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Underground dance floor a window to city’s history

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While the house at 516 22nd St. is impressive from the outside, its star feature is buried out of sight in the 1,200-square-foot basement – a fully sprung dance floor dating back to the house’s construction in 1914.

“When we bought the house 20 years ago, it was covered in carpet,” said owner Jim Betzing, adding that he pulled up a large section of carpet to reveal the maple floor, buffed it and finished it for preservation.

According to local historian William Burg, the house was designed by Seadler and Hoen Architects and built for Edward Dalton, director of the California Western States Life Insurance Company, which built the office building that is now the Citizen Hotel at 10th and J streets.

Betzing said the initial cost of the house was a hefty $25,000, and Dalton was one of the wealthiest men in the area at the time with an estimated worth of approximately $200,000.

“A sprung dance floor in your house meant you had some money,” Burg said. “Having enough space to have that and entertain meant you were someone notable.”

Betzing said the basement has been used for a number of different purposes in the past 98 years.

“It was an alcoholic rehabilitation center, a community meeting place, a dance floor, of course, and a polling place,” Betzing said. “They even used to have antique fairs down here.”

The Boulevard Park Neighborhood Association meetings were formerly held in the area, but access to the basement is limited, and even when ramps are placed over the stairs to allow for wheelchair access, the angle does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, Betzing’s wife, Gayle, said.

The barriers on a number of streets in the area to lessen traffic through the neighborhoods were the subject of debate for about seven years among the neighborhood association, and much of the debate was held in the Betzings’ basement.

These days, the dance floor is used once per year to host a dance party for local neighbors, and it is often frequented by City Council members and even former Mayor Heather Fargo.

It’s also occasionally used for private events, such as wedding receptions, and the Betzing family used to serve Thanksgiving meals for the homeless out of the basement.

“The first year we did it, we had seating for 100 people,” Jim Betzing said. “The thing is, they came in waves, and we only had 35 or 40 at any given time, so we scaled back the seating after that.”

Jim, 82, and Gayle, 69, said they stopped doing the Thanksgiving dinners several years ago after Jim Betzing had trouble with his knees, and moving furniture around the area became more difficult.

At some point, Jim Betzing said, the basement of the house was likely flooded.

“When we pulled up the carpeting, the staples they’d used to hold it in were all rusted,” he said, adding that he and Gayle Betzing spent a lot of time pulling the rusted staples from the wood to get it ready for buffing and refinishing.

One piece of broken wood gives a little insight to the springing of the dance floor, and Betzing said that while he is not sure how the floor is engineered, he was able to stick a tape measure through the hole and determine the floor sits about 18 inches off the ground.

Solid pillars – which at one time were covered with segments of mirrors to reflect light similar to a disco ball – hold up the rest of the house.

Burg said a couple of other sprung dance floors exist in the city, and the springs served a very practical purpose.

“People on the dance floor could dance, and their feet would ache less,” he said. “When they were in businesses, it meant people could dance longer and buy more drinks. In a private home, it was more for comfort.”

Jim Betzing said songs with heavy rhythms show off the springiness of the dance floor.

“Sometimes, if you get a bunch of people on here at once all doing the same moves, it really starts moving,” he said.

Gayle Betzing added that, at times, plates on tables will rattle with the rhythm of the music as dancers all take the same steps.

Outside the house, 22nd Street is divided by a landscaped strip of grass, and Burg said the area was the first privately redeveloped area of the city.

“Boulevard Park used to be the racetrack for the California State Fair from the 1860s to 1905,” he said, adding that the land was sold to a development company.

The houses at the southern end of the neighborhood, such as the Betzings’, were all more expensive, as the owners had to sign covenants saying they would spend a certain amount of money on their homes.

Boulevard Park was a desirable area, as it had paved streets, sidewalks and hookups to the city sewer system as opposed to septic tanks.

Going farther north in the neighborhood, the houses get smaller, which Burg said was by design as part of the Progressive movement, which believed in quality housing for the working class.

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.

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