Discovering Downtown Sacramento: Yesterday, today, and to come

When I heard that a few new restaurants and bars had opened on K Street, just a few blocks from the Sacramento Hostel, I immediately added them to my list of Sacramento spots to check out.

In part, I admit, the rumors about Dive Bar's giant aquarium tank and live mermaids were intriguing. But more than that, I knew that K Street has always been at the core of Sacramento's history and development -- and that in bringing new shops and venues to this historic corridor, the city is hoping to bring new life to California's capital.

When Sacramento's founder, John Sutter, first landed at the intersection of the American and Sacramento Rivers in 1839, he set out to build a fort on high ground a short distance inland. Clearing lumber from the area around what is now Front and K streets and transporting it along present-day K Street, he paved the way for the eventual development of downtown Sacramento along this route.

When the 49ers arrived seeking gold and fortune, K and J streets gave the easiest access from the river to the gold mines. And so, in turn, those streets became crowded with merchants, doctors, manufacturers, and others seeking to "mine the miners" -- in fact in most cases it was those business owners, rather than gold seekers, who found fortune in Sacramento.

In its heyday at the turn of the century, K Street was THE place for shopping and entertainment in the region, filled with department stores, theaters, vaudeville houses, hotels, and more, all served by the 1890 addition of electric trolleys.

Today, the city of Sacramento is trying to bring that "destination" feel back to K Street. With mermaids, yes -- and with the promise of more development to start later this year.

With all this in mind, I set out one drizzly spring Friday on my own journey from Old Sacramento to Sutter's Fort State Historic Park to imagine what K Street was once like, how it's evolved, and what it hopes to become.

The Ghosts of K Street's Past

Armed with an umbrella, I leave the Sacramento Hostel with three "destinations" in mind. First, a visit to the Sacramento History Museum in Old Sacramento; second, a Downtown Partnership walking tour titled "Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow: K Street commerce, growth and redevelopment," and lastly, a visit to Sutter's Fort State Historic Park.

Sacramento History Museum
Open daily, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

$5 admission / $4 for kids age 6-17

This small museum has permanent exhibits on Sacramento's pioneer and Gold Rush beginnings, the city's diverse communities from early Native Americans to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and the region's agricultural history.

I try to pay close attention to the "Beginnings of Sacramento City" exhibit documenting floods, fires, and the city's early merchants (exactly those people populating K Street), but I find myself more drawn to the Sacramento Bee printing press display set up near the gift shop. Old Jim Harrison, a volunteer docent, is at the press -- hands covered in ink -- talking with students and making "Wanted" posters for anyone willing to donate $1.

I'm not usually one for this kind of souvenir, but I pull out a buck, request a train robber-style poster labeling my good friend Brendon as "The Locomotive Kid," and watch Jim carefully lay out the letter blocks and pull the lever to press the print. Cheesy? Yes. Awesome? Absolutely. (And for $1, worth the grin I expect from Brendon later!)

Downtown Partnership Walking Tour
Various tours offered Sunday - Friday, times vary by tour
$10, reserve by calling (916) 442-8575

Because of the rainy day, I had called ahead to make sure the K Street historical tour was still running today -- and I'm glad I did, because Shawn, my guide, says he wouldn't have shown up otherwise! (Hint, hint...)

I'm the only one on the tour today as we set out along K Street. Shawn clearly knows far more about Sacramento's history than I could EVER recap in a story like this, so in all honesty, just take the tour!

We go from the Westfield Downtown Plaza (a modern shopping mall constructed to resemble Sacramento's early architecture) to a glimpse of Sacramento's underground (1850s-60s flooding led the city to raise its streets, leaving a network of sidewalks, speakeasies, shops, and more below ground) to 12th Street, where the old Esquire Theater's facade (if not interior) has been restored to its original Art Deco glory.

Highlights for me include a quick trip into Merchants National Bank, the oldest bank in the city still operating under its original name (they printed their own currency until the FDIC was created, and you can see examples inside) and the Travelers Hotel (now executive suites), which was once a secret meeting place for Ku Klux Klan members, as exposed by enterprising Sacramento Bee reporters way back when.

The tour was scheduled to last one hour, but my rainy-day private tour lasts nearly two!

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
Open daily, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
$6 admission / $4 kids age 6-17

Any day of the week, you can visit Sutter's Fort (about 1.5 miles from the intersection of 10th and K, at the center of the K Street downtown area) and check out the restored and reconstructed buildings, complete with period-appropriate details and furniture. Some days (not clearly marked on their website, call for details), you get the added perk of having volunteer docents on hand -- in period costumes, no less -- to demonstrate and explain what life was once like at Sutter's Fort.

While I'm here, docents are demonstrating daily life for women at the fort. Offering myself up as an interested bystander-turned-exhibit, I allow several women to dress me up in traditional women's clothing as they explain to other visitors what each article was for -- starting with the under-dress and corset and ending with a pinafore, bonnet, and tie-on pocket!

K Street Today

These days, a light rail train ($2.50 fare) runs as far east as 12th Street, connecting this pedestrian-only stretch of K Street with the rest of Sacramento. The street is spotted with restaurants and bars between about 5th and 12th streets -- "downtown" ends abruptly at 12th, where the Sacramento Convention Center takes up two whole blocks, blocking through-traffic on K. The area between 10th and 12th is definitely the most happening section -- probably in part because it's closest to the Capitol, just a block south, and all the people working there.

In my pocket as I walk along K Street, I have two self-guided walking tour maps provided by Sacramento Heritage -- it's fun comparing the old buildings discussed on the maps with the current businesses on the street. The "J and K Street Commercial Corridor" and "K Street Historic Sites" maps would also have been a (modest) substitute for my tour with Shawn.

