Studio Sacramento: California's State Capitol Annex Project

By Scott Syphax
March 18, 2022


Scott Syphax: It's often been said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder. "Depending on who you talk to, the State Capitol Annex has been called "a deformity," "a monstrosity," but also historically significant and, some would say, beautiful. The state wants to replace it and now, the project is caught up in multiple lawsuits. Joining us are three opponents of the new project—preservation architect Mark Hulbert, urban ecologist Paula Peper, and the former chair of the Historic State Capitol Commission, Richard "Dick" Cowan. Dick, most people have no idea what the Capitol Annex is. Why should they care whether this building survives or is torn down and replaced?

Richard “Dick” Cowan: So, the building is important, not only because it's ourState Capitol and the entire State Capitol, both the 1860s and 1950s portion, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's also a terrific example of mid-century modern architecture; And if you care about preserving and reusing our historic buildings, you want to save this historic Annex.

Syphax: Hmm. Mark, there are folks, like longtime political columnist Dan Walters, who have stated publicly, I mean, even written articles, entitled "Good Riddance to the State Capitol's "ugly" Annex”. I've heard people say that—In fact, my old boss, when I worked in the legislature said that it was "a building that only Mussolini could love.” What is so significant about this structure, that we shouldn't just tear it down and start over again?

Mark Hulbert: Good question. It's the only time I've ever been on Mussolini's side, I promise that. And, you know, It's a noble, modern building. Uh, I think one of the most salient aspects of it is it's an expression ofCalifornia at the immediate post-World War II period. It's a time ofCalifornia's blossoming, obviously, and it's blossomed many times, but that time, probably, more than any other time. And here was an expression of the growth of government and what needed to happen in California to accommodate the future. It's a very noble architectural effort and a very period one. There's—as Dick mentioned, there's a modern aspect here, that blends pre and post-war eras, that engages with the Capitol, the architecture of the old Capitol, in a very direct way, and that has actually lovely ornamentation and material. So, I think there's many, many layers here of importance and interest. People don't love modern buildings always, and that's a factor. I mean, it's... it's—We bring our own lives- It's young to a lot of people, but nonetheless, that- this era is a very important one, and this is a very important expression of the era.

Syphax: Paula, not to beat a dead horse on this, but some of us remember back when the Capitol restoration was going on in the seventies and eighties. AndI mean, the period that came before even had such travesties as fluorescent lights over the chambers of the State, Senate, and Assembly. This building, itself, replaced what was historically known as the most beautiful part of theState Capitol, prior to 1949, which was thethat contained the ceremonial chambers for the Supreme Court and the State Library. I'm justcurious, from your perspective, what is it so much that we're losing, if we were to replace it?

Paula Peper: Well, I think of things in terms of the park, more than the building. And one of the things that I've found disturbing is that this is just called the "Annex Project," and it's not just the Annex. It's—There's a new underground parking garage that's going to go from N Street to L Street, along what is the 12thStreet Corridor that's on the far East side of the Annex.And then, there's going to be a new Visitor Center, and with that, there is ahuge destruction of Capitol Park trees. So—

Syphax: How many?

Peper: Um, outright destruction of 154 and, probably, 30 or more, root damaged; and so, the roots, of course, affect the crown of the tree. Every root cut, you lose part of the crown.

Syphax: You said 154?

Peper: Yep. There are 49 historic palms that are supposed to be relocated, all along L and N Street, and this is just for the parking entrance and egress. Our palms, are some of the largest in the state, and they're historic. They've been there from the 1890s. They don't move successfully. So, arborists I've talked to have said, "At most, 40% might live." 

Syphax: All right. I want to talk about this for a second, because for many of us who have—are longtime residents of the area, Capitol Park has been one of the most beautiful jewels that we have, and I, personally, have noticed things over the years. Like, for instance, when I was a kid and we would take tours up there, one of the favorite things that children would like to look at was there used to be a fish pond there, with koi in it, and the grounds were immaculately kept. In preparation for this conversation, I did walk the grounds and the place looks more poorly maintained than most public parks did during the recession. What—Some would say that the park is already degraded, as it stands today. And if that's offensive, well, that's an opinion. But what do you think is the long-term implication from this project, in terms of maintaining the fabric of the park, notwithstanding the tree issue that you brought up?

Peper: Well, I think it destroys much more of the park. So, you're talking about four city blocks that are involved in the construction. Um, you think it's degraded now? You know, the koi pond, I'm sure the raccoons miss it too. But, there were also 37 Civil War trees, and there are now only three standing. So, the bigger problem is there is not enough budget that goes to maintaining that park. They are severely underfunded by the state legislature. Now, maybe, that's part of something that will change when all the construction is done, but it's probably doubtful, because the legislature has done a very poor job of taking care of the park.

