Brick-and-mortar path to the past

Sacramento retains '49er-era buildings

By Bob Sylva
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

In the high-rise forest that's fast becoming modern-day Sacramento, standing atop a two-story building doesn't afford much of a view. But there's one building in town where one can stand and see the entire panorama of the city's epic beginnings: the fires, the floods, the heroic fortitude.

The blinding glint of gold that dazzled like a sunset.

Democratic State Journal

The Democratic State Journal building, above, at the southwest corner of 2nd and K streets in Sacramento, was built in 1850 and features this side staircase to a second-floor balcony.

Bee photograph: Dick Schmidt

The Lady Adams building is located at 119 K St. in Old Sacramento. It is a modest structure, short of gingerbread, painted now a pale mustard. It was built in 1849 by a pair of German merchants. To reach its roof, you must dip and crawl out the window of an adjacent building. The roof is a white spongy foam with a high R-value. Like walking on a marshmallow. It's reportedly guaranteed to last 15 years. Hardly an epoch of durability.

Standing here, amid the low hum of a rooftop air-conditioner, the persistent thud of nearby Interstate 5, the immense blue canopy overhead, one can look out and see ... well, not a whole lot, really. A cobbled alley, the butt of a brick building, a scraggly tree, a few tourists strolling below.

But, looking back, one can easily imagine the clogged waterfront, the greedy throng of miners, the clamorous city of tents and tin shacks. And, on a night in 1852 -- right about where the county jail now looms -- one can discern a low orange glow. Which builds to a leaping dance. In minutes, a wind-swept tempest engulfing everything in its path, as the wildfire sweeps westward to the tindery waterfront, finally hissing at the river's edge.

"In a single night," reported the Sacramento State Journal, on Nov. 12, 1852, "our beautiful city has been swept away by the terrible element which we are accustomed to associate the end of all earthly things." Nearly every single structure in the infant city was reduced to ashes.

Except the Lady Adams building. It miraculously remained.

The secret of its survival lies hushed in its rafters.

Some 150 years after the fabled Gold Rush -- whose origins are clearly one of Sacramento's main claims to fame -- there are not even a handful of buildings in town that still stand from that convulsive era.

What happened? Let's go back to the beginnings.

In early 1848, further navigation upriver thwarted by a natural sandbar at the present-day site of the I Street Bridge, Sacramento became an accident of anchorage. Even then, there were riparian levees fronted by a great bower of towering cottonwoods. There was a half-submerged shipwreck and a lone wooden structure on shore called McDougal Store.

Sutter's Fort, built in the summer of 1840, was a mile or two inland, a bucolic fortress of calm soon to be ravaged by a coming gold dust storm.

By the summer of 1848, however, Sacramento was an instantly flourishing city -- an early version of Las Vegas. In the configuration of an inverted "T," the city stretched north-south from China Slough (I Street) over to O Street, extending straight up J to about Seventh. Most of the makeshift structures were built of ship canvas and reclaimed timbers.

One of the sturdier structures was the Lady Adams building, named after the doughty ship that brought a pair of German merchants from Dresden around the Horn and up the river, its holds filled with essential goods for prospectors. The merchants first peddled their wares out of a tent. Then they hired shipwrights to construct a more permanent store on K Street.

The shipwrights, stripping the Lady Adams for planks, and using brick fired from the clay pits of today's Greenhaven Lake, fashioned a resolutely flood- and fireproof building. In essence, they built a ship on shore. Even today, one can explore the musty basement of the Lady Adams (originally, its first floor) and detect curious design features, such as the massive, 80-foot-long notched joists, the beams as fresh as the day they were cut.

The architecture was provident. For soon came plagues of biblical proportions -- fires, floods, pestilence, the latter in the form of cholera and consumptive gold fever.

The Great Fire of 1852 proved the ultimate test. "In less than four hours," reported the Sacramento State Journal, "of about 1,500 houses nothing remained but masses of ashes, burning timbers and heated bricks and at least 8,000 persons were left houseless -- hundreds with nothing but the clothing upon them."

Lady Adams
The Lady Adams building, left, was built by German merchants in 1849.

Bee photograph: Dick Schmidt

Over the years, the Lady Adams suffered even more fires, floods, the shifting fortunes of time. By the 1950s, "Old" Sacramento a teeming Skid Row, the building operated as a brothel and flophouse.

Though it withstood nearly every assault, its undoing came at the hands of a city work crew, which was trenching in the adjoining alley. The digging undermined the Lady Adams' foundation, causing one wall to topple and a portion of the roof to cave in.

Thus, its secret of survival was exposed to all.

Its roof -- a hoagie sandwich of precaution. According to city historians and archaeologists who marveled at the ruin, the roof was multilayered, composed of rough planking, a layer of tin, a layer of brick, a layer of sand, another layer of brick, more sand, a final layer of tin. Over time, the roof had been augmented by another foot of asphalt and crud. With its brick walls and steel shutters, the building was nearly impermeable.

In 1970, shortly after its collapse, the Lady Adams was restored, one of the very first buildings refurbished for the Gold Rush theme park that's become Old Sacramento. Its architect was Bob McCabe, a foremost restorer of vintage buildings. Of the scrupulous Lady Adams face lift, McCabe claims, "There is no reason why it shouldn't last another 200 years."

Even though its roof is only guaranteed for 15.

Just three other buildings in town echo faintly from the Gold Rush. There is the Democratic State Journal, at the southwest corner of Second and K, a now-beige stucco edifice, which was built in 1850. The fire of 1852 gutted the original building. And there is the Stanford Brothers Warehouse, at the corner of Front and L, built of brick in 1850 by merchant Leland Stanford, which served to house the growing inventory for his profitable emporium.

Not much fervor or saga associated with either site.

That is not the case with the city's saddest witness to the Gold Rush. Sutter's Fort was literally trampled to dust in the furious race to the foothills.

By 1855, the indomitable fort was a crumble of adobe, much of its lumber scavenged to construct the thriving city at the waterfront. By 1860, all that remained of the fort was the Central Building, which housed Sutter's private office. By the 1880s, the slight rise known as Sutter's Fort -- the very first settlement in Sacramento -- was reduced to the ignominy of a hog farm.

City historian James Henley contributed many of the facts and events cited in this report.

Domenico Ghirardelli

PROFILE Some of those who flocked to California 150 years ago made their fortunes in gold. Domenico "Domingo" Ghirardelli made his in chocolate. Born in 1817 near Genoa, in what's now Italy, Ghirardelli learned the confectionary trade as a young man. At the age of 20, he immigrated to Uruguay, then Peru, intending to set up a chocolate empire in South America.

But when news of the gold strike filtered its way south, Ghirardelli sailed for San Francisco. After trying and failing at mining, Ghirardelli opened a store in the booming town of Hornitos, in Mariposa County, then opened a second store in Stockton. Soon he had a fleet of supply sloops that carried goods from San Francisco to his stores. He built a hotel in San Francisco and was on his way to a fortune when fire destroyed two of his stores and nearly all of his goods.

Nearly wiped out financially, Ghirardelli went back to his candy roots in 1852. By 1856, he had opened two confectionary stores in San Francisco. They were followed by construction of a large factory, also in the city, from which he shipped chocolate products throughout the United States, and to Mexico and British Columbia. He died in 1894, leaving behind perhaps the sweetest legacy of any Gold Rush figure.

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