California State Capitol tour

California State Capitol

Visiting the state capitol for the tour, I was immediately surprised by two things: one, the front of the building is largely covered up by scaffolding for a restoration project, and two, you can’t even enter through the original building at all.

The entrance is not only in the back “annex” of the building where all the offices are located, but in separate wings added in the early 2000’s to allow for more rigid security screenings. It’s not exactly like the TSA though I had to take off my watch and belt to make it through the metal detector.

I arrived slightly late for the official tour that hour, but since it’s a pretty causal and free tour I was allowed to join anyway. Several tours are offered during open hours nearly every day of the year; call ahead or ask at the information desk in the rotunda on the first floor for details.

As it turns out the government offices are all in the annex building, which dates back from the 1940’s and is unfortunately pretty drab. It feels like an upscale public school building at best. The plan is to tear down and replace this part of the building soon.

California State Capitol
California State Capitol

The original building is largely a museum at this point, aside from the State Senate and State Assembly chambers. During my visit on the weekend both chambers were filled with students trying their hands at politics. I have to say a handful of the students sounded very professional.

According to the guide both rooms borrowed their color schemes from their UK counterparts — the red color scheme in the Senate is from the House of Lords, and the green color scheme in the Assembly is from the House of Commons.

California State Capitol

Speaking of connections to the old world, in the middle of the rotunda is a marble statue of Columbus begging Queen Isabella for funding.

The connection between Columbus’ voyage and California is thin at best, but the statue took on a good luck charm status when legislators would go up to the second floor and try to toss coins into the queen’s crown as a superstition for luck in getting bills passed. Today this practice has been forbidden thanks to damage to the statue, though they’re allowed to toss cotton balls instead.

California State Capitol

Due to Jerry Brown’s unprecedented split terms as governor, his original portrait was recently removed and is no longer displayed with the other portraits — a new one is in the works. The previous portrait is in a side hall that’s off limits when certain government functions are in session.

This original portrait by California artist Don Bachardy was considered controversial at the time as it broke with the conventions of how politicians were meant to be portrayed in art. At the same time it’s unmistakably Jerry Brown, and in the years since political portraits have become less homogeneous. For example the portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger almost looks like a movie poster.

California State Capitol

Unlike the tour I took last year of the superficially similar looking Colorado State Capitol building, there’s no viewing deck or even access up to the top of the rotunda.

According to the guide there is a walkway up some very narrow stairs for maintenance purposes, though the very top of the stairs were sealed off when the building was extensively retrofitted/rebuilt in the 1970’s.

California State Capitol

There’s plenty of other details big and small about the capitol building reveled on the tour — far too many to go into here — so I’ll end on a silly one.

Before he left office, Arnold Schwarzenegger purchased a life-sized bronze bear statue and placed it outside the governor’s office.

On one hand it’s a strange choice and I’m not sure Schwarzenegger is someone I’d consult for decorating advice in general, but on the other it fits the state’s bear motif which is referenced throughout the capitol building. I guess the fact that he left office nearly a decade ago and the bear statue is still there kind of speaks for itself.

My recommendation: It’s a free tour of a building with a lot of history so why not? You may even learn a little about how the state government works along the way.