Syphax: Hmm. I'm curious, Mark, when we talk about destroying the existing annex and rebuilding the new center, there does seem to be a business case for improvement. Uh, some would say that the Annex was designed in a way that looked like the architect at the time was, uh, on meds. You have floors that don't connect with each other, the numbers don't work. Any guest there, that goes between the historic side and the Annex, gets confused and lost. It's not necessarily a building that is conducive to 2022 standards. If the project remains in place, isn't it more costly to retrofit something that was built in such a—at least to some people—odd way, rather than just to start fresh?

Hulbert: The Annex has served its purpose for 70 years. I mean, I think it's—some of its current problems are a measure of its success, that it really has served its purpose, and that it has issues of overcrowding are obvious, and a rehabilitation—I... I'm not advocating for preservation. We're not talking about just preserving this building. It's, evidently, at this age, in need of substantial intervention to address any and all inadequacies, and we've—This is not rocket science. We really do intervene with, significant old structures, and make corrections necessary. So, I think each and every one of the concerns can and would be addressed in a bonafide rehabilitation project. We don't have costs in front of us to discuss, about, you know, what's the balance here? is rehabilitation more or less expensive? It's obvious that the budget for the new construction is significant, and I think we've all seen the numbers, and surprised by those numbers. Rehabilitation is going to cost less. That is just—

Syphax: If you could, share the budget for the project, as its proposed.

Hulbert: Well, the one—and I'm not the authority on the numbers, and I'm not Mr. Numbers—but I will say, the one I've most recently seen, I think, was 1-point—was it 4 billion, or something? I mean, it's a very—

Syphax: Billion.

Hulbert: Billion. Billion, for the removal and replacement project. 1.4—I think that's correct—billion. So, uh, you know, that, on top, of course, having a new state office building adjacent, that is serving its purposes of—and...and been paid for, by the way. So, you know, evidently, we don't—we wouldn't enter a rehabilitation project, like this, with a budget of 1.4 billion. That's just not even conceivable. Right? It's going to cost less than that to save and rehabilitate this building.

Cowan: May I add something to Mark's answer? 

Syphax: Sure.

Cowan: So, um, the legislature in beginning to study the project hired an architectural firm, good alphabet name, CHSQA, and they did a study—let's see—in 2017, and they listed the issues you raised, Scott. You know, the building, is old. It's 70 years old. It needs, new air conditioning. It needs more power, because we all have printers in our office that we didn't used to have. It needs some upgrades to meet fire standards we'd like to have today, but the ExecutiveBranch knows how to do that to our historic buildings. Right across from the Capitol, the Library and Courts building got modern fire sprinklers, modern air conditioning, modern lighting, and won awards for preserving its architectural heritage. In 2005, the Department of General Services, again, the ExecutiveBranch,, did a study for the legislature and laid out a timeline to do all of those things, what it would cost, and how they could be executed; the legislature found that kind of inconvenient. It is hard to live in a home while you're renovating it. It is. But, the legislature elected to not do the things you talked about, and now argues, "Well, look at all our needs."

Syphax: Dick, I want to ask you about a comment that you've made in the past, and that is that you said that there is always this zone where it is that something is old enough to be out of date—and so, people kind of look down on it—but it's not old enough to be historic. Tell us how this project fits into that framework you've described.

Cowan: Thank you for the question. It's a very interesting thing, and Mark may have seen this in his career of preservation, uh, but there comes a time in the life of a building when it's viewed as "old," and not yet viewed as "historic." And in fact, when, I worked on the restoration of the 1860s Capitol, when I returned to Sacramento after my Navy tour, we found that people had just done terrible things to the 1860s Capitol. They had run ducting through the transoms of the beautiful doors that we now can see restored on the first floor, wood paneling over the leather incrust, grid ceilings dropped down underneath, hiding the plaster, uh, ceilings that are so beautifully exposed now, taking out the mahogany, walnut stairways and replacing them with steel pan, to gather more office space, just terrible things, disrespecting a building we now revere, and it's fascinating to me that the Annex now suffers from this same lack of appreciation. I genuinely feel, if we can keep our Annex historic materials in place for another 20 years, people will be going around celebrating, the fact that, Scott Syphax called attention to it, and got the project to demolish the Annex turned around.  

Syphax: Well, wait a minute. Scott Syphax invited you on to have your say, and for the record, we invited the proponents of the project to join you all today, to have their say, because we wanted to hear both sides of the story on this particularly important issue. I do want to ask though, Paula, what is it that we stand to lose, by demolishing this structure and all of the damages thathappen, in terms of just, kind of, the story of this town, this region, and ourstate?

