One of our first orders of business when we moved to Sacramento was to tour the old Governor’s Mansion. It was closing for renovation, and we wanted to know what Nancy Reagan had meant by “fire trap.” Also, it was across the street from our new place.
We had come from Southern California, where the past is almost never your neighbor. Los Angeles can’t go five years without reconstituting its whole landscape. Orange County’s idea of “history” is South Coast Plaza before they opened the Nordstrom.
You don’t look out your front window in either place and see 138-year-old Victorian mansions outfitted with Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown’s silverware and Gov. Hiram Johnson’s old sofa.
So over we trooped, hoping to tap into Old California, or at least check out the current governor’s youthful digs.
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I’m not going to lie: There’s a certain Gladys Kravitz-like satisfaction in snooping through that kind of landmark. It was more fun than it should have been, imagining Gov. Jerry Brown as a student, parking his collegiate suitcase in his father’s gubernatorial home.
We marveled at his mother’s old gowns and smiled at the claw-foot tub that his kid sister had given red toenails. We admired the antique kitchen and the table where President John F. Kennedy had once eaten supper.
But you could see why Nancy Reagan would eventually nix it. Tapping into Old California is one thing, but living day to day with the smell of its mothballs takes dedication. And the area was in serious decline by the time Ronald Reagan came to town.
Even now, amid gentrification, the neighborhood is hardly what it was when that big white house, with its peaked roofs and its black wrought iron fencing, was the nicest home in Sacramento. Midtown is rebounding, but after nightfall, you can still hear drunks over there, doing heaven-knows-what against its jasmine hedge.
Crazy bicyclists careen down the sidewalks. Mentally ill people hide in the shadows, yelling at their voices. The other morning, a barefoot, bare-chested homeless man wrapped in a white blanket wandered back and forth in front of the gate, chewing a pigeon feather.
It’s unlikely, I know. Brown will be a short-timer by the time the work ends, and it’s a big house for just two people and two dogs. But Brown should come back because the old mansion, like the governor himself, exemplifies one of the most-often-forgotten aspects of California – that the future isn’t the only thing that informs our identity, or all that we value.
“My name is Elizabeth,” the poor soul said.
Nonetheless, I hope Brown makes good on the statement, issued recently by his office, that he might use the mansion, now a state park, as an official in-town residence again when the renovations are done.
It’s unlikely, I know. Brown will be a short-timer by the time the work ends, and it’s a big house for just two people and two dogs. But it’s a beautiful building, getting prettier every day under the ministrations of its hard-hatted work crews. Making it more lively might hasten the comeback at our end of midtown, the way it has classed up the block where Brown and his wife stay now when they’re not home in Oakland.
Mostly, though, Brown should come back because the old mansion, like the governor himself, exemplifies one of the most-often-forgotten aspects of California – that the future isn’t the only thing that informs our identity, or all that we value.
Even here in the land of supposed fresh starts, we are who we are at least in part because of all those who came before us. That’s a valuable reminder for the parts of the state where it’s considered a faux pas to let your roots show: History is with us, whether we treasure it or resist it or call it a firetrap – or sit across the street, watching it unfold.