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Historic hotels rise again

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One can’t help but wonder what brothers Charles and Francis Ebner would think, seeing their two hotels rising from the dust more than 150 years after they were first built.

Construction to rebuild the historic, three-story Ebner Hotel/Empire House is less than two months away from being finished.

It’s no surprise, then, when Sacramento residents gawk at what appear to be two new Gold Rush-era buildings nearing completion in the heart of Old Sacramento.

"People ignore it until it’s all the way up. Then they’re like — where’d this come from?" said Debora Fee, who’s overseeing construction as project manager for Otto Construction.

The Ebner Hotel and Empire House were built on K Street, between Front and Second streets, in the 1850s. The Empire House didn’t become a hotel until 1870. Before that, the building housed a butcher shop and market, said Marcia Eymann, history manager for the city and county of Sacramento.

The Ebner Hotel was torn down in 2003 after being deemed unsafe by the city. The Empire House came down years earlier.

Only the exteriors are being rebuilt. The modern interiors will hold ground-floor retail and upper-floor office space, rather than hotel lobbies and guest rooms. The number will depend on the tenants’ needs, who will finish the interiors.

The exterior is being constructed to resemble the original buildings as closely as possible — so closely, many people may not realize that what appears to be two separate buildings is, in fact, only one. The Empire House side has a red brick veneer exterior with rectangular windows. The Ebner Hotel side will have a tan plaster exterior, arched windows, a 16-foot cupola, and decorative elements including plaster George Washington faces.

Otto Construction and its subcontractors had to make some adjustments to build the replica in the national landmark historic district, open to tourists daily. The site had special requirements because it was located between an alley and an existing building. Neither the alley nor busy K Street in front could be blocked.

Many new construction sites have an adjacent outside storage space that is five to 10 times the size of the building. Construction materials are usually stored on-site next to the building that’s underway or in a parking lot, said Brian Terra, project superintendent.

The Ebner/Empire project had only five parking spaces in front, he said.

One of the most important differences was that limited construction space forced much of the scaffolding to be erected inside what would become the interior. Inside scaffolding provided more space for people to work during the initial block wall construction and also reduced the amount of time the public and neighboring businesses had to look at scaffolding. Construction workers had to work from the inside out to build the steel framing and masonry block for all four walls.

Scaffolding was set up outside so stucco and brick veneer finishes could be added.

"We’re trying to be as invisible as we can," Terra added. "It was so tight, the mason brought in what he needed every day."

They also faced challenges getting forklifts and other machinery in and out of the building and coordinating the materials, such as 4- to 33-foot trusses, that workers needed each day.

Excavators uncovered extra bond beams where the old foundation had been, which remained either from an original building or an attempt to save the buildings. Their removal added six weeks’ more work to building the foundation.

Construction workers are nearly done building what’s known as a warm shell. The ground floor is fronted by 8-foot and 12-foot doors. The building will be 65 feet 4 inches high, with a 16-foot cupola and spire reaching to 80 feet 4 inches. The cupola is true to the original. But neither it nor balconies will be useable.

They are also installing heat and air conditioning and restrooms. They must add an elevator to the interior, install doors to open outward and make other adjustments so the building is ADA-compliant, Fee said.

The start of the construction was delayed substantially. The effort began more than nine years ago. Investors spent the last two years unsuccessfully seeking financial backing from banks, said one of the developers, Steve Ayers, chief executive officer of Armour Steel Co.

The city contributed $3.3 million in local funds to the project. Investors — Ayers, Dave Scurfield of Scurfield Co., Ray Enos of Downtown Ford, Ben Mortel and Johan Otto of Otto Construction — put in $2.8 million without prospective tenants.

The structure is expected to be finished by the last week in June or the first week in July, Fee said.

"Someone else would have put up another building," she said. "The Ebner/Empire LLC has stuck with it all the way and really fought for it. It’s exciting to have a new historic building."


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