Dear Long-Lost Uncle Ough,
I know that you are dead – in fact you died more than 130 years ago – but that’s no excuse for not writing to you about my recent trip to your old hometown of Sacramento. Things have certainly changed since you lived there, and not all for the better. But I think you would be relieved to know that your work is not completely gone, and you have not been completely forgotten. I would have to add, though, that most of your work is gone, and you have been largely forgotten.
The good news, assuming that you care at all about any of this, is that at least one home that you designed 140 or so years ago has stood the test of time. It has been lovingly restored by people who may not even be aware that you were the architect! Much of the ornate woodwork has been carefully sanded smooth and repainted, some of it probably replaced. The owners of 1523 G Street knew they were dealing with a special place, even if they didn’t know it was your admirable work.
Speaking of work, it took quite a bit to determine whether any of your buildings were still around; two days in the public library, looking up year-end Sacramento Bee articles that listed new homes designed and built during the previous year. It’s a good thing you providing the newspaper with those listings. Unfortunately, most of the homes you designed have been lost to the relentless “evolution” of the city. Your loving handiwork had been replaced by mostly forgettable city buildings, cookie-cutter apartments, and boring stores. Your own home at the corner of 8th and N Streets was demolished in the middle part of the last century as part of an “urban revitalization” project. In its place stands an elevated concrete park, spotted by the occasional tree or shrub, that’s frequented at lunch by city government employees who work below it. It’s a truly lamentable piece of architecture.
What’s unfortunate is that Leland Stanford’s over-wrought home, located across the street from yours, still stands. So does the ostentatious Heilbron Home, located only one block away, designed by your contemporary Nathaniel Goodell, the architect of the governor’s mansion, which is also still standing. Looking through newspaper listings, it’s clear that Goodell designed six to eight homes for every one that you did and seemed to get the biggest commissions. He managed to achieve a semblance of local immortality. When I told the librarians that my relative had been a Sacramento architect in the 1880s, they asked, “Oh, are you related to Nathaniel Goodell?” I know; it hurts.
I don’t know whether you felt too much professional jealousy toward Goodell, though. You seemed to work in a different sphere, designing and in many cases also building more modest homes for Sacramento’s emerging merchant class. Your stock and trade seemed to be six-to-eight room homes for business owners, bookkeepers, and salesmen. But you did a few mansions as well.
Much of this work, I discovered, was done after the Great Flood (of the American River) of 1860-61. Though you didn’t arrive until a few years later, the city went about rebuilding its streets with gracious Victorian homes, “with and an occasional brick home of great distinction,” according to one history of the time.
Many homes were over-arched by large elms to show that their owners had “arrived.” Even modest homes were painted white and embellished with porch railings, columns, fan lights, and picket fences. The attention to detail was amazing. Many homes, yours included, featured decorative wooden bands, wood carvings and rosettes, and scrolled brackets under the eaves. Windows were often set in ornamental frames.
Though new designs were obviously your passion, to keep busy you did the occasional room addition or substantial rehabilitation. It appears as though you stuck to major ones that required design work. In 1896, for instance, you remodeled a two-story building on the west half of lot 7 in the block between K and L, and 9th and 10th Streets. It had flats and four tenants. The contract price was a modest $2,910.
You only did a handful of commercial buildings, often considered the hallmark of a successful architectural practice. Unfortunately, they are all gone. The Davis Building, the large apartment building on bustling K Street that you designed beside and above the Davis Furniture Emporium, must have been a sight to behold; newspapers described it in intimate detail. What an honor it must have been to be selected in 1892 to design the addition to the First Methodist Episcopal Church on Sixth Street. I found one fuzzy picture of the church interior. I’m sad to report that the $2000 addition that you did on a vacant lot for the Odd Fellows Hall is gone — along with the Hall.
You had the added challenge of working in most cases on a budget for people who were stretching. Within those confines you managed to produce homes that are redolent with character. You can see it in the seemingly custom millwork patterns that you drew and maybe even carved, the often-bowed front stairs that reach out to welcome visitors, the proud bay windows that invite fresh breezes and afford views of Sacramento’s blossoming streets. Your homes look hand-made.
That’s what you’d expect from an artist in wood whose work is collected at the Crocker Gallery and who was reputed to have carved portions of the State Capitol Building. Some might say that your building material of choice, wood, which could be bent, chiseled, and molded to your liking, was also your undoing. It so easily gives way to the forces of water, wind, and time.
I wish I could ask you a few questions. First, did you design the home at 2011 P Street? This is the so-called John Stevens House, which is protected as an historic property. It was built in 1883, according to the Historic Register, and it looks an awful lot like your own home. The similarities are striking — the Italianate design, the spacing between upstairs windows, the stepped back right side of the home that provides cross-ventilation to back rooms. I wish I could compare the millwork patterns. But the one picture I have of your home is washed out.
