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New Helvetia Historic District


Split Level Unit in the New Helvetia Historic District, Sacramento, CA, National Register

Photo: Split Level Unit in the New Helvetia Historic District, Sacramento, CA. The Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Photograph by Don Cox, 2012, for nomination document, New Helvetia Historic District, Sacramento County, CA NR# 14000109, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, accessed November, 2014.

The New Helvetia Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.

The New Helvetia Historic District is located within the Alder Grove housing complex located between Broadway, Muir Way, Kit Carson Street, and Kemble Street in Sacramento. Buildings are wood framed with gabled roofs, clipped eaves, brick cladding, clinker brick, and metal framed windows. The simplicity and lack of exterior ornamentation illustrate the influence of the Modern Movement that focused on the functional aspects of architecture, and reflect wartime economic constraints as well. The buildings are set in a 26 acre rectilinear pattern of organized blocks, asphalt paved streets, concrete sidewalks, with pathways separated by lawn and containing trees, bushes and shrubs within a defined landscape accessible from major city streets. The one and two story buildings are narrow and long, have brick veneer surfaces, side-gabled roofs with composition shingles and clipped eaves, shallow roof overhangs on the side-gabled elevations, small entry canopies above doorways—some with shed-roofs and some flat and metal-framed windows, both sliding and double hung. There is ample open space within the block layout and parking lots surrounded by lawn. Plantings and open yards without fences are dominant and provide little privacy. A very few units use plantings in their backyards to create small partially private outdoor areas. The buildings' brick veneer recalls elements of Georgian and Tudor Revival designs, while open space and green landscaping contribute a garden-like character to the complex.

The apartment buildings constructed within the twenty six acre site are divided into five different unit plans with a total of three hundred and ten apartments. Plans include building Types A to E.

  • Type A: Fourteen type A buildings: one and two story sections with eight apartment units each. The two story central section contains four two story apartments with two bedrooms each. Two attached one story sections flank the central two story section and each contains two one bedroom apartments. The two story central sections are slightly offset from the flanking one story portion walls.
  • Type B: Fourteen type B buildings: two story with eight two story apartments, with two or three bedrooms each.
  • Type C: Twenty four type C buildings: one story with two two-bedroom apartment each.
  • Type D: Four type D buildings: one story with two four-bedroom apartments each.
  • Type E: Five type E buildings: one story with six one-bedroom apartments each.

The planning pattern of the buildings' placement somewhat reflects settlement patterns that date back to the rectilinear organization of even early Roman military camps and forts, and military barracks as noted by Hans Scharoun who designed the Ring Estate at Siemensstadt in Germany in the early twentieth century, an example of similar design patterns. The Bauhaus and architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe developed multiple housing patterns in the 1920s and 1930s, arranging long two to five story buildings on blocks in parallel order, that became popular in multiple housing units in Europe as the Zeilenbau pattern or system. The system often housed residents in multi-story buildings arranged in rectilinear patterns. In addition to the growing functional architecture movement which discouraged unnecessary ornamentation, the United States Housing Authority (USHA) economized materials and design over the exploration of new design alternatives.

New Helvetia represents an important local attempt to improve the housing conditions of African Americans. It is associated with the career of Nathaniel Colley, the first African American attorney in Sacramento, who had a significant role in the effort to implement fair housing practices. The buildings were designed by a coalition of Sacramento's Master architects—Charles Dean, Leonard Starks, Ed Flanders, and Harry Devine, Sr.—working together as a Board of Architects. It is the only project on which they collaborated. Construction was completed in 1942.

The historic district represents an early interaction between the federal government and local community to eliminate slums and to improve housing available to the urban poor. Initially intended to assist low income citizens, it became an important effort by the federal government and local community to provide low cost family housing for workers involved in vital defense industries during World War II. The project provided 310 units for low income housing in Sacramento. It was converted to defense housing during World War II, assisting important wartime housing needs at a critical time.

The political catalyst that sparked the national public housing movement and the creation of local housing authorities was the passage of the United States Housing Act of 1937. The Act established a permanent low-rent public housing program between the federal government and local communities. The Housing Act created a partnership between the U.S. government and local communities: "To promote the general welfare of the Nation by employing its funds and credit ... to remedy the non-safe and unsanitary housing conditions and the acute shortage of decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of low income, in urban and rural non-farm areas."

