Interior & Exterior Architectural Features

California’s State Capitol is constructed in a beautiful, neo-classical design. See the many interior architectural features such as unique stained glass renditions of the California state seal; California’s state flower, the California poppy, portrayed in marble mosaic floors; and an awe-inspiring view of the interior dome from both the first and second floors.

California Symbols

Symbols Unique to the Capitol’s Architecture

According to ancient Roman myth, the goddess Minerva was born fully grown. In a similar manner, California became a state without first having been a territory. Minerva’s image on the Great Seal symbolizes California’s direct rise to statehood.

California’s Great Seal

The Great Seal is one of many symbols that decorate the Capitol and represent the state’s people and resources. Delegates at California’s first constitutional convention determined its design, but not without controversy.

Records of their lively debate document the delegates’ disputes. Their conversations show that symbols take on different meanings to different people. When presented with the proposed design, one delegate rejected it. He felt bags of gold and bales of merchandise should replace the prospector and the bear. Senator Mariano Vallejo took another point of view: He believed that a bear should appear only if shown being captured by a lasso-wielding vaquero (cowboy). In the end, the delegates overcame their differences. They officially adopted the seal on October 2, 1849.

In 1907, a stained glass representation of the Great Seal was installed in the ceiling of the second floor hallways leading from the Capitol’s rotunda. To show off an exciting technological advance of the time, electricity rather than sunshine was used to light up the seal.

Today the Great Seal is stamped on all approved bills signed into law, as well as other important government documents. In fact, a faint image of the seal appears on every California driver’s license.

State Seal

California Golden Poppy Mosaic Floors

Although the California State Capitol dates back to the 1860s, Italian mosaicists installed the marble mosaic floors located on the second floor in the north and south wings of the Capitol during a major remodel of the building in 1906. The floor consists of a grey and peach marble background with black, yellow and red marble borders. Each section is distinguished by golden poppy designs at the corners and center. The marble pieces range from a quarter of an inch to two inches in size. Mosaicists working on the floor during the Capitol restoration in the 1970s completely disassembled the floor. After they cleaned each of the thousands of marble pieces individually, they reinstalled the floor using the exact process that artisans used to install the floor 70 years prior.

Eureka Tile Groupings

Four large tile groupings featuring Minerva seated with a California grizzly bear and the word Eureka are located in the north and south hallways of the first floor of the Capitol. “Eureka” is California’s state motto and translates from the original Greek to “I have found it.” The present tile floor coverings are reproductions of tiles that were originally purchased from the Mosaic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio, and installed in 1896. Visitors can see an example of the original Eureka tile grouping in the Eureka Room, located in the basement of the Capitol, near the cafeteria dining room.

Eureka Tile Groupings

Capitol Rotunda

A Symbol of Democracy

The rotunda at once divides and unifies the Senate and the Assembly, the two houses of the California State Legislature, who occupy the South and North wings of the Capitol, respectively.

The heart of the California State Capitol is the rotunda. This circular room is 53 feet in diameter and rises 128 feet from the basement of the building to the oculus at the apex of the inner dome.

On occasion, the rotunda serves as a ceremonial space, but more frequently, it serves as the main orientation space for the hundreds of visitors who explore the Capitol each day. Here, while visitors snap photos and sign up for tours, legislative staffers, lawmakers, reporters, and museum employees help carry out and document the work of state government.

A visitor’s first glimpse of the rotunda is usually from the first floor. Standing on flooring of Belgium black and Vermont white marble tiles arranged in a checkerboard pattern, visitors are surrounded by decorative murals. These murals feature design motifs of swirling foliage, urns, and stylized griffins, a mythical animal with the head of a lion and a body of an eagle. Artists first painted these murals on canvas, after which workers permanently attached them to the plaster walls. Separating these murals are four barreled niches featuring faux marbleized paint. Inside the niches are urns, which, on occasion, hold fresh-cut flower arrangements.

Rotunda with Flag

Dome Interior

The interior dome of the Capitol combines Victorian detail with Classical Renaissance elements and governmental symbols.

From the second floor, visitors have an unobstructed view of the interior ornamentation of the inner dome. Here visitors cannot help but find their eyes drawn upward in wonderment. The rotunda rises nearly 100 feet from a circular walk on the second floor to the oculus, a large window located at the apex of the dome. Sixteen windows, each surrounded by eight light bulbs, shed light on the great domed space. The ornamentation of the dome includes bands of cast iron, plaster, and painted canvas. Like the rest of the building, the rotunda ornamentation features design motifs common to neoclassical architecture, including columns with Corinthian capitals, egg and dart moldings, and festoons featuring cornucopias and fruit.

