and the issue went to the Design Review and Preservation Board on October 16, 2002.

“The church,” Weatherspoon said, “has problems with trying to be forced to do something the church does not want to do.”

At that hearing, Leslie Crow, a Stockton surveyor contracting with the city of Sacramento, told the preservation board that the house was once in the middle of an enclave of Portuguese families from the Azores. She had studied the names of past residents. Some of them probably worked together at a nearby lumberyard or for the Southern Pacific Railroad. She said the house probably had been built around 1905 and that the overhang of its roof had cleverly been shortened so that the house could fit on the lot, which is only 20 feet wide. As a building within the South Side Preservation Area, she said, the house “is definitely one of those that contributes to the district.”

These preservation areas, scattered around the central city, offer some protection to the homes that give Sacramento its charm. The homes responsible for an area’s historic status are considered “contributing structures.” Homes that simply support its antiquated appeal are considered “supporting structures.” The U Street Victorian should have been upgraded to “contributing” in the writing of the city’s new preservation ordinance, but, according to a synopsis released by the city’s preservation office, “the intended conversion of the Supportive Structure classification to that of Contributory Structure did not occur” due to mistakes.

This intended change of status gave the house a little extra glamour, and it further frustrated Heath, who saw the switch as a new attempt to halt church progress.

“We don’t want to take away from the aesthetics of the neighborhood,” said Heath, “but God has given me a vision for the church.”

During the hearing on October 16, it became obvious that preservationists were exasperated by what they saw as the church’s resistance. They’d suggested various solutions, including renting out the house after an extensive restoration or simply selling the house to someone willing to renovate.

Weatherspoon was adamant. The church did not want to be a landlord. Plus, renovation would cost a minimum of $130,000, according to one estimate, just for the outside alone. As for selling, the church wasn’t interested, and it was bound by past financial decisions. If the church sold the house and its lot, church officials reasoned, it immediately would have to pay off everything it owed on the larger property.

Preservationists weren’t impressed by such arguments. Money, said Crow, was secondary. What was important, in her opinion, was saving the structure.

“It’s not the house’s fault,” she said.

Kathleen Green of the Capital City Preservation Trust told the preservation board on October 16 that she’d offered to buy the front half of the lot that includes the house and let the church develop the back half. She’d been in negotiations with the church for two years, she said, before the deal fell through.

Karen Jacques, who founded the Fainted Ladies Tour that shows visitors which homes are threatened with demolition, lumped the church in with other landlords guilty of “demolition by neglect.” Did the preservation board want to send the message that it was OK to let a historic property deteriorate and then demolish it?

“That South Side Historic District has already lost a great deal of its history,” Jacques told the preservation board. “And I believe that that district really cannot afford to lose more.”

Considering the church’s plan to leave the space open, the preservationists returned to a consistent refrain: “We have too many empty lots.”

It’s an important point, especially when so many of Sacramento’s historic buildings have been neglected and demolished. In 2002, the Code Action Team demolished 80 buildings in Sacramento, though not all of them were homes and not all of them were important historically. At that rate, Sacramento preservationists feared that what was left of the city’s historic housing stock was slowly fading away forever.

But in the case of the U Street Victorian, even Habitat for Humanity officials had turned down the church’s offer to donate the house for relocation into some other neighborhood; the structure would cost more to rehabilitate than it would be worth, they said.

The preservation board, however, was unconvinced by the church’s vague references to development plans and unimpressed by the idea that the renovation would cost money the church claimed not to have. It also found the church accountable for fixing the fire damage that had occurred before the church had purchased the property. The board unanimously voted to deny the demolition request.

Ultimately, the board’s decision may have come too late. The city’s Code Action Team is directly responsible for demolishing dilapidated structures that threaten life or property, regardless of historic import. If further damage causes the U Street Victorian to begin creaking or leaning closer to the house on its right, the action team will tear it down, and quickly. It’s likely that the team simply will alert the preservation board as a courtesy.

Everyone involved has to learn what preservationists already know, said Crow. There are no hard and fast rules. The process of saving historic buildings is about negotiation and compromise.

Weatherspoon, who’s already put countless hours into finding some kind of solution, continues to pursue appeal. The City Council was supposed to consider the issue in February, but the item has been pushed back to April.

In the meantime, Weatherspoon is working with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency in hopes of finding a developer willing to relocate the house. Weatherspoon said anyone willing to move it off the church’s land could have it for free.

But, as the search for compromise continues, it appears next to impossible to find a solution that’s fair to the current owners of the property and fair to a city that wants to protect the best examples of Sacramento’s historic buildings. Once a building’s gone, it’s gone, and those homes that have been saved and renovated are the jewels of Sacramento’s cityscape.