Powerhouse, Full Steam Ahead Once Again
January 19, 2020
This article was originally published on December 19, 2018 and has been updated to reflect the building’s name change.
A drive up Interstate 5 North through Sacramento will give a glimpse of work happening along the river at the old historic power station, River Station B. The long-vacant site has been silent for decades, but it’s finally getting a second life. This is the story behind the Museum of Science and Curiosity, previously known as Powerhouse Science Center, and how it got to where we are today – finally under construction! River Station B is on the National Register of Historic Places, California Register of Historical Resources and the Sacramento Register of Historic & Cultural Resources.
Well-known San Francisco architect, Willis Polk (who also designed the D.O. Mills Bank Building in Sacramento), designed River Station B for Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which began operation in 1912 with a 500kW output. Taking water from the adjacent Sacramento River, the steam plant generated power for Sacramento County and parts of Yolo, Sutter and Yuba Counties.
The building’s Beaux-Arts-style architecture was typical of the era and became part of the City Beautiful movement, of which Polk was a devotee and Sacramento was moving toward.
Although it had been up and running as an auxiliary power source for twelve years, interruptions in service led PG&E to add a fourth turbine generator in 1924, and another 1,200kW in 1925, making River Station B the largest electrical steam station in Northern California.
By the 1940’s, PG&E was only using the facility for test purposes; and it became an unofficial tent city during The Great Depression.
The steam generation plant closed in 1950 and was sold in 1957 to Associated Metals Company (AMC) of Sacramento. The five-and-a-half-acre site at 400 Jibboom Street was next door to the scrap metal company’s property.
AMC dismantled the boilers and generating equipment inside with the help of PG&E, and then removed the four large iconic smoke stacks for salvage material. Additionally, while most of the steel for the gantry crane was removed, some remnants of the beams were left behind. (In deference to the previous use, these steel remnants were kept intact and painted gray to showcase the former gantry location, and are now visible inside the completed building.)
AMC had planned to use the landmark building only temporarily as warehouses, as they were mainly interested in redevelopment of the property. No renovation work was completed before they sold the property to the State of California for $400k in 1960. It was listed near the top of California’s most hazardous waste sites in need of clean-up.
State-Owned Studies in Patience
CalTrans (Division of Highways) planned to use the land for a freeway overpass for then-under-construction Interstate 5. That overpass eventually happened, just not there.
Then in 1972, the state Department of Parks and Recreation wanted to put a second Railroad Museum there, complete with rail technology and working train restoration exhibits. Since this was even before the first Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento was built, it also never materialized.
(Side note: We completed plans to put this same Railroad Technology Museum at two other possible sites in Sacramento, near River Station B – at The Docks and in The Railyards.)
Once the State of California owned River Station B, they could not sell the property if any state agencies wanted it. In 1974, the property was handed over to the Department of General Services to do something with, but nothing happened.
In the mid-1980’s, a group of car buffs approached Department of Parks & Recreation about donating the abandoned building to turn it into a museum of vintage automobiles. The backers obtained written commitments from 100 car owners and a tentative commitment from CalTrans to display its collection of historical equipment and scale models of highways (…exciting, I know!) but they couldn’t make it work there.
By the late-80’s, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) began looking at the possibility of turning the site into a headquarters complex. DWR wanted to add a control center and emergency flood response operations in a second new building, with the National Weather Service and federal Central Valley Water Project as roommates.
In 1994 we completed the design for DWR’s new 5-story, 143,000 SF headquarters building adjacent to River Station B, with the intention to have historic River Station B serve as a Visitor Center and a museum to California water history. The project was nicknamed a “Water Palace” in the Sacramento Bee based on the rendering (below).
Construction documents were already completed, and the palatial project moved forward until 1996, when the State realized something was wrong, They ordered a reexamining of the plans because they wanted to include more space for other agencies. Hazardous materials clean-up and high costs aside, the State finally came to the big conclusion as to why the Water Palace would not work there: it just wasn’t a good idea to locate an emergency flood control center with communications networks for the entire state in the middle of a flood plain, next to a levee. If the levee ever failed, the landmark building and mission critical operations would be swept away, so the project was (once again) abandoned.
In 2000, after 40 years of ownership and nothing to show for it, the State finally completed the hazardous materials mitigation, deeded the site to the City of Sacramento, and the plan of putting something inside the crumbling power station went out for ideas.
City-Wide Ideas Competition
Determined to reuse the building for the public, in 2002, the City solicited proposals from developers to suggest uses for the property. At the same time, the Discovery Museum in Sacramento was shopping for more space and newer facilities for their science-based educational organization. Already intimately familiar with the River Station B site, we teamed with developer Johan Otto and Otto Construction to develop the Discovery Museum Project (the precursor name to Powerhouse Science Center), and our proposal was selected.
By 2004 Robert T. Matsui Waterfront Park and the new Sacramento River Water Intake Structure had been added, but still nothing visible was happening with River Station B, beyond decay.
In 2007, we created the first conceptual design for what was to be called the Powerhouse Science Center. Not technically a museum, the historic building and new addition with planetarium would be a premier center for science education.
Over the next few years several different surveys on the property commenced, but funding was still lacking to ultimately move forward with construction.
In 2011, the Powerhouse Science Center project won a large grant so we were asked to redesign the building again – this time with a green roof, parking structure and conference center.
However, time continued to pass and the grant wasn’t solely enough to move the project forward, so we were asked to redesign it again. After multiple tax credits, grants and donations supporting the project, in 2014, the Sacramento City Council voted to approve the extra funds for the project.
This third iteration for the Powerhouse Science Center is the happy medium that is finally moving River Station B full steam ahead again! We cannot be more excited for what is about to open in late 2021!