California Forum

Reopen the Capitol’s front door

In January, the Joint Rules Committee issued a memo stating that the east end of the state Capitol – the back of the building – would no longer be open to the public as of Feb. 1.

The reason cited: the San Bernardino shootings.

The memo explained that the public could still enter through either the north or south security pavilions.

But it was what wasn’t in the memo that was perhaps more notable.

There was no mention of the west entrance of the Capitol.

So what’s the big deal with the west entrance? Well, for one thing, it’s the main entrance to the building. For another, it’s no longer accessible to anyone at all.

That’s right – the front doors to the state Capitol have been locked since September 2014.

Just like that, 147 years after the California State Legislature moved into the Capitol in 1869, the front door to “the people’s house” – and Sacramento’s top tourist attraction – was permanently, and unceremoniously, locked.

Where was the memo on that? Well, there wasn’t one.

The architects and artisans and state leaders who spent years creating a spectacular entrance to the building must be turning in their graves. No longer can visitors walk through the main doors directly into the awe-inspiring rotunda 120 feet below the inner dome. There are few more spectacular spaces in California.

How did this happen? Slowly, and then suddenly.

During World War II, for example, the dome of the Capitol, which had been open for some 70 years, was permanently closed.

After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, state legislators proposed erecting a $3 million fence around the building. It was rejected, though security cameras were installed.

In 1998, a shooting at the U.S. Capitol resulted in armed CHP officers at each entrance here at home. In 2001, a truck driver slammed his rig into the building (fortunately no one inside was hurt), and then 9/11 happened later that year. As a result, by 2002, metal detectors were installed at every entrance and a $7 million plan was soon adopted to ring the Capitol with steel bollards, steel cables and concrete planters. And two “security pavilions” with X-ray machines were installed at the north and south entrances.

After the 2011 assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona, the 17 sergeants-at-arms began carrying semi-automatic weapons.

Suddenly, there were a whole lot of guns in a building where a shooting hasn’t occurred since 1927 – and that was caused by a lovers’ quarrel, not an angry constituent.

That brings us to 2014. It was then that a man entered through the exit door of the west entrance and slipped by an officer. When security located him, they found he wasn’t armed and posed no threat.

Still, it was somehow considered enough of a breach to shutter the front doors of the Capitol for good.

Quite simply, we need to stop letting every national tragedy impinge upon our access to this living museum. Let’s not forget that the Capitol is already newly ringed with steel and concrete barriers, fitted with surveillance cameras and metal detectors, patrolled by police in cars, and on bikes and horses, guarded by officers with guns at the entrances, and protected inside by sergeants-at-arms with semi-automatic weapons. What’s next? A moat?

Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer for the Joint Rules Committee, says that the only way decisions like these get overturned is if a legislator champions the cause.

So that’s what needs to happen here. Someone needs to step up and realize that a mistake has been made, that a line has been crossed.

It’s time to reopen the front doors to the people’s house.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article appears at sactownmag.com. Contact Turner at rob@sactownmag.com.

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