Saving California's Historic Capitol Annex

By Carl Bott
KCNR 1460 AM


Carl Bott: On the phone we also have Richard Cowan, and I’ve been getting emails from this organization and they’re talking about the Capitol Annex and what’s happening down there. Good morning, Richard

Richard Cowan: Good morning to you, and good morning to your listeners. So, the state Legislature owns the Capitol building—not the executive branch—and they have planned a terrible project for $1.4 billion dollars—with a b—to demolish the current Annex, build a bigger, wider, taller, glass skinned one; rip up the “front yard” in front of the Capitol; that faces Capitol mall, where we finish our Tour de California bike races, and put up the Christmas tree and all that—and put up a two story, underground parking garage in Capitol Park, taking out about 180 trees. So, we think that that’s a really bad idea.

Bott: It doesn’t sound like a great idea. What’s the reasoning behind it?

Cowan: Ken Cooley, who is the chair of the Joint Rules Committee, would like to bring all of the staff into one building. We think that that’s a fool’s paradise, as anyone who’s seen the growth of California government, you’re never going to be able to catch up and put all of the Legislature and all of the legislative staff in one building. We like the way they do it in Washington D.C., a Capitol building with the hearing rooms, and then a campus of buildings and offices for the staff. We think we could do that for a heck of a lot cheaper than $1.4 billion—by using the buildings that are already built downtown.

Bott: What about the—what kind of shape is the Capitol in? And I’m not talking about politically <chuckles>, I’m talking about the physical buildings because that’s been there a long time. We’re putting a new county—we just built a new county courthouse up here because the other one was, it was in bad shape.

Cowan: Yes, you’re right. The 1860s portion, the portion that is on postcards that you buy, that’s in pretty good shape. I worked on the restoration of that in the 1970s, and so it’s got modern alarms, modern fire escapes, sprinklers—those kind of safety things. The Annex, which was built in 1950, needs those upgrades. And guess who was supposed to be doing those upgrades over the life of its 70 years? The Legislature! But it was “inconvenient” to have that work done, so it’s been postponed. It does need sprinklers, it does need some better exiting, and it needs new air conditioning, but the state knows how to do that in old buildings. Right across the street from the Capitol, the state actually won awards for renovating the 1920s Library and Courts building and preserving all of its beautiful interior plaster and decoration and art. We think that’s what the state should do with the historic Annex. If any of your listeners have visited, down to Sacramento, they’ll know it’s a lot of fun to visit the county exhibits, maybe some of your listeners have called on their legislators in the building. It’s a perfectly beautiful and fine building, and we can renovate it for a lot less money.

Bott: Well, any time you renovate, that’s going to be a huge inconvenience for the legislators—not that I really care—but a billion dollars to spend on this new one and then what do they do with the old one?

Cowan: Well, the old one gets demolished. That’s the sad part. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so we think that’s a really bad idea. The inconvenience would happen whether it’s rehabbed and rehabilitated or whether its demolished and a new one built in its place. But the Legislature solved that. They spent $455 million to build what is called the “swing-building,” and they’re moved into the swing building now, and parking their cars at the swing building now, so that money’s been spent. So, we think that now is the great time—now that they’re out—to plan a really good rehabilitation of the existing building.

Bott: So, what can people do, Richard.

Cowan: Your listeners can write or telephone the Governor’s office, or the Speaker of the Assembly or the President Pro Temp of the Senate, and they can contribute to the cost of our four lawsuits that we filed to stop this terrible project. They can find the information about what address to use on two different websites. One is They can find the information there.

Bott: It seems to me that if they’ve got a historical building like that, one that looks like a Capitol building, it seems that they could make a museum or something out of it.

Cowan: Oh, yes. We had urged, before the project got solidified, we had urged Mr. Cooley to hire a preservation architect and tell them what he wanted and have them show how much of his needs could get in the old, historic building—but he declined to do that, and instead retained a team to design a new building after the old one is demolished. But yes, there’s a process. If you have a historic building, you’re supposed to go to the State Historic Preservation Officer and do a consult there; and that staff is trained in showing you how much benefit you can get from your old building. But the Legislature elected to not go there. It would have been kind of “inconvenient news” to go there. One of the four lawsuits that I mentioned challenges on them on that ground—that they failed to take advantage of that opportunity to reuse the historic building.

Bott: Is this a done deal? I mean, you talk about lawsuits, and—

Dick: Well, no, we hope not. Our four lawsuits are still pending. They go slow, unfortunately. In fact, last night, one of the groups that filed a lawsuit, filed for an injunction to stop construction workers from doing any damage to the existing building, and to stop removal of any of the 180 trees that would be affected by this project until the four lawsuits can be heard. So, we’re hoping for a good answer from the judge on that, and that we’re going to stop construction work until people stop and reconsider how todo this a little bit more wisely.

Bott: Okay. Now tell everybody again how they can reach—what they can do if they think this is a bad idea.

Cowan: Call or write the governor—we find that emails are not even opened by the staff—

Bott: Letters are always better than just an email.

Cowan: Absolutely, you’re right. The Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, or the President Pro Temp of the State Senate. The information on where to write them, or how to call them is on

Bott: Okay. Richard, thanks for taking the time to call us and let us know what’s going on with this thing.

Cowan: Alright, thank you.

Bott: You bet. It’s just another billion dollars. A billion here, a billion there—it starts to add up. It’s no doubt that even 50 years ago they probably needed updates, but is it worth tearing down a historical monument—a historical building like this? To me it’s a beautiful building. And then to take out all the trees—it’s something to think about.