How Two Governors in a Bathroom Changed California’s Capitol
Eighteen years after Arnold Schwarzenegger complained about the Capitol Annex housing his office, it finally is being overhauled.,
SACRAMENTO — California’s big, domed, white Capitol is a grand and inspiring building. But California’s governor’s office? How to say this delicately?
That’s how Arnold Schwarzenegger put it this week as he remembered the grand tour the departing governor, Gray Davis, gave him shortly after Schwarzenegger won the 2003 election in which Davis was recalled.
The cramped quarters. The drab decor. The way you could walk right past the entrance — in a bland, six-story space completed in 1952 — and not even know its occupant was the leader of one of the world’s largest economies.
“He showed me the bathroom and I was like, ‘How do you have enough room even to pull your pants down?'” Schwarzenegger remembered, chomping a cigar and laughing during an interview on FaceTime from his home in Brentwood. “It was not at all what California is about. It was embarrassing.”
From that “pathetic” first impression came a plan that, nearly two decades later, is coming to fruition: an overhaul of the midcentury wing of offices known as the Capitol Annex where the governor, the lieutenant governor, all but five legislators and more than 1,000 staff members conduct the people’s business. Or at least a plan that will bring it into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Schwarzenegger commissioned a serious study that was waylaid by the Great Recession. His successor, Gov. Jerry Brown, revived the issue and won legislative funding for building upgrades. In 2017, Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Sacramento-area Democrat who leads the joint legislative committee overseeing such matters, took the reins of what became a $1.2 billion-plus renovation project.
Now, in preparation for work to begin, the occupants of the Capitol Annex have begun moving to temporary quarters. “We’ve taken a page from Elvis and left the building,” joked H.D. Palmer, a deputy director of the state’s Department of Finance.
Cooley said the new $450 million state building, a block away, is already an improvement because “there aren’t any doghouses” — every legislative office has a window. A legislative staff member before joining the Assembly, he views the change as a strategic investment in good government.
The renovation, when complete, will not only address the Annex’s obvious issues — leaky plumbing, lack of sprinklers, halls and bathrooms that inadequately accommodate wheelchairs, floors that don’t match the floors of the 19th-century neo-Classical landmark onto which the Annex is attached. It also will expand office space and create suites big enough for committee chairs and their staffs to be near each other, the better to brainstorm.
“We shape our buildings,” Cooley said, quoting Winston Churchill. “And afterwards, they shape us.”
It is unclear when the Annex will fall: Several lawsuits are challenging the teardown. Among the objections are that the new project uproots historic trees, lacks alternatives to demolition and fails to consult with historic preservation officials. In a refrain that has vexed California developers for decades, one charges that the remodel violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
The litigation, however, will not stop initial work, such as asbestos removal. “Those projects will be necessary regardless,” Cooley said. The aim is to have the new addition ready to open by Sept. 9, 2025, California’s 175th anniversary of statehood.
Schwarzenegger’s annoyance with the Annex notwithstanding, he was renowned as a host there during his years in the governor’s office, which is built around a courtyard and colloquially known as “The Horseshoe.”
He brought a big statue of a grizzly bear back from a gallery in Aspen and installed it outside the governor’s doorway, where it became a wildly popular attraction for visiting school groups. (So many small hands petted it before it was roped off during the coronavirus pandemic that it became known around the Capitol as “Bacteria Bear”; it is now outside the new governor’s digs.) He also established a tent in the courtyard to accommodate cigar smoking. Later, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has four children and many staff members who are young parents, installed a playhouse.
Brown, who is famously spare, did not complain personally about the accommodations, although a 2016 report from his administration called the Annex “aged, inefficient and inadequate.” But Schwarzenegger would pointedly meet visiting world leaders in Santa Monica in his big personal office, lined with showbiz memorabilia, rather than in Sacramento, where he said the governor’s suite couldn’t accommodate entourages.
“When you visit the governor in a great office, there’s a different respect and you can negotiate,” he said.
Mostly, however, he said, he felt the existing offices undersold the spirit of California.
