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

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The cupola sits at the top of the Capitol dome well above the rotunda.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

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.

He explains that construction of the original Capitol started in 1860.“It was this massive, magnificent Capitol built on the Western frontier using primitive lime mortar and bricks they made right here.”

0327BA-CAPTOUR-E1Assemblyman Ken Cooley leads a tour of California's Capitol.   Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

By the mid-1970s, it would have crumbled in an earthquake. So the state undertook the largest restoration project in the western hemisphere.

Just as the Capitol's renovation was wrapping up in 1981, Cooley recalls, “we were having a problem affecting our agriculture community in California – a medfly infestation.”

And if you look at the ceiling of the old governor’s office on the first floor, “the artist painted a medfly on a rosebud” - a little practical joke.

Elsewhere on the first floor, Capitol tour guide Alex King takes us into the old State Treasurer’s office. “You just walked into a time warp,” he says.

“There are five things in this room that were here back in 1906. I'm one of them,” King cracks. He tosses five one-ounce gold coins on the counter and points to a very old vault the size of a closet. “That vault held our entire state treasury of eight million – with an M – dollars.”

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.

“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 and Capital Public Radio Multimedia Producer Andrew Nixon up.


The Capitol rotunda is contained within the taller Capitol dome.   Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

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. “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.

“Do you know about the lightning strike out there?” Jones asks.

“No, I don’t,” Cooley replies.

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

“Oh my gosh,” says Cooley.

“They say it’s good luck to touch it,” Jones says.

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

“Now we’re gonna go up the wobbly staircase to the cupola,” Cooley says.

It’s a long ways. Ninety feet above the inner dome.

One final metal ladder, and we’re up on top. All I can say is: Wow...


The view from the top of the Capitol dome shows a green Sacramento landscape.   Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

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

“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,” Officer Jones says. “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.

Take your own tour with this slideshow from multimedia producer Andrew Nixon



Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio