Restoring the Historic Capitol

The decision to restore the historic Capitol created one of the largest restoration projects in California’s history. Artisans relearned arts long forgotten, the Senate and Assembly chambers were returned to their former glory, and the building was updated with modern technology while maintaining the splendor of the Capitol’s original appearance.


Preserving a Legacy

The restoration of the California State Capitol began in 1975 and took a total of six years to complete. The final cost of the project was approximately $67 million. At the time, the restoration was the largest ever completed in North America. The massive undertaking required the participation of master artisans, architects, structural engineers, and historians.

During the project, the entire western portion of the Capitol – which contained the legislative chambers – was closed. The Legislature temporarily met in trailers located in Capitol Park. Fortunately, individual legislators, the Governor, and the Lieutenant Governor were able to remain in the East Annex and were only inconvenienced by the construction.

In January 1982, the newly renovated building was reopened to the public. After the ribbon cutting, the Legislature hosted the “Restoration Gala,” a celebration featuring dazzling fireworks and a laser light display.

While the Capitol was being refurbished, the Legislature hired and trained staff and volunteers to interpret the restored historic building. California State Parks (the California Department of Parks and Recreation) took over interpretive duties in the early 1990s. The Legislature, with the assistance of State Parks, worked diligently to recreate the Capitol’s historic rooms as they would have appeared in the early twentieth century. Historians undertook intensive research to gather appropriate furnishings, artifacts, and artwork for the rooms.

Today, most of the rooms in the Capitol building are still used daily to conduct the state’s business. The historic rooms on the first floor continue to be preserved under the care of California State Parks’ curatorial and interpretive staff.

Workers on outer cupola

Capitol Mosaics

The original Capitol building featured many intricate mosaic patterns, made from specialty tiles. The earth-toned marquetry patterns on the second floor, for example, had been initially created using tiles imported from England. Unfortunately, these tiles did not survive a century of daily use and had to be replaced with replica tiles during the restoration. The few tiles that restoration artisans had been able to preserve were incorporated alongside their modern replacements. The poppy mosaics, also located on the second floor of the Capitol, were also carefully taken apart during the restoration. Most of these small tiles were saved. Each of the approximately 600,000 original pieces were cleaned, polished, and reinstalled.

Workers doing tile restoration in Capitol

Parget Plasterwork

During the Capitol restoration, artisans aimed to recreate the building’s original parget plasterwork. Parget refers to the colorful plaster decoration that can be found on the ceiling and frieze of the Archives Exhibit Room on the first floor. These designs were once common throughout the building, but decades of modernization had resulted in parget being painted over or even removed entirely.

Since existing historic photographs of the parget were in black and white, restorers were unsure of the techniques and color palettes used by the original artists.  Fortunately, a full-color segment of a parget California poppy design was found hidden behind a heating duct during the project. This revelation gave artisans the clues they needed to recreate this lost art form.

Trial and error eventually led to the successful technique used to restore this intricate design work. The artists began with a simple perforated drawing made by copying the discovered poppy frieze. Next, they carefully applied charcoal powder to the perforations to transfer the drawing onto the ceiling. Then they used pastry tubes and small tools to apply a plaster mixture directly onto the transferred drawing, much like a baker decorating a cake. Once the parget had dried, it was painted to match its original colors.

Worker restoring plaster
Man restoring ceiling in capitol

Grand Staircases

The original grand staircases were removed from the Capitol in 1906 to make space for additional offices and elevators. Recreating the staircases during the restoration was a daunting task, and the only existing references available were two black and white photographs.

Researchers were able to eventually locate and obtain one of the original posts, which had been purchased by St. Francis of Assisi Church in Sacramento. Using this surviving post as an example, craftspeople recreated the hand-carved walnut, mahogany, and redwood posts decorated with bear heads and foliage. The newel post light fixtures are copies of the original gas lights and feature flying seahorse ornamentation inspired by Greek motifs.

Renovation of staircases in Capitol

Legislative Chambers

The legislative chambers of the California State Capitol were originally designed and furnished with the intention of inspiring awe and conveying the gravity of the Legislature’s responsibilities. Over time, a series of modernizations slowly chipped away at their initial grandeur. When the Capitol first opened in 1869, a Sacramento Daily Union reporter describing the chambers wrote, “This happy mingling of colors by the painter’s brush, this ingenious carving by the skillful worker in wood, that horn of plenty . . . all tend to impress the mind with pleasurable and patriotic emotions.” By the 1970s, however, the details described by this reporter had been replaced with white paint, fluorescent lights, and lowered ceilings.

One of the priorities of the 1970s Capitol restoration was to return the legislative chambers to their former glory. What could be saved was restored, while missing elements were recreated using historical photographs and physical evidence for reference. Bronze and crystal wall sconces were reconstructed; original furniture was restored and, in some cases, reproduced. Artisans used an 1870 photograph of the chambers’ intricately designed Wilton carpeting to faithfully recreate and reinstall it.

Today, visitors can observe Assembly and Senate proceedings from the galleries (balconies) that overlook the restored chambers. The galleries are architectural features that symbolically represent the democratic process by allowing the public to observe their elected representatives in action. The Corinthian design of the chambers’ columns and pilasters reflect the Greek and Roman influences on California’s democracy and rule of law.

The décor of the chambers reflects precedents set by British Parliament. The color red, featured in the Senate Chamber, was historically associated with the House of Lords. In the Assembly Chamber, green is the predominant color – a tradition borrowed from Parliament’s House of Commons.

Restoration of paint in Capitol
Artist applying slow drying adhesive to Assembly Chamber ornamentation