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Government & Politics

California's State Capitol, Like You've Never Seen It Before

Now, a tour of California’s state Capitol – but not just any tour. This one includes a little history … some surprising details that are easy to miss … and a rare trip to the top of the Capitol dome. Here’s Capital Public Radio’s Ben Adler.

As a high school marching band tunes up outside the state Capitol, Ken Cooley shows a couple dozen people the building he’s poured his soul into for the last four decades. He’s a Democratic Assemblyman, a longtime staffer and a walking Capitol encyclopedia.

Cooley: “So it was this massive, magnificent Capitol built on the Western frontier using primitive lime mortar and bricks they made right here.”

Construction of the original Capitol started in 1860. By the mid-1970s, it would have crumbled in an earthquake. So the state undertook the largest restoration project in the western hemisphere. Which leads us to our first story inside the Capitol…

Cooley: “In 1981, we were having a problem affecting our agriculture community in California – a medfly infestation.”

That was just as the Capitol's renovation was wrapping up. And if you look at the ceiling of the old governor’s office on the first floor…

Cooley: “The artist painted a medfly on a rosebud.”

… a little practical joke.

King: “Now you just walked into a time warp.”

Also on the first floor, Capitol tour guide Alex King takes us into the old State Treasurer’s office.

King: “There are five things in this room that were here back in 1906. I'm one of them. (laughter) … That vault held our entire state treasury of eight million – with an M – dollars.”

King shows us some money from the time:

King: “These one-ounce gold coins (clink!)”

And speaking of gold, that’s one of Cooley’s favorite stories about the Capitol restoration. His boss back then chaired the Senate Rules Committee and was accused by a political opponent of building a Taj Mahal for his cronies. Cooley takes us to the Senate chamber to explain how he helped his boss respond to that charge.

Cooley: “You know, you see all this gold in the building – it’s not actually gold – except here when you look at the Latin inscription over the dais, which is the Senate motto. And that’s true gold leaf because you wouldn’t put it up in something false.”

The Capitol has an inner dome, 120 feet above the Rotunda floor ... and an outer dome, the Sacramento skyline’s signature landmark. Cooley had to get special permission to take me up.

Our chaperone from the California Highway Patrol leads us up tall, metal ladders in the heart of the Capitol. We come out above the inner dome. Lawmakers’ and staffers’ names are scrawled everywhere – despite a “No Graffiti” sign. Cooley opens a window in the dome that looks down onto the Rotunda.

Cooley: “So we are surrounded by concrete and tall windows of the upper dome. And we’re in the 90-foot space between where the lower dome ends and the upper dome meets.”

Then, CHP Officer Mike Jones finds something that even Cooley doesn't know.

Jones: “Do you know about the lightning strike out there?” Cooley: “No, I don’t...”

Outside, on a walkway wrapping around the upper dome, you can see where lightning ripped away a chunk of the building.

Cooley: “Oh my gosh...” Jones: “So they say it’s good luck to touch it!”

Back inside the dome, we climb a tight coil of metal stairs, inside metal wire fencing.

Cooley: “Now we’re gonna go up the wobbly staircase to the cupola.” Ben: “It’s a long ways.” Cooley: “It is a long ways.” Ben: “You said 90 feet above the inner dome?” Cooley: “Yes.”

Ben Adler: “One final metal ladder ... and we’re up on top. Here we are. Wow...”

As we stand atop the upper dome, Officer Jones marvels at the view between the white pillars that hold up the tiny golden-domed cupola, the Capitol's highest point.

Jones: “You can really see why Sacramento is number two in the world for city of trees, when you come up here and really see the canopy of trees. ... On a clear day, you can see the Buttes really well, Mount Diablo really well, a nice view of the Sierras to the east.”

Then, reluctantly, we get set to climb back down to our daily grinds.