Capitol Appreciation

Monday, December 10, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Reading, CA to Sacramento, CA
Since California is the nation's most populous state and its capital is a major city, we were quite curious as we drove toward Sacramento this morning.  What should we expect of a statehouse in an urban area with a population of 2.5 million?  We definitely anticipated an experience more like locked-down Washington, DC than free-wheeling Oregon. We were wrong.
The first assessment, which we thought California would fail miserably, was the parking test.  How close could we park to the statehouse (pictured above) and at what cost?  Our assumption that we'd be paying a premium for a spot blocks away was incorrect.  While parking was not free, we were able stash our car in a metered curbside space across the street from the Capitol.  For a large city, the price of $1.25 per hour seemed quite reasonable.

The next place where we expected to feel the urban vibe was in the security screening to enter the building.  Again, we were off the mark.  A couple of friendly security guards were manning a simple walk-through metal detector and x-ray machine.  It was a low-key event.

Our DC-phobia was abating, and we were beginning to get a warm, fuzzy feeling from the California Capitol.  Then we met Julia, and she sealed the deal.  Along with three Californians and a visitor from Mexico, we were treated to a guided tour of the Capitol by the irrepressible Julia, a font of knowledge and enthusiasm about the statehouse.  Julia and the other tour guides who work in her department escort up to 1,500 school kids a day on tours of the building, so our little group of adults must have been like a vacation for her.  As in Oregon, choral groups are performing holiday music in the Rotunda this month, but the guided tours here continue nonetheless.

After California was admitted to statehood in 1850, a number of towns vied for the honor of becoming the state capital.  Since California had never been an organized U.S. territory, there was no territorial capital to be an obvious choice.  For several years, the seat of government moved about as several cities were 'auditioned,' including San Jose, Vallejo, Benecia, and Sacramento.  In the end, Sacramento was chosen because of its location and size.  Recurring efforts to move the capital to San Jose or the Bay Area continued after a series of floods and fires devastated Sacramento, but the city's undaunted officials and citizenry fended off the political scheming to move the capital again by donating four blocks of prime real estate for construction of a permanent capitol building.
Interior of the lower dome
Construction of the Capitol took 14 years due to funding inconsistencies, supply inadequacies driven by the Civil War, and periodic flooding of the city.  In 1879, five years after the building was completed, the state's constitution was amended to provide that changing the location of the capital required a majority vote of the people, not merely a whim of the legislators.
Chamber of the State Assembly (lower house)

Chamber of the State Assembly upper house)
Beginning on its 100th anniversary in 1974, the California Capitol underwent an extensive renovation.  As part of the project, a number of rooms on the first floor were restored to their 1906 appearance, including the governor's suite.  These rooms today serve as museum exhibits.
Governor's private office as it appeared in 1906 (with electrical power for desk lamp coming from overhead light fixture)
What we learned about the California State Legislature surprised us. Though the state's population is approaching 38 million, only 40 senators and 80 assembly members represent the people's interests in state government.  Coming from a state with the nation's third largest legislature, we found these numbers quite sensible.  Members serve in two-year sessions, and meet on Monday and Thursday of every week from January to September.
Tile floor on first floor has the look of carpet but with much greater durability
As we were leaving the Capitol, a group of citizens was holding a ceremony on the front stairs to honor military veterans, while school children stood around admiring a Belgian draft horse ridden by a security guard, a posse of Hell's Angels gathered for a tour of the building, and tourists moved in and out of the building.  All in all, we found the building beautifully designed and restored and a positive reflection of open government in the Golden State. 
  • Architectural Style:  Renaissance Revival
  • Height (to tip of dome):  242 ft.
  • Dome surface:  copper
  • Built:  1860-1874
  • Original cost:  $3 million
  • Renovation:  1974-1982
  • Renovation cost:  $68 million
  • Sacramento population:  472,178
Gas light fixtures converted to electricity in 1906

The stately portico

A pair of tourists from Georgia