Interior and Exterior Architectural Features
California’s State Capitol is constructed in a beautiful neo-classical design. Visitors can see many interior architectural features, including unique stained glass renditions of the California state seal, California’s state flower, portrayed in marble mosaic floors, and an awe-inspiring view of the interior dome from both the first and second floors.
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, feeling that bags of gold and bales of merchandise should replace the prospector and the bear. Senator Mariano Vallejo held 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 hallway leading from the Capitol’s rotunda. To show off the exciting technological advancements 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 and other important government documents. In fact, a faint image of the seal appears on every California driver’s license.
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 gray 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 these mosaics using the exact process that artisans had used 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 tiles used in the existing Eureka mosaics 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 tile in the Eureka Room, located in the basement of the Capitol near the cafeteria dining room.
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.
The rotunda occasionally serves as a ceremonial space, but more frequently acts 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 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 the body of an eagle. Artists first painted these murals on canvas before 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 sometimes hold fresh-cut flower arrangements or seasonal decorations.
The interior dome of the Capitol combines Victorian detail with Classical Renaissance elements and governmental symbols.
From the rotunda, visitors have an unobstructed view of the interior ornamentation of the inner dome. 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, sit atop the arched openings that lead into the second floor rotunda walkways. California-specific ornamentation exists throughout the rest of the building.
Visitors cannot see the circular metal staircase that extends another 90 feet above the oculus 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.
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.
The first domes in architectural history were originally built for temples or churches. They were squat and low, celestial inside, but insignificant from the outside.
Early architects did not have the means to construct a dome that had the same grand appearance both inside and outside until 1418, when Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi employed mathematical perspective to establish new rules of proportion and symmetry.
Brunelleschi’s theory of perspective was developed from his observation that the apparent size of an object decreases as its distance from the eye increases.
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 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, the absence of a statue on the California State Capitol was intended to distinguish the two buildings. The presence of a gold ball, reminiscent of a gold nugget, reminds visitors to the California Capitol of the state’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 ornament, 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 “simply ridiculous and abominable” gold ball. 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. Though the exact reason is unknown, 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.”
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 additional 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 size.
The Capitol and Judge Edwin Crocker’s art gallery (now the Crocker Art Museum) 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.
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 the corner of the building will be placed statues eleven or twelve feet high, representing respectively “War,” “Peace,” “Prudence” and “Force,” and on the intervening pedestals between corners and centers will be placed and arrangad [sic] six statues seven feet high – “Fame,” “Eloquence” and “Verity” – and fourteen 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 these 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 to a largely illiterate society.
Portico and 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 an elaborately carved wooden portico. A grand staircase was to rise from the street level. However, as construction delays occurred and costs rose, this plan was scrapped, and the west entrance became California’s doorway to democracy.
This doorway displays, the only one remaining in the building today, displays the architectural style of a Greco-Roman portico. Its elaborate style invokes the atmosphere of an ancient temple, with its miniature pediment, frieze, and tympanum over the doors.
A pediment, the triangular space under the roof, is another 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.