Preserve Sacramento Capitol Annex and Save Us Half a Billion

By Larry Wilson
Pasadena Star News
March 25, 2023

The dome is staying. The ’50s Annex should, too. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When I was a young reporter on the City Hall beat, the overriding issue I would cover Monday nights in council chambers was development.

Not just the permitting of new buildings. The city I was covering was built out, nary a vacant lot to be found, and its downtown and residential neighborhoods were quite historic. National Register of Historic places historic.

So if something new were to be built, something old had to be razed.

And through covering the developers and architects and planning officials I covered, I learned something that we could paraphrase Jane Austen about:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an older home or building in possession of good bones, must be infinitely superior in almost every way to new construction.”

That is to say, historic preservation and adaptive reuse of structures built in another time is almost always far more economically efficient, more green and more aesthetically pleasing than tearing it all down and beginning over from a scraped lot.

That’s background for an issue that should be of concern to all California taxpayers.

Like many of us who follow the activities of our electeds in the Legislature but don’t ourselves spend a lot of time in Sacramento, I had been vaguely aware of the proposed Capitol Annex Project, a move to tear down the East Wing added in 195 to the historic 1874 California Capitol dome, out of the supposed need for a vast new building to create bigger office space for legislative staffers because the old place was supposedly hopelessly inefficient.

I was also slightly more than vaguely aware, since the figure had caught my eye, that the tearing down of the old building and the erection of a new one has an extraordinary price tag: $1.2 billion.

But now I find that there is a move afoot by preservationists to instead rehab the existing building, for all of the reasons that I enumerated above. And I’m all in, and so should be all Californians interested in both saving money and saving our historic buildings.

Here’s what I found out last week from a new group called Save Our Capitol!: In January, “Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins stated that the Legislature had decided to pursue demolition over rehabilitation of the historic Capitol Annex because demolition was more cost effective. However, multiple public records requests have found that the Department of General Services (DGS), which is the lead agency of the Project, has no record of such a study. … Preservation experts and historical architects have independently reviewed the status of the Annex and have found that the building is structurally sound and that restoring, upgrading, and modernizing the building would cost less than $500 million. Considering the looming budget shortfall, where critical programs are being cut and budget asks aren’t even being considered, it’s concerning the state is blindly moving forward with a more than $1.2 billion vanity project.”

Yes, it’s odd that buildings from the 1950s are now being seen as historic. But that’s just because we are getting old ourselves. Think of the proper craze for all things Mid-century Modern. Craftsman and Victorian houses are not our state’s only great architectural legacies.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has joined the fight. “Planning for this project should include a thorough analysis of the feasibility of rehabilitating the 1952 Annex, rather than demolishing and replacing it,” Chief Preservation Officer Katherine Malone-France just wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Let’s save half a billion dollars here, a good universally acknowledged by Californians.