To address the problem of sub-standard housing in Sacramento neighborhoods, activists in the city formed the Sacramento Citizens Committee on Slum Clearance and Low Cost Housing. In February of 1939 they petitioned the City Council to establish a local housing authority. Support for this action was broad based and included: the Downtown Improvement Association; Sacramento Tuberculosis Association, the Local 107 Journeymen Tailors' Union of America, the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, the Salvation Army, and the Workers Alliance. Public pressure encouraged the Council to authorize the establishment of the Sacramento City Housing Authority on July 7, 1939. Support for this action was broad based within the community. The Citizens Committee also sponsored a movement to create a County Housing Authority due to the vital needs of slum clearance in districts outside the city. By June 1940, the County had established its own housing authority.

The New Helvetia site plan submitted to USHA for approval featured elements common to other federally-sponsored public housing projects throughout the country between 1933 and 1949. These housing projects were designed as a grouping of multi-family, low-scale residential buildings arranged in a pattern according to circulation needs within large open spaces. Some planning patterns reflected versions of European housing solutions of the times. Modern amenities such as parking areas, service driveways, and individual concrete walkways to apartment units were included. As noted in The Sacramento Bee, "Other features such as the placement of on-site community centers, management offices, playgrounds, and other recreational areas within the housing complex were characteristics common to other USHA developments."

In August 1939, the agency submitted an application to the USHA for a $1.5 million loan to finance the development of the project. In January 1940, $1,125 million was approved. Under terms of the housing act, the City was responsible for raising 10% of the project costs. A Board of Architects was created for the project and its members consisted of a highly regarded group of local architecture firms including: Dean & Dean, Harry Devine, and Starks & Flanders. On May 17, 1940 their preliminary plans for the New Helvetia project were sent to Washington, D.C for review and approval.

The site selected for the development was a vacant tract owned by the Southern Pacific Company located south of Broadway and west of Ninth Street (now Muir Way). Rather than slum clearance, which was one of the stated goals in the federal legislation, the local Housing Authority chose a vacant site, stating, "It is more economical to build on a vacant site because of the cost of land acquisition and cost of relocation of tenants before construction can begin."

The lowest bid for construction was submitted by the Walter Campbell Construction Co. of Sacramento. Local management was directed by Thomas Scallan, originally the secretary and executive director of both the City and County Housing Authorities. Upon his death, he was replaced by Bartley Cavanaugh on May 7, 1941. At that time, local newspapers reported that work to clear and level the New Helvetia site was underway. A rent schedule for the project was published in The Sacramento Bee September 8, 1941. In that article it was noted that the project was experiencing some difficulty in obtaining materials, due to the pre-war build-up. A November 3, 1941 article in The Bee indicated that New Helvetia was 40% complete and that the first families would begin moving into already completed units in February.

Before its completion New Helvetia was converted from low income housing to defense housing. Part of the reasoning for the conversion was a concern for local real estate markets after the war. If private housing was built to meet defense needs, many of these units would become vacant after the war and local real estate value would plummet. Converting units such as New Helvetia to defense housing would provide timely needed housing and after the war they could be converted back to low income housing. Sacramento was a center for military-industrial activity with McClellan and Mather airfields, and the Army Depot. The 310 apartments at New Helvetia were among approximately 65,000 units nationwide converted from low income to defense housing. The project was completed in August 1942 and dedicated in November.

Nathaniel Colley, the first African American attorney in private practice in Sacramento, was instrumental in both local and national efforts to implement fair housing practices and end segregation in public housing, a career that began with his involvement with New Helvetia. Colley instituted the first formal legal effort to end racial segregation in Sacramento, beginning with the Sacramento Housing Authority's New Helvetia defense/public housing.

New Helvetia is the most pertinent remaining location associated with Colley's initial segregation work in public housing in Sacramento beginning in 1951. The two legal offices he successively occupied during this period have been demolished due to downtown redevelopment efforts. In 1951, Colley's law office was located at 421-1/2 L Street, according to the City of Sacramento's 1951 Phone Book (there is no 1951 City Directory). The 1952 City Directory lists Colley's law office at the same location. 421-1/2 L Street is now a parking lot for the 455 Capitol Mall office building. The 1953-1956 City Directories list Colley's office at 621 P Street, currently the location of the Capitol Towers apartment complex.

Nathaniel Sextus Colley gained local, regional, and national recognition as one of the leaders in the struggle to end segregation in public housing for African Americans. Expanding on his success and experience in Sacramento, Colley took the segregation fight to other California and western cities that operated public housing, working with branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in California and other western states. After fighting segregation in public housing, Colley used this experience to fight racial discrimination against African Americans who tried to purchase private residences in Sacramento and eventually nationwide. He became a recognized national leader in the effort to end racial segregation and discrimination and was a highly regarded attorney who fought for equality for African Americans.

