Renewing River City Commons - South Natomas, Sacramento - Page 2

Homeowner pride mounts as locals spiff up once-scruffy Strengs of River City Commons
cul de sac

And River City Commons has plenty of architectural integrity to protect. Almost all of the homes retain, to a great extent, their original architectural look. Its architect, Carter Sparks, was one of Sacramento's leading modernists—and one of the few architects anywhere to succeed in fulfilling the modernist dream of designing entire neighborhoods of modern homes for working class and middle-income people.

A neighborhood of 196 homes, all but 20 or so of River City Commons' homes are 'half-plexes'—two homes that share a party wall. One of their main draws has always been affordability. Homes originally sold in the mid-$50,000s, and today they go roughly for $250,000-$325,000.

daid heitz living room

But there is nothing cheap about the appearance of the neighborhood, or of the houses themselves.

Tall redwoods, palms, liquid amber, aspens, and sycamore trees create a heavily forested neighborhood—too heavily forested in some cases, an arborist recently advised the board. The trees tower over low-slung homes. Homes are low gabled—with each half of the half-plex taking one half of the gable; or with flat or slightly sloping roofs.

Utility poles are non-existent, and owners of satellite dishes are encouraged to hide them in back yards, says Denise Jerome.

People appreciate the community park, with its two pools, a spa, tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, a playground, picnic areas, and lovely sycamores. To combat vandalism the association is hiring a 'resident manager' and, rather than banning it entirely, is setting up a smoking area off to the side.

Most homes are on cul-de-sac courts (some of whose names evoke a fishing trip: Paddle, Bobber, Cattail, Blue Heron) or on curving streets. Lots at the ends of courts are oddly shaped. Some homes are set so far back from the street they disappear. On City Court, some hide behind a forest of palms.

The streetscape is surprisingly varied. Often, one half of a half-plex is staggered several feet back from its mate, making them seem to be separate houses. On some streets, homes are arrayed to the street at a diagonal, adding a lively touch.

hula hooping

Architect Carter Sparks, who designed all the Strengs' modern homes, created street facades that are remarkably reserved, even puzzling. Those of his atrium-style homes, for example, are nothing but vertical wooden boards with no evidence even of a front door. The door is hidden along the side of the house.

"I just thought it was odd," Kallemeyn says of the first time she saw the blank facades, which she has come to appreciate.

Another popular siding was 'raked stucco,' with rough-hewn ribs that were created by running a rake against the wet material. The raked stucco was "available in place of siding at a reduced price," the Strengs' brochure announced.

With such a simple a façade, tiny details become all-important. Sparks kept details simple as well, but made them elegant in their laid-back way. The only décor for Sparks' facades were a globe-shaped lamp atop a metal standard attached to the garage, and a small, distinctive garage-door pull. Many homes have lost these details.

The ones that suffer most are those that replaced the original, fold-up garage doors whose siding matched that of the house. Colonial-style fanlight doors add a spurious liveliness but ruin the intended effect of a uniform facade.

Other Sparks touches include door-like windows that start at the base of the floor and rise door-high, often paired at the corners of the house; clerestory windows in gables, to bring in light and views; skylights over kitchens, bathrooms and utility rooms; and the famous Streng 'atrium,' a concrete-aggregate floored interior garden, open to the house but with planted areas.

In developing the guidelines. Sandlin and members of the architectural committee have talked to Jim Streng and to their counterparts in Fairgrove, an Eichler neighborhood in Cupertino whose guidelines may serve as a model. The rules will specify materials, colors, and styles. "Some people get it, and others are always trying to convert it to something else," Kallemeyn says of the architecture. "One contentious issue," she adds, "has been cottage-style windows, with divided panes."