Previous Capitals of California
Royal Presidio Chapel
The San Carlos Cathedral is the last remaining structure from the Spanish Royal Presidio at Monterey, the Spanish and Mexican capital of California (1776–1846).
Named for the captain who raised the U.S. flag over the Monterey Custom House, Fort Mervine was the military capitol from 1846 to 1849. During that time, the Territory of California was governed by seven military governors, including John Drake Sloat, Robert Field Stockton, and John C. Fremont. While Stockton and Fremont both had California cities named in their honor, Sloat is commemorated by the Sloat Memorial, located down the hill from what remains of Fort Mervine. When completed, the fort measured 650 feet long and 400 feet wide. All that remains of the Fort Mervine site is a triangular earthen mound with five cannons pointing toward Monterey Bay.
Although Monterey was never a capital of the State of California, it served as the political and religious capital of Mexican California from 1781 to 1846, and remained the political center of California during the military occupation. In 1846, the first U.S. flag raised in California was in Monterey, and California’s military governors called Fort Mervine home during the years prior to statehood (1846–1849). When the first Constitutional Convention was held in 1849, it was Colton Hall in Monterey that was selected to host the 48 delegates for their six weeks of drafting the State Constitution. Even after the 1849 Constitution named San Jose as the first capital of the new state, it was made clear that if the new capital was insufficient, Colton Hall would be available to host legislative sessions.
In 1849, as California prepared for statehood, a convention was held at Monterey to write the constitution for the new state. Delegates were chosen in elections around the state and met for about six weeks starting in September 1849. A major debate at the convention was whether it was appropriate for the Constitutional Convention to prohibit slavery or whether that was a decision better left to the first legislature. In the end, the convention voted to settle the matter immediately, with Section 18 of Article I declaring, “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.”
The 1849 Constitution set San Jose as the first state capital, and required Assembly members to be elected annually (state Senators were elected every two years). The constitution also established both English and Spanish as the official languages for the state and prohibited both dueling and the establishment of a state lottery. Spanish would remain an official state language until the second constitution of 1879, the prohibition on dueling was eventually lost to time (and formally repealed in the 1990s) and the state lottery was authorized by initiative in 1984.
The Monterey Custom House is where the American flag was first raised over California. The building is now a state park and is marked by several plaques. At that site in 1846, John Drake Sloat sent Captain William Mervine ashore to raise the U.S. flag at Monterey.
While in Monterey, also visit:
Monterey Custom House
The Monterey Custom House was the location where the American flag was first raised over California. The building is now a state park, and is marked by several plaques. At that site, in 1846, John Drake Sloat sent Captain William Mervine ashore to raise the U.S. flag at Monterey.
San Jose (1849–1851)
Based on several historic maps, the location of the where the Capitol was in San Jose is now the entrance to the San Jose Fairmont Hotel. A small plaque (dedicated by the Native Sons of the Golden West) is located on the eastern side of Plaza de Cesar Chavez. A larger marker (dedicated by the State of California) is just north of the hotel. The Legislature first met on December 15, 1849, in the San Jose Capitol. The building was 60 feet long, 40 feet wide, and two stories high. The San Jose Capitol Building was destroyed by a fire in 1853. The location was covered by a large parking lot until the Fairmont Hotel was constructed on the site.
The California Supreme Court issued an 1854 decision that San Jose was the legal state capital. From April 1854 to January 1855, the state courts and court archive were located in San Jose. A January 1855 court decision reversed the earlier decision and declared that Sacramento was the legal capital of California. In 1893, E.C. Seymour introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 23, which would move the state capital to San Jose. It passed the Senate 27 to 8 and the Assembly 57 to 7. The removal was challenged, and the Supreme Court overturned the law, on the basis that it was ineffective (because San Jose hadn’t yet officially donated land for the new capitol).
Having promised land and accommodations, Vallejo became the state capital on January 5, 1852. But when legislators arrived construction of the capitol had not been completed and the noise and lack of accommodations made work impossible. On January 12, 1852, the Legislature agreed to keep Vallejo as the permanent location of the Capitol, but moved to Sacramento for the duration of the 1852 legislative session. At the end of the session, the capital returned to Vallejo, where it remained until just after the start of the next year’s session. On February 11, 1853, the capital was moved to Benicia.
