The homes may have party walls, but inside they're quiet. Back yards are heavily used and often forested. Marcia Virago's yard is dominated by three 90-foot pines and she regards the yard as her haven. "I live in my backyard five to six months of the year," she says.
Sandlin's backyard affords a sense of seclusion but, she says, "We are close enough that the neighbors look out for each other."
When David Heitz, a realtor who specializes in Strengs, first moved to River City Commons, a neighbor brought him home-baked bread. He's come to appreciate the benefits of half-plex life. "When you're in a closer knit community it brings us together a little bit more," he says. "You almost become like family."
By car, downtown Sacramento is only ten minutes away, so River City Commons has always appealed to people who work for the state of California or at other downtown offices. Schools are good in the area; there are libraries, a community center, and new shopping plazas. Sandlin, who enjoys walking, often trudges 15 minutes to the trail that runs along the American River. The neighborhood is ethnically mixed; "a little United Nations," Kallemeyn calls it.
When Susan Helmer came to River City in 1995, buying her half-plex through a foreclosure, the attraction was price more than architecture. "When I moved in here, I didn't know what I was moving into," she says. She'd never heard of the Strengs or Sparks—or of their atrium model, even though she was living in one. The planting areas had been filled in with concrete.
Later she learned from neighbors about the significance of her architecture—after she had removed some of the original lighting fixtures. "Oh gosh," she says, regretfully, "maybe I should have done a little more research."
Today, appreciation is growing for Streng homes. Helmer found a recent profile of River City Commons in 'Sacramento' magazine gratifying. Ordinary people are paying attention too. "A friend came in and said, 'Oh! You're in a Streng home!' "
One of her neighbors watched and waited for two years until a suitable house hit the market. "People who know the architecture and understand it look for the houses to come on sale," Helmer says.
Owners are starting to renovate their homes, playing up their modern lines without fully restoring the original look, says Heitz, who transformed the interior of his atrium model into something "more European modern than mid-century." The kitchen has been transformed, and the planted areas of the atrium filled with black pebbles, a few rocks, cactus, and hints of moss.
"People love the functionality of the floor plan. It's a floor plan for today's lifestyle. That's what people have taken hold of now," he says. "But their appreciation is not on a purist level."
Newcomers Krystal Amante and Angela Torres are just starting their own renovation. Amante, who served with the Marines in Japan, immediately saw the connection between Japanese and modern Californian architecture. Both fell in love with the atrium. They've done a bit of painting, and are contemplating glass-fronted cabinets, and bamboo or hardwood floors, all in keeping with the original architecture.
"We want to create our own space. We're not interested in instant modernism," Amante says. "Because for us, modernism is not a trend."
Photos: David Toerge
River City Commons is located in Sacramento's South Natomas neighborhood. Its houses are arrayed on several streets west of Truxel Road, including Blue Heron Court, Paddle Court, Bobber Court, and River City Way.