By Richard Stevenson
The original California State Capitol building dates from a construction period of the 1860s to the early 1870s. A couple of decades ago it underwent major restoration, and the result has received accolades from around the world. After WWII that building was expanded eastward to accommodate a new Governor’s office and other statewide officials and to a growing staff. That architecturally compatible expansion was termed the “new building,” now termed the Capitol “annex,” to distinguish it from the original Capitol, the “old building.”
There is no need for replacement of the Capitol new building. Instead, it should be restored and updated as such has been beautifully accomplished with the original Capitol structure. Fine examples of neighboring structures that underwent that process are the State Library and Courts Building, and the privately owned Senator Hotel, both older than the Capitol new building. The Tower of London has been upgraded for a thousand years and is one of the most visited, functional, and secure structures in the world.
The proposed replacement of the new building is a glass monstrosity that is grossly out of scale and character to the original Capitol to which it would be attached, along with being a huge maintenance liability and security risk due to the predominantly glass exterior. Further, the replacement projected cost is well over a billion dollars.
Capitol West Steps Visitor’s Center
Plans include a major alteration of the original Capitol front entrance and west steps, the site of inaugurations for many governors and the place of officially receiving foreign dignitaries and leaders. It is also the traditional place where hundreds of public demonstrations have been held where the public has made elected officials aware of important of issues over the last century and a half, and the site of President Ronald Reagan’s last political rally the day before his reelection. Plans would make that site a visitor’s center, a use that can be easily accommodated elsewhere.
The claim has been made that more office space is needed to accommodate expanding legislative and other staff. The fact that abundant state office space is already available for additional staff is proven by vacant downtown Sacramento state office buildings that are now being considered for conversion to housing. Therefore, the expanding staff claim to justify demolition of the historic new building and constructing a flashy ultra-modern styled replacement is clearly false.
The building replacement project will also entail destroying major tree specimens of the Capitol Park arboretum, as the Globe reported last year. Many of those trees are from around the world and are highly unusual to prosper in this climate. At best it would take numerous decades for replacement trees to mature to the level that the public now enjoys.
Much of that pointless arboretum destruction is to allow for an expanded underground parking lot. There is a large city owned parking lot across L Street from the Capitol. The state could trade the city that parking lot for another state owned downtown property that can accommodate the same number of parking spots. If desired, a tunnel running under L Street can be constructed, similar to the tunnel under N Street between the Library and Courts building and the new State Library.
Once again, elected officials hold themselves aloof from the laws that all others must follow.
The Legislature controls only one state owned property, the state Capitol building and grounds. Further, the Legislature has removed the Capitol building and park from the historic preservation and environmental laws that apply to all other state, local government, federal government, and privately owned structures. As with people, historic buildings should be treated equally and comply with the same laws.
Do Not Repeat Past Blunders
Savanah and Charleston are destinations to see the large historic homes and gardens built before the Civil war. Sacramento once had just as many of that era but short sighted destruction of architectural gems has been a hallmark of government impact on Sacramento’s central city. The 1850s Sacramento County Courthouse was beautiful inside and out, served as the state capitol until the present structure was built, and hosted exhibits for early state fairs, so the historical significance was beyond question. It was demolished in 1970.
In 1891 the Sacramento Bee printed a series of over eighty illustrations and descriptions of mansions of the city, and stated the series would continue the next year, which did not happen, but does serve as evidence the residences were well over one hundred in number. Today there are about a half dozen survivors. The sites of many became state parking lots.
The Governor’s Office in the Capitol’s new building was used by Earl Warren and Ronald Reagan, the two most impactful Americans in the second half of the 20th century. That fact alone renders that building of major historical significance.
The State Legislature’s leadership has claimed that a study showed that the Capitol new building demolition is more efficient than renovation. That elusive “study” has never been made public in response to numerous requests. That begs the question of the reality of that alleged “study.” There is no proof that the claimed study was ever performed. If it is real, it should be a document readily available to the public.
The Legislature would best serve the public by heeding numerous local, statewide, and federal government precedents; restore the new building to present day functional use, and save a half billion dollars or so of taxpayer money, save important trees of the renowned arboretum, save the historic Capitol west steps as a public venue, and save us all from a glass monstrosity eyesore.