While a rotunda is a feature of nearly every state capitol in the United States, the California State Capitol rotunda is by no means generic. In fact, perhaps the most impressive decorations in the rotunda are those related the California’s state symbols. A band of cast iron grizzly bears looks down on visitors and stylized versions of Minerva, the Roman goddess who is featured on the Great Seal of California, set atop the arched openings that lead into the second floor rotunda walkways. Such California specific ornamentation exists throughout the rest of the building.

What visitors cannot see is the fact that directly above the oculus is a circular metal staircase that extends another 90 feet to the cupola, a small open space located on top of the Capitol’s outer dome.



The frescoing of the interior dome reflects the Renaissance Revival style popular during Victorian times.

Classical Renaissance Elements

Fleur-de-lis patterns hand painted in soft pastels and decorative plaster festoons adorned in gold reflect light from the dome’s skylights down to the halls below.

Governmental Symbols

Majestic eagles, representing the United States, grace the Corinthian capitals of the 16 pilasters that surround the rotunda. California’s grizzly bear can be seen on the 16 rondos in the frieze at the base of the dome.

Double Domes

The first domes in architectural history were originally built for temples or churches. At first they were squat and low, appearing insignificant from the outside, yet celestial from the interior.

Early architects did not have the means to construct a dome that would have the same grand appearance from both the inside and outside of a building until 1418, when an Italian architect named Filippo Brunelleschi conceived the idea of employing mathematical perspective to establish new rules of proportion and symmetry.

Brunelleschi’s theory of perspective was developed from the fact that the apparent size of an object decreases with the increasing distance from the eye. This knowledge was used by Brunelleschi in the successful construction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy.

His innovative plans included an inner hemispherical dome-within-a-dome. A second brick dome was to be placed on top and nine sandstone rings would then hold the structure together like a barrel. This was the first time that a dome created the same strong visual effect on the exterior as it did on the interior.

Brunelleschi’s method of design and construction was employed in building California’s State Capitol dome. The interior of the dome employs iron frame construction, allowing the majestic copper outer dome to rise above Capitol Park and the Sacramento skyline. From inside the building, the beauty of the Victorian detailing on the inner dome is visible in all its majesty.

Gold Ball & Cupola

The Crowning Ornament

The California State Capitol was in part modeled after the United States Capitol, which features a bronze statue of “Freedom” as its crowning ornament. Given the already marked resemblance between the two capitols’ architecture, the absence of a statue on the California State Capitol was intended to distinguish the two buildings. In addition, the presence of a gold ball, reminiscent of a gold nugget, reminds visitors to the Capitol of California’s Gold Rush heritage.

On October 29, 1871, the crowning ornament, a gold-plated copper ball, was affixed to the cupola at the apex of the Capitol. This ball, nearly three feet in diameter, was part of architect Rueben Clark’s original plans.

Not everyone, however, was happy with the design. Gordon Cummings, the second Capitol architect, expressed his displeasure for the ornament to the Capitol Commissioners. Minutes of a June 1872 meeting reflect that Cummings, citing his own and “universal public opinion,” urged the Commission to authorize the purchase of a bronze statue, which he argued would be more suitable than the gold ball which was “simply ridiculous and abominable.” He warned the Commission that, if the change was not authorized, “whatever may be the other beauties of the building and grounds, the defect will forever remain a slur on our taste….” Cummings went as far as soliciting estimates for a statue, including a bronze sculpture inspired by American artist Hiram Powers’ “California.” The exact reason is unknown, but the statue never became a reality.

Interesting Fact: Gilding the Cupola

In July 1880 the Capitol building received another spectacular embellishment – the gilding of the cupola roof directly below the ball. This sparkling gold enhancement made the Capitol an even more attractive focal point from around the city.

According to the July 14, 1880, edition of the Sacramento Bee, “When completed, the work will add much to the appearance of the building, and will have a fine effect at a distance of several miles from the city. It will also perhaps be of service to surveyors in prosecuting their labors, as under the sun’s rays, the gilded top will be discernable from every point of the compass.”

Encaustic Tiles

The tile laid in the Capitol’s second floor rotunda is a geometric mosaic of earth-toned shapes, creating a “marquetry” effect similar to the inlaid woodwork in Renaissance Revival style furniture. Maw and Company manufactured the original tile in Shropshire, England.

During the late 1800s, Maw and Company was one of the foremost tile manufacturers in the world. Master tile makers created each encaustic tile used for the Capitol rotunda by hand. Artisans filled each indentation in the pattern with colored, liquid clay. They then added subsequent colors until the pattern was completed. Finally, the tile was scraped back to an exact thickness and then kiln-fired for 24 hours before it was cut to its exact size.