New Helvetia Historic District represents the unusual collaboration of four of Sacramento's most notable Master architects on a design that provided a transition between architectural images from the past and an interface with modern more functional design concepts of the future. These four architects designed a predominant number of Sacramento buildings and contributed substantially to the style and image of the city's built environment. Working as a Board of Architects, the committee developed the planning concepts and design of the New Helvetia public housing project that, in turn, affected the design of other architectural works in the city. The design is also significant as it bridged the substantial changes in architectural thought and design from the first portion of the twentieth century to the more modern era.

Charles Dean of Dean and Dean, Leonard Starks and Ed Flanders of Starks and Flanders, and Harry Devine Sr. were each masters of their profession, with design followers of their own. They were among the prime architects in Sacramento at the time. Combining their professional design efforts on this project was quite unusual, and was the only such project on which they collaborated. Research has not indicated that a specific architect was formally designated as the principal designer. Extant drawings for the buildings and landscape plan bear the name plate of Charles Dean. A brief overview of their individual accomplishments provides some insight into their design philosophies and accomplishments as Master architects.

The New Helvetia complex was constructed by Campbell Construction Company of Sacramento, a well-respected longtime construction firm in Sacramento and northern California.

The New Helvetia site plan that the Sacramento architectural consortium submitted for USHA approval featured elements common to other federally-sponsored public housing projects constructed throughout the country between 1933 and 1949. As a building type, the housing developments were designed as a grouping of multi-family, low-scale residential buildings organized on a site around large open spaces. Some of the design features reflected the influence of the late nineteenth-century English Garden City movement, including the use of open spaces delineated by winding streets and large buildings blocks closed to vehicular traffic. Other design elements were rooted in the rational, functional, twentieth-century aesthetics of the European Modernists, such as the German Zeilenbau strategy of arranging buildings in parallel rows to maximize solar exposure and ventilation.

The architects also included modern amenities such as automobile parking areas, service driveways, and individual concrete walkways to each residential unit. Other features such as the placement of an on-site community center management office, a playground, and other recreational areas within the housing complex were characteristics common to other USHA developments. Some architectural elements, such as the brick-veneer wall cladding and gable roofs, are more commonly associated with the earlier housing projects, while other features such as the steel-frame casement windows are consistent with the use of International-style design elements that were used on some public housing developments between the early 1930s and the late 1940s. Simple forms and a lack of ornamentation became defining features of public housing complexes of this period, and were well suited to the USHA's legislative and administrative cost restrictions. The completed design was a melded product of European design theories, local preferences, and federal programmatic guidance.

Sacramento has a perceived history of "traditionalism" in its tastes and did not wholeheartedly embrace the age of Moderne or Art Deco design themes of the 1920s and 1930s. The comfortable traditional revival houses and multiple versions of Ranch house design were the principal public choices for residential architecture during that era and into the 1950s. While public buildings employed some modern design, Streamline Moderne and the International style were largely bypassed by the Sacramento community in favor of more traditional modes.

The somewhat plain, barracks-like image of the housing complex differed from the more complex Period Revival or modest 1920s and 1930s bungalow forms lining Sacramento streets. However, the lack of ornament and the clipped functional design of the housing complex buildings were acceptable due to the traditional forms and materials employed, and helped introduce the concept of functionality in architecture to the Sacramento community. The simple forms of New Helvetia buildings anticipated the "form follows function" architectural philosophies that were emerging in Europe. "Objectivity," the lack of extraneous decoration, was seen as a goal of the new design movement and reflected the rise of modernism. The New Helvetia Historic District reflects an important transitional phase in architectural design in Sacramento.

Although extant drawings for the project display a Charles Dean name plate, it is not known at this time the extent of individual design involvement of each architect in the New Helvetia project. A review of their varied projects appears to indicate the architects chosen would have been among the more forward thinking designers of that time, and the New Helvetia Historic District complex an important architectural statement of the era in Sacramento.

† Paula Boghosian, MS, Historic Environment Consultants, New Helvetia Historic District, Sacramento County, CA, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

New Helvetia Historic District Map

Street Names
Kemble Street • Kit Carson Street • Marsh Street • Muir Way • Revere Street • Ringgold Street • Warner Street

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