“Little offices produce little,” he said. “You are not surrounded by a grand vision. This state has a history of big visions. We are the powerhouse of the United States.”
California’s main Capitol building, built between 1860 and 1874, was refurbished in 1982 and reopened in a howling rainstorm. “A cake made to resemble the Capitol was cut into slices by Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr., who could not resist licking a finger he had plunged into the icing,” our correspondent wrote.
Along with the Annex renovations, The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Cooley is also overseeing about $100 million in Capitol security upgrades, the result of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington.
Shawn Hubler is a reporter for The New York Times, based in Sacramento.
If you read one story, make it this
A father and son were arrested on suspicion of starting the Caldor fire.
The rest of the news
Shortage of medical devices: How the supply chain upheaval became a life-or-death threat.
Abortion sanctuary: California clinics and several policymakers released a plan to make the state a “sanctuary” for those seeking abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Omicron spread: Wastewater samples from Sacramento and Merced Counties show signs of the Omicron variant, suggesting it is widespread across the state, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Prison accountability: California’s prison system is not fair to its inmates or those who guard them, The Associated Press reports.
Racist police texts: California’s attorney general is investigating the Torrance Police Department after the discovery of years of racist text exchanges that included jokes about lynching and using violence against suspects, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Garcetti’s ambassadorship: Six months after President Biden tapped him to become U.S. ambassador to India, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles has been scheduled for a key Senate hearing, according to a committee website.
Austin Ekeler: The Los Angeles Chargers running back discusses his strong season and how it helped him climb the ranks of fantasy football rosters.
Field of Light: The 15-acre fiber-optic art installation that made our 2020 list of places to go — and inspired more than a few marriage proposals — will remain as a Paso Robles attraction indefinitely, The San Luis Obispo Tribune reports.
Weather warning: Parts of Mendocino, Humboldt and Lake Counties could experience temperatures as low as 27 degrees starting Thursday night.
Unvaccinated students: Thousands of middle and high schoolers in the Bay Area have not confirmed their Covid-19 vaccination and could be forced back into remote learning next month, The East Bay Times reports.
Police shortage: In the midst of increased homicide rates and decreased police staffing, the Oakland City Council has approved measures to recruit new officers, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
What we’re eating
This treat sandwiches raspberry jam between two buttery cookie layers.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Lisa von Schlegell:
“I’ve rediscovered bicycling now that I’m retired — it feels like flying. An especially lovely bicycle ride, entirely off road and relatively flat, is in Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.
Starting at the Noyo Headlands Park parking lot off Cypress Street, one can fly along the bluffs overlooking the Pacific on the Ka Kahleh Trail, and then continue on to the Ten Mile Beach Trail for incredible beach and ocean views. There are always birds and flowers, and in season migrating whales spout offshore. Sometimes the trail becomes impassable at MacKerricher Beach, but most days one can ride a total of about 15 miles out and back. Bikes can be rented from Fort Bragg Cyclery, downtown, with easy access to the trail.
Afterward, nothing beats Princess Seafood Restaurant way at the end in Noyo Harbor, where one can sit outside on the deck overlooking the mouth of the harbor, watch the seals and fishing boats, and eat locally caught grilled fish. They’ve got lots of craft beer on tap and in bottles, including the local North Coast Brewing Co.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re recommending
The best songs of 2021.
And before you go, some good news
Of the many beloved holiday traditions that were canceled last year because of the pandemic, few were as dispiriting to Southern Californians as the loss of the annual boat parades in Orange County. The nighttime processions of light-bedecked watercraft — more than a century old in at least one city — annually draw an audience of millions, who cheer on festive yachts, sailboats, motorboats, Duffy boats and humble kayaks.
Well, say cheers with your hot chocolate and offer a socially distanced aye-aye to Santa: The boat parades are back. The show starts this weekend in Dana Point, Huntington Beach and, of course, Newport Beach, the granddaddy of the O.C. boat parades.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” speaker (5 letters).
Soumya Karlamangla, Jack Kramer, Steven Moity, Isabella Paoletto and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today.
You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.