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Sacramento losing its history, one icon at a time

The progress of our city momentarily stops a few times a year when I park in the city lot on 10th street. I look into the alley between K and L Streets in downtown Sacramento and I’m relieved. The old Hastings sign is still there, high on the brick wall.

In faded white and black block lettering with a tri-color background, the sign reads: Hart, Schaffner & Marx. Below in large type is the word, Clothing. It’s accompanied by a white logo of a medieval knight on a horse.

The Chicago-based, three-name company dates to 1887 and sounds like the name of a prominent law firm. But the company makes tailored men’s suits, and its downtown Sacramento signage is now more than 50 years old. And however simple, it’s among the dwindling few beacons of early Americana still around town.

Every time I read about new arenas, business parks, developers’ dreams or the need for a “world class city” I cringe. Perhaps it’s sentiment, but we’re losing more evidence of our city’s history.

One day, it’s some old signs being painted over or taken down. The next day it’s the loss of another landmark restaurant. Or maybe it’s the decapitation of more than 500 fire alarm boxes and the equally unceremonious removal of many of their ornate perches.

The vintage Fred Mayes clock in downtown Sacramento
The vintage Fred Mayes clock in downtown Sacramento. Images © James Raia/2015

I moved to Sacramento from the San Francisco Bay Area 40 years ago to attend Sacramento State University. I remember once-familiar downtown locales, David’s Brass Rail, Mario’s Italian Cellar and the two Sam’s Hof Brau locations. Gone is the vertical red and white neon sign on 10th and W Streets that advertised Wakanoura Chop Suey. I miss the second-story restaurant and its well-worn formica tables.

Restaurant closings are inevitable, but collectively the losses hurt. It’s particularly disturbing when also considering a dubious 10th anniversary. In 2005, Sacramento’s 540 publicly accessible fire alarm boxes were removed. The system’s dispatch station on 28th and P streets, Winn Park, circa 1937, was abandoned.

The red safety beacons and the simple white insignia of the Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co., Sacramento’s supplier and the still-operating manufacturer dating to the 1880s, were street art. But now another layer of city history has been scraped away.

“If you are walking down the street in downtown Sacramento, you can see buildings that are brand new and buildings that are a century old,” says William Burg, the Sacramento historian and author. “And that’s what conveys the sense of a city. It’s a urban place to walk through time.”

In 2002, I interviewed Doug Crawford, one of three technicians who repaired and maintained Sacramento’s fire alarm boxes for more than a decade. He pridefully told me about the system’s Teletype machines, their intricate components and six-second response times.

Six seconds is now an eternity. But Sacramento was among only a few Northern California cities with such a wondrous working back-up system to utilize if modern telecommunications failed in a disaster. Vandalism, budget restrictions, increasing costs and a lack of perspective prompted the system’s demise.

Sacramento has many old sidewalk marker, some more than 100 years old.
Sacramento has many old sidewalk marker, some more than 100 years old.

On a recent reconnaissance trip to view Sacramento’s past, I realized all is not lost. I visited the Hastings sign. I walked to 10th and J streets and looked at the majestic tower street clock. It was spared and restored in 2012. I drove to the McKinley Park neighborhood and looked at the sidewalk markers from the Work Project Administration in the 1940s.

A few blocks away, I rediscovered more markers, including the Clark & Henery Construction Co., stamp from 1914 on the corner of 32nd and B streets. And there’s still a tall painted  palm tree nearby. It’s the last remnant of the infamous Driftwood burlesque nightclub that closed around 1970.

Sacramento will continue to change, but we still have our pillars to the past. In the name of progress, let’s leave them alone.

(Originally published Nov. 14, 2015 in the Sacramento Bee.)