Tourist In Your Own Town: Capitol Building

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Capitol is open to the public every day but three: Christmas, New Year’s and Thanksgiving.  Hourly tours are free.


There’s no sign identifying the four murals in the Capitol basement….and many visitors probably walk by with little more than an admiring glance.  But not Vito Sgromo. 

“What I love about this is it’s little snapshots into California history.”

 The historian with the Department of General Services says the green, blue and gold-toned artwork is both historic and possibly prophetic.
Each mural by Arthur Matthews is three panels.  The first three depict the state’s Native American heritage, the Spanish missions, the discovery of gold, and the birth of statehood.  But the fourth is something entirely different: 

 “This is Rome.What they did, the artists did in 1913 is use historical allegory going back to the past to tell what California would be in the future.

 So, was it hope – or hubris? 

Everything that goes on here, everybody’s looking. What’s happening in CA – what’s going on in CA?  So, California  has evolved from this remote outpost that nobody wanted to go to, to like the center of one of the biggest economies and populations and the diversity of that populations in the world.  Are they that far off?”


Not far from the murals, veteran guide Ann Fry leads an hourly tour. 
“Welcome to your state capitol – I can say that to everybody cause you all live here…."

 She takes us past the historic Governor’s office the desk stacked with newspapers about the 1906 San Francisco quake.  The Secretary of State’s office with gas light fixtures, candlestick phones and early wooden ballot boxes.  And the Department of Motor Vehicles from 1902.  It consists of one desk.  And licenses were good for life.  These are the kinds of historical details that first-grade teacher Caomee Xiong  of Sacramento will take away from her tour:

“I’ve been here for like 14 years and never been here, so I thought oh, it’ll be good for me and then I can take it back to the classroom and share it with them.”

The current Governor’s office is in what’s known as the East Annex – the wing added in the early 1950’s when California outgrew the original building.  Ann Fry says it makes getting around tough: 

“You have this newer section with 6 floors and the older section with 4 floors and the floors don’t meet…the floor levels aren’t the same and with all the thousands of people coming here every year they constantly lose their way.”
But they’re *allowed* to wander – which has been a big surprise to
tourist Clair Kohler from San Diego.  


“You very seldom feel trusted anymore when you walk in any kind of an official place, whether it’s a building or a gardens or whatever and here, they do check your bags once you’re here,  but once your in, it just looks like you could walk almost anywhere.” 

Including here –the hallway between the Senate and Assembly chambers.  During session it’s chock-full of lobbyists clad in spendy suits monitoring the fate of their bills on TV monitors. 

 It’s here that the historic building and more recent annex meet.  Such mingling of old and new is evident throughout the building:  a peek into the chambers shows Senators’ laptops on the original carved walnut desks from 1869.  The oldest artifact in the building – a painting of George Washington given to the Senate in 1854, hangs above an electronic message board.  At the building entrance, metal detectors rest on intricate, restored tile work of the state seal.
Seeing it all has given Clair Kohler a new perspective:

“The nice thing about visiting any building like this is from this time on we’ll always picture it differently when we see on the news that something is being – a law is being debated or passed – until you’ve actually been someplace you can never really picture it.”
Maybe so.  But we’ll try anyway. Because there’s one place – a sacred place to Vito Sgromo – where sound may be more important than sight.  The Rotunda. 
”If you close your eyes and go to one side of it and listen to the noise, you’ll probably hear the same conversation that existed since the building opened. ‘what’s going on, who am I gong to see, what’s this room, where’s the committee being held?’  This is the heartbeat of California.”

The inside of the recognizable dome looks much like a giant decorated egg…and one prominent symbol takes us back to ancient Rome.  It’s Minerva – the goddess of wisdom.  She’s featured over the arched entrances that lead to legislative offices in both the state seal – and solo.  The myth goes that she was born full-grown; like California, which became a state without first becoming a territory.