Up The Road: DIY Tour Of California Capitals, Part 2

Jun 27, 2018

Blue moon over California’s Capitol
Credit David Yu

As we mentioned earlier, California has had a surprising number of capital cities—starting with Monterey. Even Santa Barbara, if you want to consider Spanish California’s cultural if not legislative capital. California became a state of these United States in 1849 with a quick succession of American capitals: San Jose, then Vallejo, then Benicia, and then Sacramento, which has remained California’s capital city ever since, not counting a brief move to San Francisco during the floods of 1862. 

People poke fun at Sacramento, and always have. Mark Twain himself was among the first. In Sacramento, he observed, “It is a fiery summer always, and you can gather roses, and eat strawberries and ice cream, and wear white linen clothes, and pant and perspire at eight or nine o’clock in the morning.” Comparing it to New York City, the Big Apple—not quite fair, given that Albany is that state’s capital—some people have dubbed Sacramento the Big Tomato, a wry reference to a popular area crop. Still, those who dismiss Sacramento as an overgrown cowtown may have confused it somehow with Vacaville down the road—vaca meaning “cow” in Spanish.

California’s State Capitol was designed to resemble the national Capitol in Washington, D.C.—but with palm trees.
Credit Jeff Turner

Unique in Sacramento is the opportunity to observe the antics of state legislators up close and personal, as if at the zoo. It’s not as fun now that Democrats are fully in charge, but still. There are moments. There’s nothing quite like sitting in on committee hearings and major wrangles to appreciate the absurd beauty of political fisticuffs, California style. For all that, the best time to tour the Capitol building is during the final days of budget battles, before legislative recess in summer, when hallways are packed with arm-twisting lobbyists, when exhausted politicians are most likely to call each other names in public or slip up and tell the truth to the press. All in all, it's great fun—especially for those with strong constitutions.

A monument of Spain’s Queen Isabella sending Columbus off to discover the New World greets visitors to the Capitol’s rotunda. But shouldn’t it be Queen Calafia?
Credit Robert Couse-Baker

Whenever you visit, allow time to fully appreciate the State Capitol, a neoclassical Roman Corinthian design that—quite intentionally—resembles the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Construction started in 1861 but took until 1874 to finish—slowed by weather, cash shortages, the general chaos of early statehood, and supply shortages due to the Civil War. Granite for the building’s first story came from rock quarries near Folsom and Rocklin. The three upper stories are plaster-covered brick—all quite safe, even in earthquake-prone California, thanks to ambitious retrofit and restoration work done from 1976 to 1981 at a total cost of $68 million. Atop the Capitol’s magnificent copper dome is a small cupola (KEW-puh-luh) or “lantern” with another domed roof, this one gold-plated and crowned by a 30-inch copper ball “plated” with gold coins. The Golden State, indeed.

Even the Capitol’s mailboxes are gorgeous.
Credit John Trainor

With its stunning rotunda, bronze and crystal chandeliers and sconces, hand-carved woods, “Eureka tile,” and marble mosaic floors, the Capitol speaks of high-flying ideals as much as practical matters. Interiors reflect the opulence of the early 1900s—nowhere more so than in the plush Assembly and Senate Chambers. (You can observe either legislative body from third-floor galleries.) The overall style is Greco-Roman but the red-hued Senate décor follows the lead of Britain’s House of Lords, and the Assembly’s soft green palate, the House of Commons. Their official mottoes, respectively—“It is the duty of a Senator to protect the liberty of the Commonwealth” and “It is the duty of Legislators to make just laws”—are inscribed in gold leaf but in Latin, perhaps so few of us know the rules. Before you set off for other Sacramento attractions, explore 40-acre Capitol Park, full of amazing trees. And those roses, especially sweet in fiery summer.

Until next time this is Kim Weir for Up the Road and North State Public Radio. To listen again, and for links and photos, go to my-N-S-P-R-dot-org.