11th at K
This is K's most memorable corner for me, because, as tour guide Shawn pointed out, all four corner buildings are original. Most noticeable is the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (built in 1887) which features many recently restored details, from the dome and ceiling frescoes to the stained glass.

Across K Street is the original Pacific Gas and Electric headquarters (built in 1912), now county offices. Across 11th Street from the cathedral, the former Ransohoff's Store (1910) is now the Pyramid Alehouse. And kitty-corner from the cathedral, find the Ambrosia Cafe on the ground floor of the former Spanish-style El Cortez Apartments (1914).

10th at K
At 10th and K, where the most recent development has taken place, is the Cosmopolitan complex (2008), which includes the Cosmo Cafe (lunch, dinner, and cocktails), the Cosmopolitan Cabaret (musical theater), Social Nightclub (club and lounge), and upstairs offices -- all in a building that once housed a Woolworths department store (1956-1997), and before that the Hotel Sacramento.

Across the street from the Cosmopolitan is the Crest Theater -- from former vaudeville house to current movie theater, music venue, and more, this is one of the last remaining old theaters in Sacramento (the Esquire Imax Theater, mentioned above, is another). Among other bands, Nirvana once played here -- Kurt Cobain's footprints, accidentally preserved in green paint, are apparently still in the basement. Today, see indie and foreign films in the huge, beautiful upstairs theater (complete with restored original details and, unlike many old movie houses, kept as a single theater seating almost 1,000 people) or two smaller, newer theaters below.

Also in this block -- yes, I knew you were waiting for this -- is Dive Bar, along with new restaurant Pizza Rock and new nightclub District 30 (all part of the same development, these three spots opened in January).

To "get a feel for the future of Sacramento," I flash my ID at Dive Bar around 9:30 p.m. and head inside. While other bars on the street are just getting going for the night, Dive Bar is already packed. And there's no need to guess why: true to everything I'd heard, above the bar is a gigantic aquarium tank (no fish, sadly) -- and there's a live mermaid inside. Actually, when I arrive she's not there yet -- she finally jumps in around 11 p.m. and swims back and forth in a bikini top and mermaid-tail bottom, waving and smiling at gawking bar-goers.

Beyond the bar's novelty, the drinks are decent (or at least the lemon drop and mojito are -- that's all I can vouch for), and according to their website, they have drink specials many nights (Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays).

Though I don't go inside (I'm at my drink limit by the time I leave Dive Bar...), the Social Nightclub next door still has a line at midnight and the music is bumpin' -- great news for Sacramento as it looks to revive historic K Street.

Midtown K
A little farther out, along Midtown K Street (which you'll go through if you walk to Sutter's Fort), there's a cool pocket of bars, restaurants, shops, and galleries at K and 21st Street (Headhunters Video Lounge, Lucky Cafe, Lumens Light + Living, and more), and a few more at 24th Street (Golden Bear, Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe).

At 15th and K, find Capitol Garage, a restaurant/bar/nightclub -- and my Friday night dinner stop. Crowded with groups of 20- and 30-somethings, the place has a chill, friendly vibe. My first beer comes in a mason jar (the 2nd, to my dismay after discovering the joy of mason-jar beer, comes in a regular pint glass), and my grilled cheese sandwich with goat cheese, basil, and tomato added on is arguably the best grilled cheese I've ever had. Goat cheese gets me every time!

K Street To Come

Using two different developers, including one known for integrating original aspects of Sacramento's historic buildings into their new designs and uses, Sacramento has all kinds of plans for mixed-use development along K Street, hoping to revitalize what was once -- and is starting to become again -- a bustling downtown core.

Development along the 700 block of K Street is expected to start later this year, and the 800 block project will follow. Both will feature retail space on the first floor with apartments and affordable to middle-income housing upstairs.

Plan Your Trip

Hoping to explore historical Sacramento on your own? The Sacramento Hostel -- a restored Gold Rush-era mansion just 4 blocks from the State Capitol -- is a great place to start. Hang out in the common rooms with original woodwork and restored painted ceilings, sleep in a dorm room with an original fireplace with beautiful tile work, and climb the original main or servants' staircases (complete with original mahogany railings).

Reserve a room online or by calling (916) 443-1691.

More Resources

Sacramento Heritage Walking Maps - Two are relevant to K Street, but there are a few others that history buffs may find interesting.
The Sacramento Room - Sacramento's main public library features "The Sacramento Room," with photo archives and historical information. They've also compiled an online archive of historical photos as well, if a visit to the library isn't on your itinerary.
The Center for Sacramento History - A department of the City of Sacramento, they sponsor historical exhibits and events in Sacramento.
Sacramento County Historical Society - Perhaps more interesting for their members, their site may nonetheless be useful for those digging into the region's history.
Nick on the Town - For those more interested in Sacramento now and in the future, check out Nick's blog for reviews of the hot spots on K Street and elsewhere -- I suspect he'll be among the first to review whatever goes into the new K Street developments. (See his take on District 30, Pizza Rock, and Dive Bar here.)

Thank you to Sacramento Heritage, the Sacramento History Museum, and Shawn Peter at the Downtown Partnership for the valuable historical information I used in writing this story.

This story was written by Sarah Trent, the marketing and communications coordinator for HI’s Northern California hostels. When Sarah isn't getting paid to gaze at mermaids, she likes sipping sauvignon blanc while fixing up her new/old house in Oakland.

More Photos

Check out some of the photos Sarah took along K Street on our Flickr stream.

If You Go 

Stay at the historic Sacramento Hostel, a restored Gold Rush-era mansion just a few blocks from K Street and the State Capitol.