Ken Cooley has scrambled all over the Capitol, inside the walls and out, during restoration that began in the late 1970s and since its completion in 1982. When he was a young staffer in 1977, his boss asked him to lead tours and answer queries as to what justified extravagant expenditures on the Capitol, the largest rehabilitation project in the Western Hemisphere.
Now an assemblyman from Rancho Cordova, Cooley is passionate, dedicated and still leads tours, combining history of the architecture with lessons about civics. His enthusiasm is contagious.
The construction of the Capitol between 1860 and 1874 was fragmented, contentious and, 100 years later, deteriorating. Made with primitive brick and mortar, the building could have collapsed. The $67 million project was exhaustive, from the decorative to the structural. Reconstruction included the meticulous reinforcement of each weak link, every brick, one by one, section by section. The engineering accomplishments of the architects and contractors were spectacular. For a time, the dome hovered over a disemboweled central structure, all the way to the basement.
Towering over Capitol Mall, the vistas from the dome’s wrap-around porch are unimpeded, to Tower Bridge to the west, and out over Sacramento’s abundant trees. Stepping from the porch to the interior, the view is even better. From the brick roof of the rotunda, past tall windows and steel scaffolding, a white spiral staircase winds up several stories to the top of the dome. I declined an offer to ascend.
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Within the Capitol, architectural symbols can be found everywhere – from the post and ball at the top of the dome to the basement, where sections of original brick walls are left exposed. Sculptures, murals, tile floors and paintings provide more than just decoration, but continuity with history.
The Roman goddess Minerva, said to have been born fully formed, exemplifies California quickly attaining statehood. She’s featured in the state seal, in stained glass windows and in mosaic floors. Poppies grace laboriously renovated Italian marble mosaic floors. Bears circle the rotunda; oak-leaved gargoyles hide in ceilings.
The Capitol reflects California’s culture, creativity and innovation. Thirty-three years have passed since completing the restoration. Was the expense justified? About a million visitors each year can answer that question.
Cooley’s favorite symbol is found outside in the park. On each lamppost, a simple bundle of sticks symbolizes, he said, early Californians – individuals with separate strengths, bound together, compromising, listening. “Government is inherently frail,” he said; people “must be flexible, must bend without breaking.”
Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.