Capitol Towers: Sacramento's Modernist Gem

Tags

Newsletter

By Flora Chou

Sacramento’s Capitol Towers is a little-known but excellent example of modernist urban housing. Built between 1959 and 1965 as the residential element of Sacramento’s first realized urban redevelopment project, its all-star design team emphasized human-scaled urban living that mixed low-rise garden apartments in a park-like setting with a modern high rise and a public plaza at the heart. The resulting assembly of vertical and horizontal building elements, linked by landscaped spaces and a now-mature tree canopy, created a well-scaled, well-planned, and highly livable community.

Photo: Central plaza with sculptural wall and swimming pool on the other side. Source: Page & Turnbull, 2014.

An important work for all the architects involved, Capitol Towers is also a key work by master landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. It was among Halprin’s earliest urban plazas and shows early exploration of themes that became Halprin signatures in the years that followed: the collaborative design process, the way people move through public spaces, and most importantly, the civic plaza integrated with art and the built environment. Capitol Towers was Halprin’s first exploration of this design trademark, which he would further develop at places like Ghirardelli Square and Embarcadero Plaza in San Francisco.
 

The proposed Sacramento Commons development threatens to erase what has been a beloved and livable community for more than 50 years and a rare example of an urban garden apartment complex designed by a stellar group of the most talented designers of their time.

Urban Renewal

In the years following World War II, ambitious urban renewal projects sought to revitalize deteriorating city centers by replacing “blighted” downtowns with modern urban cores. By the mid-1950s when California had the tools in place for urban renewal, a backlash was mounting against the “bleak towers” and “box-like buildings, no better than the slums they replaced,” that branded redevelopment projects elsewhere.1 In 1958, the same year New York developer James Scheuer was selected to develop Capitol Towers, he wrote:

We have now been warned that unless urban renewal is radically improved it will die aborning through lack of public support. The public will simply refuse to make the necessary capital investment, not only in terms of money but in terms of the inconvenience and dislocation which are unavoidable costs of redevelopment…there is no reason why redevelopment projects cannot be exciting and attractive. Why must all buildings in a project be identical?2 

Capitol Towers was Scheuer’s and his design team’s response. Designed and constructed in phases between 1958 and 1965, Capitol Towers is a unique collaboration by some of the most distinguished modern designers of the period. Led by architect William Wurster, with his partners Theodore Bernardi and Donn Emmons (Wurster, Bernardi and Emmon), the design collective included the architectural team of Vernon DeMars and Donald Reay (DeMars and Reay) and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. These were among the most talented and influential architects working in San Francisco, and instrumental in defining the look and feel of Bay Region Modernism. Rounding out the team was New York-based architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, a former Wurster employee, who would go on to design notable modern buildings across the country. The team consulted with other notable designers such as graphic designer Saul Bass and color consultant Alexander Girard.

Central plaza surrounded by high-rise tower and low-rise gardenapartment buildings. Source for both images: Page & Turnbull, 2014.
Main walkway and landscape flanked by staggered garden apartment buildings on axis with the central plaza and sculptural wall in background. 

Combining Garden City planning principles with Le Corbusier’s “ideal city” high-rise planning from earlier in the twentieth century, Capitol Towers is on a 10-acre superblock (equaling four city blocks) just south of Sacramento’s Capitol Mall. Eight two- and three-story garden apartment buildings and one 15-story tower contain 409 rental units. The pedestrian-only interior extends the existing street grid into the site along walkways with shared open space. Automobiles are confined to the perimeter parking courts and a parking structure. At the core of the site, the walkways intersect and open into a central plaza at the heart of the community. A striking sculptural wall by artist Jacques Overhoff anchors the plaza and divides it from the complex’s swimming pool. Toward the center is the tower, which houses restaurants and retail at its ground floor.3

The design of the low-rise garden buildings is deliberately simple, as is typical for Bay Region Modernism. Staggered unit modules, deep overhangs, and open breezeways vary the design. Each apartment has a private outdoor space in either an upper-floor balcony or an enclosed ground-floor patio to balance the public open spaces. To maximize privacy, the garden building balconies typically overlook shared lawns, while the enclosed patios are at the building’s opposite side. Each tower unit also has a balcony.

Halprin’s Landscape Plan

Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009) was one of the most prolific American landscape architects of the postwar years. He earned a B.A. at Cornell University and he was granted a M.A. at the University of Wisconsin. Then he earned a second bachelor’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his professors included architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. At Harvard, Halprin met and befriended William Wurster and his wife, noted housing advocate and planner Catherine Bauer. Wurster was on sabbatical at Harvard for a fellowship in urban planning. After World War II, when Halprin arrived in San Francisco, Wurster helped Halprin land a job with Wurster’s frequent collaborator, landscape architect Thomas Church. In 1949, Halprin opened his own office in San Francisco.
 

Halprin’s work exhibits an attention to human scale, user experience, and social impact. Capitol Towers came during a transitional period from private residential and shopping mall projects to larger campus and urban plaza commissions for which he is best known. As Halprin recalled:

I was now working closely with some world-class architects and…getting a great deal of experience. I designed my first urban plaza at the center of the Sacramento project [Capitol Towers], and brought in the sculptor Jacques Overhoff to work on an enclosing cast concrete wall. I was developing street details for these larger commissions and I was learning about graphics from the great graphic designer Saul Bass.4

The project’s collaborative design process resulted in integrated buildings and landscape. The garden buildings with their shared lawns front city streets and the main walkways as if along a street. They also enclose intimate courtyards in less trafficked areas. Landscaped courts with grids of trees or low plantings are found at each parking court marking the transition into the site’s pedestrian interior.

