SACRAMENTO — What's old? That's what people should ask about Old Sacramento: not what's new but what's old.
Planners of the redevelopment area have been determined since the outset to turn the one-time Skid Row into a living, breathing history museum. That effort continues--down to the construction of wooden lean-tos to hide garbage cans along the alleys.
From the plank sidewalks and the gaslight-type street lamps to the buildings themselves, the six-square-block riverfront development at the western entrance to Sacramento is intended to look historically correct for the period between 1850 and the early 1870s.
In the 1960s, when the restoration was only some sketches on the drawing board, the area was seedy, grimy, paint-peeled, a haven for transients and winos.
But historians could call up images of its glory days as the heart of a young, thriving town that attracted gold seekers from around the world.
In the Gold Rush era, Old Town was Sacramento. And redevelopment forces have stuck to plans to make it look as it did, with businesses occupying historic shells with interior spaces modified for present-day needs. Most recent additions have occurred along the Sacramento River, where for the last few years the L Street landing barge provided the only river access to pedestrians and boaters.
You couldn't actually see the river, except from the barge. But behind a chain-link barrier, workers have been hammering away since last July to recreate the warehouse that the Central Pacific Railroad and the California Steam Navigation Co. once shared, plus the two-story navigation company's office and depot.
Pile drivers are also pounding the supports for additional docks and a barge. When completed, around May 1, these will make a home for two permanent waterborne fixtures, the Globe and the Delta King.
The Globe, an authentically replicated sailing ship-turned-storehouse that bobbed at the Sacramento shoreline for many years, will serve as a floating museum, "a waterfront interpretation center," said Liz Brenner of the city's waterfront management office.
"The public can go aboard free and see what river traffic was like in a self-guided exhibit. We'll have freight boxes around--maybe to provide seating. It will be a resting point with a story to tell."
As for the Delta King, it is the one major out-of-era concession that the history-minded planners seem willing to make. The boat actually operated on the Sacramento River in the 1920s and '30s, hauling passengers and freight between the capital and San Francisco. Beloved by many old-time Sacramentans who made the trip, the King has become a landmark during its two-year restoration just south of Tower Bridge.
Edmund Coyne, president of Riverboat Delta King Inc., says the boat will be moved upstream to Old Sacramento as soon as the dock is ready. Work on the King's exterior is complete, but it will continue on all five decks of the interior.
Coyne says his company has struck a deal with Laral Hotels Inc. to manage a 43-room hotel and two restaurants on the boat. The hotel, in the manner of many bed-and-breakfast inns, will have individually decorated period rooms with brass beds, wood paneling and antique plumbing fixtures, and a Mark Twain suite in the old wheelhouse that can be used for weddings, small banquets or honeymoon stays.
A 122-seat theater will present a show on the history of river boats on California waterways, using old photographs, early newsreels and player-piano background music.
When will it all come together?
"We are moving as quickly as we can," Coyne said. "We're certainly trying for this year, but just can't say for sure."
Yet a third boat will become a fixture in front of Old Town, depending on which of eight proposals the city accepts. The idea, says Brenner, is to replace the little open-sided paddle-wheeler River City Queen, which has been operating trips and charters, with something more "historically correct."
"We want a Western-style river boat that offers regularly scheduled tours whether two people or 150 show up. We want it to look exactly like what was here in the 1850s--to recreate it visually," she said.