The Capitol and Judge Edwin Crocker’s art gallery in Sacramento were the only two buildings in the west to display these tiles. In an article dated November 28, 1873, the Sacramento Daily Union reported, “The advantages claimed for these tiles are that they are far more beautiful and from twenty to fifty per cent cheaper than marble; so durable that it is said they are ultimately cheaper than a common wooden flooring, having in England stood fifty years’ constant wear without any perceptible difference in their appearance….”

Unfortunately, the tile did not withstand the 100 years’ worth of wear and tear on the rotunda floor. During the restoration, the original tile was removed and replaced with reproductions made from standard United States quarry tile. Workers installed the tiles that they salvaged from the original floor in the second floor staircase landing.


Statuary Groupings

Only A Few Originals Remain

Pietro Mezzara, California’s first major sculptor, created the statuary for the Capitol’s rooftop and pediment. Thirty figures, urns, and emblems adorned the Capitol in 1873.

The groups designed for the north and south porticos, and for flanking the frontoon [sic] will be each fourteen feet long by ten feet high. At each corner of the building will be placed statues eleven from 12 feet high representing respectively “War,” “Peace,” and “Force,” and on the intervening pedestals between corners and centers will be placed and arranged six statues seven feet high – “Fame,” “Eloquence,” and “Verity” – and 14 richly ornamented and figured vases from three-and-one-half to five-and-one-half feet high. All of these groups, statues, and vases are to be cast in solid stone by the Pacific Stone Company…By the terms of the contracts the work is to be fully finished and in place before the adjournment of the next Legislature. The total cost of artist and mechanical work, materials and finishing, will be $34,500.

 Sacramento Daily Union, September 4, 1872

These elements were removed during the Capitol’s 1906 renovation and subsequently lost. Today, only the statuary on the west front pediment tympanum (the recessed space enclosed by the triangular pediment) is original. These statues reflect the Capitol’s roots in Greek architecture. In Grecian times statuary was considered part of the building, not as mere decoration. It was a way to visually communicate and transmit epics and mythology in a largely illiterate society.

Portico & Pediment

In architecture, a portico is a covered area at the entrance of a building. Over the years, the original portico has been used as a setting for numerous state ceremonies.

According to the original architectural plans, the public would have entered the Capitol through the elaborately carved wooden portico shown here. A grand staircase was to rise from the street level. However, as construction delays occurred and costs rose, this plan was scrapped, and the entrance we use today became California’s “doorway to democracy.”

This original doorway, the only one remaining in the building today, displays the architectural style of a Greco-Roman portico. Its elaborate style invokes the feel of a temple with its miniature pediment, frieze, and tympanum over the doors.


A pediment, the triangular space under the roof, is an architectural feature borrowed from the Greeks.

The pediment on the west side of the Capitol contains statuary created by Pietro Mezzara. In the center stands Minerva, an 11-foot-high figure dressed in classical robes, holding a lance and shield, with a bear crouched at her feet. The statues to her left symbolize Justice and Mining, those to her right, Education and Industry.

Pietro Mezzara is best known for the sculpted figures he created for public buildings. Born in France to an Italian family, Mezzara came to California in 1850 to mine for gold. By 1857, he had a studio in San Francisco where he made cameos, medallions, and portrait busts.

East Annex Plaques

A portico, or entrance, is an essential aspect of a public building’s architecture. The architect of the East Annex realized that the new building had to have an entrance as impressive as the Classical Revival style west entrance.

The cast aluminum decoration that adorns the entrance, designed by architectural sculptor O.C. Malmquist of San Francisco, provides that grandeur. He designed the ten aluminum panels on the facade of the portico of the East Annex and the seven panels surrounding the entrance doors. The building panels portray examples of California flora and fauna while the entrance panels represent various scenes in the state’s history dealing with industry, transportation, science, and education.

The central entry door is crowned with a large reproduction of the Great Seal of California. Malmquist was born in Connecticut and studied at Yale University and the American Academy in Rome. After coming to San Francisco in 1922, he created numerous sculptures on buildings in Northern California. His greatest body of work was done in 1939 for the Golden Gate International Exhibition on Treasure Island. He died in San Francisco in 1975.

Art Deco and Art Moderne

The Art Deco and Art Moderne movements were interconnected with the Machine Age view that science and technology could lead to economic prosperity and personal freedom.

The images surrounding the East Annex entrance are consistent with these ideals. They represent California’s emerging economic power in the post-World War II era – expressed through its industry, science, natural resources, commerce, and transportation.

Machine Age Patterns

Modern elements in the Art Deco and Moderne styles included echoing machine patterns and shapes such as stylized gears and wheels, or natural elements such as sunbursts and flowers.

These largely French-inspired architectural styles centered on Cubistic structures that were embellished by the use of florid ornament inspired by the Paris Exposition of 1925 (Art Deco), and later by sleek, streamlined ornament that influenced the Paris Exposition of 1937 (Art Moderne).