California State Capitol Building
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
The California State Capitol Building in downtown Sacramento
Sacramento has been the Capital City of California since 1854. The city is the fourth to serve as capital. San Jose, Vallejo, and Benicia, all in the nearby Bay Area, each took a brief turn in the role in the early days of California statehood.
Sacramento was selected because the city offered its new county courthouse for use as a Capitol Building, as well as a large plot of land in the center of town for the construction of a new, permanent building. Sacramento was the second largest city in the state, after San Francisco, during the Gold Rush due to its position as a major gateway to the mines of the Mother Lode. Situated at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, Sacramento was the perfect center of influence. Those waterways allowed for easy access to both San Francisco, a major port receiving ships, goods, and news from all over the world, and the mines and farms further inland. At the time, Southern California cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside, now home to millions of people, were sparsely populated outposts that were never considered as potential State Capitals.
The California State Capitol Building is the official seat of the Golden State's government. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is California State Historical Landmark #872.
California's Historic Capitol
The historic Capitol was designed by architects M.F. Butler and Reuben Clark. Its style is an adaptation of Roman Corinthian Architecture. Work began in 1860 and by late 1869 the Capitol was partly occupied. In 1874 construction ended at a cost of $2.45 million. The West Wing which once housed all branches of government is now a legislative facility. Its design and construction are tributes to California's pioneer architects, craftsmen and builders.
California Registered Historical Landmark No. 872
Plaque originally placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation August 10, 1974, and rededicated in cooperation with the State Legislature January 9, 1982, to commemorate the close of California's Bicentennial restoration project.
The present Capitol building was constructed between 1860 and 1874. The initial phase of that construction occurred simultaneously with the Civil War (during which California remained in the Union) and the construction of a new dome on the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. That building had grown such that the copper plated dome atop it no longer looked proportional, so construction began on the modern cast-iron dome, similar in style to those of St. Paul's in London and St. Peter's at the Vatican.
Frederic Butler, the original architect of the California Capitol, was inspired by the design of the national Capitol Building, and chose to work in a similar Neo-Classical style, often also referred to as Federal for its repeated use in American government buildings. The white color, Corinthian Columns, and front pediment are all hallmarks of this style of architecture.
The extended construction timeline was due to financial constraints. Not until 1868, when the roof was completed, was any work on the building done during the winter months, because of both the seasonal rains and the fact that the annual tax revenue allocated toward construction was expended by the fall. Special property taxes were also imposed upon Californians to help make up the budget shortfalls.
The Governor and Secretary of State moved into their offices in November 1869, followed by the legislature in December. Construction continued until the building was declared complete in 1874.
Significant changes were made to the building between 1906 and 1908, when a basement was added, the attic was converted to office space, and the modern conveniences of the era were installed. The 1954 addition of the East Wing provided new office space for the legislature which is still in use today. A massive restoration project was undertaken beginning in 1975, lasting 6 years and costing $86 million, with the aim of returning the building to its 1906 appearance.
The Capitol is 319 feet tall from the ground to the pinnacle of its dome, and prior to the construction of downtown Sacramento office towers in the 1990s and early 2000s, could be seen from miles away.
Built of hard-burned brick and granite faced on its lower floors, the Capitol sports iron columns and ornamentation. Square pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals are evenly spaced around the full exterior of the building.
The north and south sides of the building feature large projecting porticoes with fluted Corinthian columns supported by large granite entablatures. The north portico is pictured below. Note also the square pilasters on either side of the columns, as mentioned above.
The architectural star of the Capitol, apart from its iconic dome, is the Western portico with its commanding pediment and sculptures, pictured below. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, stands in the center of the tympanum, flanked by allegorical figures representing Justice and Mining to her left and Education and Industry to her right.
The statues were done by French born but ethnically Italian sculptor Pietro Mezzara, who had come to California in 1850 seeking his fortune in the Gold Rush. Mezzara eventually opened a studio in San Francisco and became well known for his work on prominent public buildings.
Originally, sculptures of allegorical figures or decorative stone vases created by Mezzara stood atop each of the white pedestals which interrupt the building's rooftop colonnade. These pedestals are visible in the above photo of the north portico. During the 1906 renovation however, these works were removed and have subsequently been lost.
West (Main) Portico Pediment
Minerva, the Roman approximation of the Greek goddess Athena, appears both in the pediment and on the California State Seal. Mythology holds that she burst from her father's forehead fully grown, and therefore was never an infant. Likewise, upon coming under US control, California was immediately granted Statehood, bypassing the "Territory" phase most other Western states passed through before being admitted to the Union.
A large bronze version of the state seal is set in concrete in front of the Western entrance to the Capitol. It measures 9 feet, ten inches across and weighs 3,400 pounds. Minerva sits on the right side of the seal, as pictured below.