Drawings of three of your masterworks are collected in a book of lithographs drawn at the turn of the century. They provide a fascinating glimpse of Sacramento’s best neighborhoods at that juncture. Needless to say, the city’s streets are much denser today; the homes don’t stand out like monuments. You don’t see as many horse-drawn carriages, either, unless they are carrying tourists. Dirt roads have been paved to accommodate automobiles — enclosed coaches powered by engines that run on gasoline. Sacramento has sprawled as a result of easy transportation.
The book of lithographs includes the elegant two-story home on N Street, between 11th and 12th Streets, that you designed in 1882 for H. Weinrich, the owner of a wholesale liquor operation bearing his name. The home, according to newspaper reports, cost about $7000 to build, making it one of the bigger homes you did. Within its pages you’ll also find the home you designed and built for the widow Mrs. E.H. Milliken on the northwest corner of 18thand G Streets. The book also highlights the two-story frame home that you drew for Cyrus H. Hubbard on the northwest corner of 15th and I Streets. Hubbard was a mayor of Sacramento, one of the freeholders who framed the city’s charter.
Though it’s not easy to examine the architecture in intimate detail, the homes all feature exquisite millwork detail. It’s clear that you gave each window very special treatment. You drew lovely brackets under the eves to support simple, pleasing roofs. Your porches, balconies, and bow windows must have been a welcoming sight in their time.
Until I did the newspaper search, I had no idea you had designed so many homes. My great grandfather, your nephew J.E. Thompson, left behind a letter saying how much he admired the easy, creative pace of your business life. But my research indicates that you kept quite busy, designing four to eight homes each year in your heyday. Half the time you built them as well.
The drawing I most wanted to see wasn’t in the book of lithographs – the home that you designed for Captain J.P. Whitney in 1885 for his extensive ranch near Bocklin in Placer County. The home was budgeted at $15,000. What was it like working for Whitney, one of the wealthiest Californians at the time? Did he tell you stories of the California gold rush, of how he eventually lost interest in gold and turned his attention to ranching and horse breeding? History books say there were four mansions on his property. Was yours one of them? Did it get built?
It looks as though several of your commissions came through professional or social connections. One client, Peter Bohl, for instance, was a treasurer of the First Methodist Episcopal Church, for which you designed the organ room. You did more than one home for executives at Baker & Hamilton. And several of your clients were members of the professional societies to which you belonged.
I’m impressed that you built so many of the homes that you designed, like the five- room cottage for G.M. Hayton in 1883 on the north side of K Street, between 16th and 17th Streets, or the home for Jas. H. Winn in 1878 on G, between 15th and 16th Streets. Some of these project were quite large. In 1881, you designed and built a two-story frame residence with a high brick basement on G Street, between 11th and 12th Streets. It had eight rooms, a pantry, closets, and “all modern improvements,” according to a newspaper article.
Newspapers chronicled your design of the The Davis Building, an apartment house at 411-413 K Street built in 1895 that wrapped the Davis Furniture Emporium. What a job it must have been building two stories above the furniture store, presumably interrupting as little business as possible. The building had a 30-foot frontage. It was classical in design and built with bluish sandstone and Philadelphia pressed brick, freely carved with ornamentation.
Newspapers glowingly reported that The Davis was built on a deep and solid foundation, with steel beams supporting each story. The walls all the way around were not less than 12 inches thick, even at the extreme top. There were fifty spacious apartments inside, each with the latest appointments, including clothes closets and stationary marble basins. Each floor had a full bath with a porcelain-lined bathtub. The second floor included parlors, a big dining room, and a kitchen with a large pantry, making it a “first-class boarding and lodging house,” according to the Sacramento Daily Union.
I wish I could have been there to hear visiting organist Samuel D. Mayer perform a concert in the First Methodist and Episcopal Church after the organ room you designed was complete. Great pains were taken to make this one of the best concerts ever performed in Sacramento. Mayer, organist of the First Congregational Church in San Francisco, was joined by the best local talent.
The initial plans were to put the grand organ, one of the finest on the West Coast, in the audience room of the church. Ultimately, it was decided to erect an additional building, 20 by 52 feet, adjoining the principal building on its west side to create one large space. Your plans also included a pastor’s study, choir room, and toilet room.
I mention all this because I know that in the back of every architect’s mind – in the frontal lobe of some – is a desire to create something of permanence, landmarks that will outlast a lifetime, buildings with enough spirit that future owners and citizens will strive to keep them. Maybe this post will start that worthy ball rolling. Your name is conspicuously missing from the register of historic homes kept by the city government.
P.S. Click on gallery thumbnails to enlarge pictures.