Detail on City HallBeaux Arts. Renaissance. Italianate. Greek. Baroque. Victorian. Do you know what these terms have in common? If you guessed architectural styles, you are correct. But I just learned that all of these architectural styles and more can be found within a five block area of downtown Sacramento. That is what we realized when Janet, Cindy and I took The Structural Stories Walking Tour given by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. Our guide, Sean, was incredibly educated about the history of our city. He gave us the history of the structure, including the architectural firm and the funding sources of every building we passed.

We met Sean in Cesar Chavez Park next to the beautiful fountain statue of the three rivers sculpted by Ralph Stackpole in 1926. Three women represent the American, Sacramento and Feather Rivers. We began the tour at “old” City Hall built in 1911 featuring the Beaux Arts style. Sean pointed out the ornamental fruits and vegetables over the doorway as a nod to our history of agriculture. I guess we really are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.

Next we passed the original Central Library building in the Italian Renaissance style with ornate scroll work and terra cotta lion faces staring out of the facade. Amazingly, the terra cotta manufacturers made the lampposts resemble aged bronze.

Across the street is the original Sacramento Post Office in the Late Renaissance style. I used to buy my stamps there. Sean told us the first-floor lobby features a beautiful metal ceiling. You can't see it very easily now, because the building is closed to the public for security reasons. I'm embarrassed to say that I never even noticed this ceiling when I had the chance to see it.

The Sacramento County Courthouse on Ninth Street is built in a Modern style. Some refer to it as Cold War style.  The landscape of the patio area was designed to depict heaven, hell and purgatory with the choice of trees and fountains. But I had a hard time visualizing that myself.

The Llewellyn Williams Mansion, built for an early settler, is an ornate gingerbread style called Italianate. Variously used over the years as a private home, a funeral parlor and then a restaurant, it now houses the Sacramento International Youth Hostel. This massive structure was physically moved two times - back and forth across the street to accommodate construction projects. But thankfully it remains intact. We were able to walk in the front door and see the parlor and the massive staircase.

Our tour guide, Sean, shows us City LibraryOther interesting sites on our tour:

  • On 10th Street we saw the first apartment complex of Sacramento that now houses a private school.
  • On another nearby street we saw a row of tall Egyptian Palm trees lining the street. These are not indigenous to Sacramento but were brought here as a show of status, and they survived.
  • Many of the original buildings in downtown Sacramento have elevated first floors. This was how structures survived the frequent flooding that occurred in the late 1800s.
  • The Crest Theatre on K Street has a vintage neon marquee reminiscent of the 1940s movie theaters, When the sign didn't fit after refurbishment, the installer just pounded it in place with a hammer.
  • Construction of 24-Hour Fitness on K Street makes good use of the shiny red vintage mini-tile façade formerly of the Kress building.

Every question we asked, Sean had a comment, a story, an anecdote, and/or an example. He was truly a wealth of fascinating information on Sacramento’s history. 

The tour ended with the Baroque style Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. This is a true Sacramento landmark. A major restoration was completed in 2005. When you enter the vestibule, you are transferred a hundred years back in time. Sean made sure we sat down in the pews so we could experience the beauty of stained glass windows, altars and artwork. It was a perfect ending.

And that is just a five-block area. The tour didn't even include the Capitol, Memorial Auditorium, St. John's Lutheran Church or so many other unique downtown structures. Regrettably, you can't see it all in one day. But we had a great start. Click here for more information about Downtown Sacramento Partnership's walking tours.