Capitol Towers’ central plaza with its low circular foundation and grid of trees anchored by Jacques Overhoff’s sculptural wall. Source: Page & Turnbull, 2014.
Detail of Jacques Overhoff sculptural wall. Source: Page & Turnbull, 2014.

Capitol Towers shows Halprin exploring early iterations of themes that would later become his design signatures. With a grid of London plane trees and a low circular fountain, the central plaza is a quiet gathering place enlivened by Overhoff’s robust sculptural wall. In his 1963 book Cities, Halprin uses Capital Towers to illustrate his views on minor plazas:

At the confluence of streets there are often small spaces which should be developed as handsome and colorful incidents in the heart of the city. A small plaza can contain, in a relatively casual way, sculpture, fountain, art exhibits, cafes, and benches which are human in scale, intimate, and usable. A local plaza gives a sense of place and becomes a focus for its neighborhood. It can be a rallying place for neighborhood activities and establish a quality and character for its inhabitants.5

Capitol Towers appears frequently throughout Cities as Halprin examines the elements of successful urban spaces. He includes a detailed notational system of walking through Capitol Towers to demonstrate his study of “the kinesthetic experience.”6 Halprin later expanded the notation system as part of his RSVP Cycle and his constant fascination with movement through space.

Capitol Towers was recognized early on with awards from Progressive Architecture, the Northern California Chapter of the AIA, and the Governor’s Design Awards Program.7 Some changes have occurred over the last 50 years, including the loss of Halprin-designed light standards and a kiosk. Overall, Capitol Tower’s primary spatial relationships, residential buildings, and key landscape features remain intact.

Under Threat

As with other garden apartment complexes, the low scale and open spaces that make Capitol Towers such a unique, livable place also make it vulnerable to calls for higher density. In an increasing trend, mid-century urban renewal projects like Capitol Towers are now accused of being old, outdated, and obsolete – today’s version of “blighted”-- like those places they replaced. A new round of urban redevelopment based on equally optimistic planning theories threatens even the best examples from this period. The Sacramento City Council is scheduled to vote in July 2015 on a new, higher density project that would demolish all of Capitol Towers’ garden buildings and much of its landscape. The original tower, axial walkways, and the central plaza would become unrecognizable as mid- and high-rise apartment buildings with little relationship to the landscape surround them.

Aerial view of Capitol Towers with the high-rise tower toward the center near the central plaza and swimming pool. The garden apartment buildings fan across the site. The other two towers on the superblock are in the locations originally planned for towers but were built later by different developers and are not part of Capitol Towers. Source: Google Maps, 2014, edited by Page & Turnbull.
Quieter courtyard off the main walkways. Source: Page & Turnbull, 2014.

 

 

Believing it an important part of the city’s history, Sacramento Modern nominated Capitol Towers to the National Register of Historic Places with support from residents, preservationists, and the City of Sacramento Preservation Commission. The California State Historic Resources Commission voted in favor of the nomination over owner objections and Capitol Towers was formally determined eligible for the National Register in 2014. The proposed project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report released in March 2015 recognized Capitol Towers as a historic resource but it did not include feasible preservation alternatives that would retain its historic status. Sacramento Modern’s website has more information about Capitol Towers and a link to Preservation Sacramento with an easy way to urge the Sacramento City Council to find an alternative to demolition that saves the historic character of Capitol Towers.
 

Flora Chou is a cultural resources planner at Page & Turnbull’s Los Angeles office. Prior to joining Page & Turnbull, she was a preservation advocate for the Los Angeles Conservancy, helping to implement the organization’s advocacy efforts to protect historic resources. Flora holds a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University and is a LEED-accredited professional. Since 2012, she has served on the national board of Docomomo US, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for the buildings and sites of the modern movement.
 
The original version of this article was published in the winter 2015 issue of Eden, the journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society.
 

Endnotes

1. James H. Scheuer, “Letters to the Times: To Beautify Housing,” New York Times, July 8, 1958. For more on the delayed urban redevelopment in California and in Sacramento, see Daniel S. Maroon, “Redevelopment in the Golden State: A Study in Plenary Power under the California Constitution,” Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, Vol. 40:2, Winter 2013, 453-474 and Richard Trainor, Floor, Fire and Blight: A History of Redevelopment in Sacramento, (Sacramento: Sacramento Housing & Redevelopment Agency, 1991).

2. Scheuer, “Letters to the Times.”

3. Two additional towers at the superblock’s corners are located where towers were planned, but they were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s by different developers and design teams, and are not part of Capitol Towers.

4. Lawrence Halprin, A Life Spent Changing Places (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 108.

5. Lawrence Halprin, Cities, Revised edition, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972), 27.

6. Halprin, Cities, 212-213.

7. Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons, Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons, Inc., Architects (San Francisco, CA: Wuster, Bernardi and Emmons, Inc., 1967), 30.