Friday, October 09, 2009

California Had Several Capitals Before Sacramento

California took its time in deciding where to place its capitol. Before selecting Sacramento as its seat of government, California had a number of earlier capital cities.

For instance, while not technically ever designated the state capital, Monterey hosted the 1849 constitutional convention during which a state constitution was drafted and San Jose was selected as the capitol site.

San Jose held the distinction of being state capital for only two years, from November 13, 1849 to May 1, 1851. During that time, a two-story adobe hotel served as the capitol and two sessions of the state Legislature were held in the city.

Legislators, however, were not impressed with San Jose, which at the time was fairly small and had limited accommodations and services. In 1851, they voted to relocate the capitol to Vallejo.

Unfortunately, Vallejo was equally ill-equipped to serve the legislators—during the 1852 session a steam ship, Empire, served as a kind of floating hotel for many lawmakers. After holding portions of the Third and Fourth Sessions of the Legislature in Vallejo, in 1853 legislators voted to move the capitol to Benicia.

While Benicia, which had a grand new city hall building that doubled as the capitol, was an improvement over the previous capital cities, it was also too small for the growing machinery of state government. During the 1854 session, it was reported that “at least one hundred men had no place to sleep except barrooms of saloons.”

So legislators were relieved when a generous proposal to host the state capitol arrived from the city of Sacramento. The city offered free use of the Sacramento County Courthouse, rooms for state officers, fireproof vaults for records, free moving expenses, and free land for a future capitol building.

On February 25, 1854, Sacramento was officially selected as the state capital. During the next four months, the county courthouse served as the capitol.

On July 13, 1854, however, the courthouse was destroyed by fire. Within a short time, construction began on a new county courthouse, which was completed in January 1855.

This second courthouse served as the state capitol from 1855 to 1869 (with the exception of a four-month period in 1862, when the capitol was temporarily moved to San Francisco due to severe flooding in Sacramento).

Work on a permanent Capitol in Sacramento began in September 1860. Construction would take about 14 years because of funding problems and due to the fact that work had to cease during the wet winter months. Additionally, building materials were often scarce during the Civil War years (1860-65). Finally, in 1874, the Capitol building was completed at a cost of nearly $2.5 million.

Looking at it today, it’s easy to say that California’s State Capitol looks like a capitol. With its classic Roman Corinthian design, thick, granite foundation and 200-foot high golden cupola atop a dome, the building is a textbook image of a statehouse.

These days, the structure, which was restored from 1975-81, also serves as a kind of living history museum that offers an opportunity to learn a bit about our neighboring state.

Most of the building’s rooms, once offices for California state officials, have been lovingly restored with antique furnishings. The basement houses a small theater showing a film about the building of the Capitol, a tour office, historical exhibit rooms, gift shop and a restaurant.

The California State Capitol is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free guided tours are offered. The building is located between 10th and 12th streets and L and N streets in downtown Sacramento. For more information call 916-324-0333,


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