Today, visitors to the Capitol see numerous examples of furnishings that are largely of the Renaissance Revival style. This style, which had been introduced into the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, was the favored style of the Capitol’s original designers. Such furniture was heavily influenced by Renaissance architecture, which had itself been derived from the classically ordered architecture and sculptural ornamentation of ancient Rome.
Often massive and monumental, Renaissance Revival furniture is characterized by its architectural form. Furniture makers used pediments, entablatures, volutes and finials, and carved acanthus leaves, sphinxes, griffins and other allegorical figures to make their furniture resemble buildings in miniature.
The presence of such furnishings in the Capitol today is a result of the efforts undertaken during the restoration of the Capitol (1976-1982). Over the many years since officials first occupied the Capitol in 1869 and the beginning of the restoration in 1976, elected officials and their staff updated many of the interior furnishings to meet their ever-changing needs and design sensibilities. To these people, furniture such as desks, chairs, lamps and other pieces were not antiques, but simply contemporary office furniture. As such, perhaps no differently than we might swap out a lamp or office chair in favor of something newer or more comfortable, so too did staff dispose of various office items and furnishings.
Today, precious few of the original furnishings remain from the early period of the Capitol. The 120 carved walnut desks ordered from John Breuner’s furniture company in 1869 have remained a constant feature of the Senate and Assembly Chambers. Many other furnishings, however, met with a different fate.
In 1976, during the beginning phases of the restoration project, while engineers and architects grappled with how they would make the old Capitol structurally sound, a furnishings design team began to conceive of how they would furnish the Capitol. A number of rooms, historically used by elected state officers, were to be set aside as museum rooms. These rooms were faithfully reproduced and furnished, aided by photographs and other documentary evidence and are meant to represent a specific moment in time. The rest of the building, by contrast, was to be working space for the Legislature. By the middle of 1980, the furnishings design team began to acquire authentic, period antiques for the functional interior spaces, and portions of the legislative chambers, a few conference and hearing rooms and offices such as those used by the President pro Tempore of the Senate, Speaker of the Assembly, Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader. The furniture selected for these spaces had to be at once functional and representative of the Capitol’s early period (1870-1910). An additional challenge for the team was to find furniture appropriate in both style and scale. Individuals and companies donated some original pieces, while the design team obtained other through a furnishings exchange program coordinated with other state and federal agencies. Planners, however, purchased most of the authentic period pieces from California’s antique dealers.