Capitol Construction

Capitol Design and Symbolism

The state held a competition for the design of a permanent State Capitol building. In 1860, Miner F. Butler’s design won and he received a $1,500 prize. Butler’s proposal utilized earlier designs by Reuben Clark, an architect who had previously worked on the Mississippi Capitol.

Miner F Butler 1860s
Miner F Butler
Reuben Clark
Reuben Clark

Five different architects oversaw the construction of the Capitol from 1860-1874. Reuben Clark, the first of the five, worked on the State Capitol during its most critical stages of construction. In 1865, after five years, Clark was relieved of his duties after facing mounting pressures from political opposition and intense mental and emotional strain.

Gordon P. Cummings became the supervising architect for the next four years and oversaw the completion of most of the major exterior work on the Capitol. Albert A. Bennet and Henry Kennitzer followed in 1870. Cummings returned in 1872 and remained until the completion of the remaining interior work on the building in 1874.

Each architect made his own changes to Clark’s original design, which further drew out the construction schedule.

 “Capital” and “capitol” are two words that are often confused with one another. The word “capitol,” which refers to the building that houses the government, comes from the Latin capitolium, the ancient citadel and temple complex on the Capitoline Hill at the center of ancient Rome.

“Capital,” the city that is home to a capitol building, derives from the Latin caput, for “head, summit, chief point, and headquarters.”

Designed in a Renaissance Revival style, the California State Capitol is rich in architectural symbolism, based in large part on ancient Greek and Roman elements and motifs. The multi-columned portico with its pitched roof pediment represented the entrance into a Greek temple. For the Romans, the dome symbolized the heavens and all that existed under them.

Building Materials and Setbacks

The State Capitol is truly a Californian building. Its building materials were mined, dug, and harvested from California’s mountains and valleys. Most of the building materials used over the course of construction came from sources within a fifty-mile radius: granite from Sacramento and Placer County quarries, limestone from Alabaster Caves in Eldorado County, and clay from Sacramento.

Access to construction materials was important, so the distance needed to travel to unearth building materials and resources significantly impacted construction. Competing railroad companies supplied the transport of the materials. Their shipping costs and interests changed often, affecting the supply of building materials for the Capitol’s construction. This is why the Capitol contains darker granite, shipped from Folsom, as well as lighter stone, which came from the Rocklin quarries.

If Californians picked the worst time to form a government, the Gold Rush, then they certainly chose an equally unsuitable time, the start of the Civil War, to begin a massive construction project. At the time, it was the largest construction project of its type in the American West.

The Capitol’s construction took 14 years, from 1860-1874, although the government moved into the building in 1869. Major flooding, labor shortages, material scarcities, a major war, and changes in leadership all contributed to the slow pace of construction, and created a great scandal. California’s first large public works project soared in budget from an original allocation of $500,000 to a whopping $2.45 million.

Major flooding in the winter of 1861-1862, and again in 1868, resulted in the burial of the first floor to create the present-day basement as part of an elevated ground floor. Labor shortages and strikes for higher wages contributed to construction delay. Civil War rivalries aggravated conflicts between management and laborers, a stress that contributed to the loss of the building’s principal designer and first working architect.

Moving In

The State Legislature and offices moved into the current Capitol building at the end of 1869. The move into the new Capitol building was a big deal. Local and statewide newspapers often featured stories about the building, both as it neared completion and leading up to its occupancy.

Most offices moved in by the end of November and the first week of December, and the State Legislature began meeting in the new Assembly and Senate Chambers on December 6, 1869. Although the construction of the entire building was not yet complete, the occupation of the building was considered the major milestone. The new Capitol was set to come alive in its service to the government and people of California!

The state offices wanted to throw a grand event to commemorate moving the government into the building, as it was an exciting accomplishment. State officers formed a committee led by former governor John Bigler. The committee decided on a grand Capitol Ball to celebrate the occupation of the Capitol, and it was held on December 15, 1869.

The Ball featured all the trappings of elegance: dancing in the Senate and Assembly Chambers accompanied by two different bands, beautiful floral arrangements, and a lavish catered dinner attended by all the members of the Legislature as well as prominent Sacramento citizens. Newspapers statewide covered the grand affair and it was a most welcome and appropriate celebration to inaugurate the building as the new Capitol of California.

Capitol Ball

The state offices wanted to throw a grand event to commemorate moving the government into the building, as it was an exciting accomplishment. State officers formed a committee led by former governor John Bigler. The committee decided on a grand Capitol Ball to celebrate the occupation of the Capitol, and it was held on December 15, 1869.

The Ball featured all the trappings of elegance: dancing in the Senate and Assembly Chambers accompanied by two different bands, beautiful floral arrangements, and a lavish catered dinner attended by all the members of the Legislature as well as prominent Sacramento citizens. Newspapers statewide covered the grand affair and it was a most welcome and appropriate celebration to inaugurate the building as the new Capitol of California.