Sacramento Modernists Win a Victory

A mother and child enjoy a special moment at Capitol Towers, in front of a three-dimensional mural by Jacques Overhoff. Photo by Justin Wood

A wonderful modern landscape of garden apartments and towers in a garden setting has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, one step towards preventing its destruction.

The vote by the State Historic Resources Commission to approve placing Capitol Towers on the register was unanimous. State approval is needed before an application goes onto the National Park Service for final approval. The park service usually accepts a state’s recommendation.

But a privately owned property can only be named to the National Register if the owner agrees. In this case the owner wishes to tear down some of the buildings on site, alter others, and alter the site plan. If an owner declines to have a site listed, the site is “deemed eligible” for listing.

That alone can slow down demolition. But even structures or landscapes named to the National Register are not immune from destruction.

This illustration shows just how intact the development remains 50 years after its birth. Dane Henas of SacMod overlaid a recent Google Earth image with the architect's original site plan. Courtesy of SacMod

“What's next?” asks Gretchen Steinberg, who is leading the preservation effort on behalf of the group Sacramento Modern. “Hopefully a meaningful dialogue between the owner, the residents, the neighbors, the design and preservation communities, and the City of Sacramento.”

The owner, KW Cap Towers LLC, has proposed razing the low-rise apartments and keeping the 15-story tower and renaming the complex “Sacramento Commons.” Six buildings would be added, including two 25-story towers.

Capitol Tower and Garden Apartments were designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, a leading modernist firm, with contributions from other major architects of the mid-century, including Edward Larrabee Banes. The eminent landscape architect Lawrence Halprin did the landscaping.

SacMod has sought to save the development, by applying for the National Register. The city’s Preservation Commission has also backed preserving the site.

“Capitol Towers is an iconic and irreplaceable example of mid-20th century architecture,” Steinberg wrote to the city. “In particular, the individual elements — the low-rise apartments, the high rise building, the sculptural wall by Jacques Overhoff, the original landscape features, the overall master plan (and its key position and contribution to urban renewal and redevelopment) — comprise a residential community that is not only a historic district but is unique and unlike any other neighborhood in Sacramento.”

The pattern of the exposed roof rafters is a Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons touch. Photo by Justin Wood

The National Register application states:

“Derived from Garden City principles, Capitol Towers is an internal, pedestrian-oriented site with shared interior landscaped areas and automobiles and service uses placed at the site’s periphery. Yet, unlike garden apartment complexes that are insular, Capitol Towers maintains a street presence with the low rise units fronting city streets, parking lots pulled inward as interior courts, and a sense of openness, order, and permeability that connects with the surrounding urban grid.”

The report goes on:

“The overall feeling of Capitol Towers remains that of a large-scale, pedestrian-oriented multifamily residential complex, as it was originally developed. The pleasant outdoor environment and communal atmosphere is a testament to the concepts of the original design, one that brought together a combination of simple architectural, landscape and artistic features to create an engaging urban residential complex. Although the removal and replacement of some architectural elements affect the period feel, Capitol Towers still conveys the feeling of a complete residential community with a comprehensive mid-century modern plan and composition.”

Steinberg wrote to the city that, “Capitol Towers is, in fact, a historic district worth preserving for future generations to experience and enjoy.”

The Jacques Overhoff mural separates pool from parkland. Photo by Dave Weinstein

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