Paula: Well, you know, I have to think back to when the park was established, and it was established around just the old Capitol, originally—the historic Capitol, restored one—and, uh, they brought trees from every nation on Earth, except Antarctica and the Arctic. They wanted it to be the most unique Arboretum to surround one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, and actually, they did that. I mean, I've read articles from the New York Times, from newspapers across the country, just bragging about this incredible park that had more species growing in one place than any place else in the world. And that's still true. We have 210 unique species. We're going to lose a total of 27% of our trees in less than a decade, including this construction project. So, I also look at things from a perspective of the services the park provides, both to the building and to all the people who come to protest or celebrate; the shade of those magnificent, huge deodar cedars out front, original plantings, the shade of so many other trees. But, I think, in terms of true ecosystem services, we're getting close to losing 25% of the services those trees have provided, and when I talk of services, I talk about the carbon storage. You know, there's 4.1 million pounds of carbon dioxide removed from the air every year, from our trees in that park. That's about 804 gas tanks worth of auto gas that, you know, are absorbed. So, then, you have hundreds of thousands of pounds of stored carbon in the trees. Cut those down, that's lost. Their cooling and shade, as I mentioned, it's enough, every year, to power 1800 homes for 24 hours. And the runoff, you know, that's absorbed by these trees, goes into the ground, provides the trees with what they need, the grass, everything, um, that's about 34,000—if I look at it—bathtubs full of water, every year. So, there are a lot of benefits, and we're going to lose a quarter of that.

Syphax: Hmm. 

Hulbert: Scott, if I could piggyback on that just a little bit.

Syphax: Sure.

Hulbert: I mean, the word—The word that comes to mind, relative to the historic landscape and historic building and this project, is "erasure." There's really a substantial erasure of cultural and historical significance, both in the landscape and in the Annex building, that represent a substantial part of California history. I mean, I think, that is the most salient word, for me, is erasure. And why would we, choose to eliminate, a whole segment of our history, or the memory of a whole segment of our history, relative to these resources? I will say, I came into this very independently. I am not an opponent of the project,I am—and not necessarily a proponent of, you know, of preserving the Annex, or not—I was not in the beginning, and yet, as I observed more closely, I observed these resources- again, both landscape and building- I realized there is beauty in them. There is functionality in them. There are embodied resources in them. There are just many positive characteristics here. So, and then it felt like, "Okay, this is a proposed erasure."  

Syphax: You know, it's---the word "erasure" is important. And, Dick, I wanted to ask you about this. In Sacramento, there is a notion, among some, that we actually have a tradition of having buyer's remorse, where we eradicate structures. The most famous one, probably, in the last 40 years, was the destruction of the Alhambra Theater, in East Sacramento, others, like Edmonds Fields, and others, where it is that those resources or those attributes of the city were knocked down, taken away, and then, there was regret, not immediately, but years later, in terms of what we lost. It Is this maybe a phenomenon of our culture here, in some way, in terms of how we view historic preservation, or is this just a commonality throughout the United States?

Cowan: I think it may be throughout the United States. Clearly, our European cousins have a better tradition of preserving their buildings. My favorite building in the whole world is the Pantheon in Rome because it's been in constant use for 2000 years. Used every day. Phenomenal. And that's great respect. By the way, it's not air conditioned, and its lighting is natural from the oculus in the ceiling. I think it's nationwide. I don't think we're any worse off. Sacramento has a good preservation community, Preservation Sacramento, SacMod. Uh, the architectural community here, in Sacramento, has many skilled preservation architects. I only wish the legislature had brought them in early in the planning of the process, and consulted with—

Syphax: Well, let me... let me interrupt you, and get into that.

Cowan: Yes.

Syphax: In our final moments, I do want to ask a question of you and the rest of the group, in that there are multiple pieces of litigation attached to this project. In a nutshell, Dick, what is the nature of the controversy at the root of the litigation? 

Cowan: So, there are four lawsuits from two different groups. Two of them focus on the failure of the Environmental Impact Report to address the preservation option, and failure to keep a constant project, defined, during the environmental review process. One of them criticizes the legislature for not taking the project, early in its planning, to the State Historic Preservation Officer, who would advise how the building might be reused. I think they were afraid of some inconvenient truth if they were to do that. We think the law requires any authority of the state to do that step with the State Historic Preservation Officer. The final suit alleges that behind closed doors, in a memorandum of understanding, signed between the legislature and the Executive Branch, they made a deal to not consider preservation or rehabilitation, and kept that from the public.

Syphax: All right. Dick, thank you. In our last moment, Mark, I just wanted to ask you- what's next for this? And we only have a few moments, so please...

Hulbert: That's... that's a tricky question. I mean, I would—What we've pursued from the outset was there needs to be a thorough rehabilitation study done, that has not been done, that needs to be undertaken to address the strong potential of rehabilitation.

Syphax: All right. And we're going to leave it there. And that's our show. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching Studio Sacramento. I'm Scott Syphax.