Bronze casting of the Seal of California
First Floor Interior
The central feature of the Capitol's interior is the rotunda, which connects both the Assembly and Senate sides to each other, and the historic portion of the building to the 1954 addition. Measuring 53.5 feet across and rising 125 feet to the skylight oculus atop it, the grand space is a common feature of state capitol buildings across the country, borrowed from the Rotunda of the US Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
In the center of the rotunda on the first floor is a Carrara marble sculpture titled Columbus' Last Appeal to Queen Isabella. Crafted by Larkin Goldsmith Meade and donated to the state by pioneer banker Darius Ogden Mills, the work has been in place since 1883, despite repeated efforts to remove it.
[Editor’s Note: The statue was eventually removed from the rotunda in July 2020 as part of a nationwide reckoning on race which occurred in the wake of the death of George Floyd]
Columbus' Last Appeal to Queen Isabella, which stood in the rotunda from 1883-2020
From the second story balcony, visitors have a direct view of the interior of the dome. A striking blend of Victorian details in a Classical Renaissance package, this grandest of ceilings is a fittingly ornate cover to the center of political power in the Golden State.
On the south side of the Capitol is the State Senate Chamber, decorated in the traditional red color adapted from England's House of Lords. There are 40 State Senators, each elected in a District that includes roughly 900,000 people. As in most states and the Federal Government, the Senate is the smaller and "higher" house of the bicameral Legislature. Senators are elected to four year terms and vote by "roll-call" or voice vote, rather than by electronic voting device. The Lieutenant Governor serves as official President of the State Senate, though a President Pro Tempore (a Senator) is elected by the body to serve as President for all practical and political purposes. Visitors may watch Senate proceedings from the public gallery.
A large portrait of George Washington watches over the chamber. Below him is the Latin inscription "SENATORIS EST CIVITATIS LIBERTATEM TUERI" which translates in English to "It is the duty of a Senator to guard the liberty of the Commonwealth."
Senate Chamber Photo Gallery
The north end of the Capitol is home to the State Assembly, dressed in traditional "Assembly Green". There are 80 Assemblymembers, twice as many as there are Senators, with each representing a district of nearly 500,000 people. The Assembly chamber is substantially bigger than the Senate Chamber for this reason. As in most states and the Federal Government, the Assembly is the larger and "lower" house of the bicameral Legislature. Assemblymembers are elected to two-year terms and vote by electronic voting device. The Assembly is lead by a Speaker, who is elected by his peers. Visitors may watch Assembly proceedings from the public gallery.
A portrait of President Abraham Lincoln watches over the Assembly Chamber. Below him is the Latin inscription "LEGISLATORUM EST JUSTAS LEGES CONDERE" which translates in English to "It is the duty of legislators to make just laws."
Assembly Chamber Photo Gallery
California's State Capitol is one of the state's finest buildings. It is one of the best examples of Neoclassical architecture in the Western United States. The major renovation project of the 1970s required the work of many craftsmen and artisans whose skills it was thought had been lost to time. The intricate details of so many portions of the building secure its status as a true work of art.
Beyond that impressive architecture, the Capitol has seen much history. Several prominent state political leaders, particularly Governors, have gone on to achieve national significance. Reform-minded Republican Governor Hiram Johnson ran with Theodore Roosevelt on the Progressive Party Ticket in the 1912 Presidential Election. Governor Earl Warren went on to become Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Governor and former actor Ronald Reagan became a beloved and highly successful President of the United States. His successor Jerry Brown ran unsuccessfully for President several times before finding a second political life as Mayor of Oakland, State Attorney General, and Governor of California again from 2011-2019. In 2003, Democratic Governor Grey Davis became only the second Governor in US History to be successfully recalled from office. He was replaced with Republican action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Governor's Office is located on the ground floor of the 1954 addition to the building. The portraits of past Governors are displayed in the historic portion of the Capitol.
Governors' Photo Gallery
That the building even exists is a testament to explorers, pioneers, and early settlers who faced and overcame long odds to build a new society in a wild land. Once a scrappy outpost of Spanish Missions, massive ranches, and fortune-seeking prospectors from all corners of the globe, California is today the most populous state in the Union, home to nearly 40 million people, and the world's 6th largest economy. The Golden State is home to the nation's largest technology, film and television, and agricultural industries. This population and wealth, staggering for anything smaller than a nation, has made California a nationwide and worldwide laboratory for governmental policy and action. When the California Legislature acts on a controversial or major matter, the world watches.
As the political center of the Golden State, California's State Capitol Building, though steeped in a rich past, plays an important role in shaping the future of the state, nation, and world.
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