Vallejo was the state capitol for 12 days, from January 5 to January 16, 1852, before the state capitol was moved to Sacramento for the duration of the 1852 legislative session. At the end of the session, the Capital returned to Vallejo, where it remained until the beginning of the next year’s session. On January 4, 1853, the Capitol was moved to Benicia.
The 300 block of York Street is now covered by a parking lot for the Solano County Health and Social Services (whose street address is 201 Georgia Street). Based on a comparison of vintage maps and current satellite images of Vallejo, the former location of the capitol building is near the Santa Clara Street entrance to the Health and Social Services’ parking lot (south of Georgia Street).
Benicia State Capitol
The Benicia Capitol (now the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park) is the large red brick building located on the northwest corner of 1st and G streets.
History: Built in 1852 as Benicia’s city hall, the site became California’s Capitol in 1853. The 1853 Session of the Legislature started on January 3, 1853, in Vallejo before moving to Benicia. The Legislature passed legislation to move the capital from Benicia to Sacramento a year later, on February 24, 1854. The location was deeded to the state in 1951 and became a State Historic Park in 1958. Also in 1958, the Legislature passed SCR 2, which returned the capital to Benicia for a single day on March 15, 1958. A second resolution, SCR 54, moved the capital to Benicia temporarily for sesquicentennial festivities on February 16, 2000.
Sacramento I: State Capitol (1852, 1854)
Because of the difficulties establishing a permanent center of government in San Jose, Vallejo and Benicia, the City of Sacramento offered its courthouse to the state for use as a capitol. The state Legislature agreed and Sacramento County’s courthouse (located on the northwest corner of 7th and I streets) served as the Capitol from 1852 to 1854 (with a short recess to San Francisco in 1862 due to large-scale flooding). The Legislature apparently found the location acceptable because no plans were made to relocate to another city. However, about a month after the adjournment of the 1854 Legislature, on July 13, the wooden courthouse “along with a considerable portion of the city” was destroyed in a massive fire.
Sacramento II: State Capitol (1855–1869)
With the Legislature scheduled to meet again in Sacramento early the following year, the recently destroyed Sacramento County Courthouse was quickly rebuilt following the fire of 1854. Construction of the new courthouse (to serve temporarily as the Capitol) began on September 1854 and was finished in January 1855. The new courthouse was described as a two-story “classical, temple-styled building” with eight Ionic columns. The building was home to the Assembly and Senate chambers, offices for the clerks and legislative officers, as well as the State Controller and Treasurer.
Sacramento County Jail (in 2008)
Although designed with the Legislature in mind, the new structure was a little small for the growing state government. The building, although always viewed by both Sacramento and the state as a temporary home, served an important purpose by allowing the careful selection and orderly construction of the new Capitol without the rush that had characterized the earlier moves. The second Capitol at Sacramento continued to serve as the Capitol for 14 years, as the new state Capitol was being constructed six blocks away. In fact, it wasn’t until 1869, when the current Capitol building was occupied, that the Legislature moved. This site is now the location of the Sacramento County Jail.
In 1870, the building returned to use as the Sacramento County Courthouse. The building was redesigned in 1913, but remained a courthouse until 1965, when a new building opened nearby. The former courthouse was then leveled and the existing building, the Sacramento County Jail, was built in 1989.
A new marker was installed on June 27, 2007, that gives a good history of buildings that previously stood on the site. It replaced an earlier historical landmark that only noted the 1852–1854 tenure of the site.
San Francisco (1862)
San Francisco Capitol
As a result of heavy rains in late 1861 and early 1862, the Sacramento River overflowed its banks and the capital city was inundated. Facing significant difficulties if they remained in Sacramento, the Legislature moved temporarily to the Merchants’ Exchange Building in San Francisco. “Erected in 1854 for the Hong Kong trading house of Jardine and Matheson, this imposing, three-story structure, capped with a central dome, was done in the Palladian style of architecture. Statuary of an allegorical nature embellished the cornice.”1
At the conclusion of the 1862 session, the Legislature bid farewell to its temporary home and relocated again to Sacramento.
The Merchants Exchange Building didn’t survive the 1906 earthquake, and the new Richard Henry Dana Building was constructed in its place. A major source of confusion is the existence of a new Merchants Exchange, which was constructed in 1904, at 465 California St., six blocks away from the former Capitol.
1 California’s Legislature (2017) edition by Wilson and Ebbert
Current California State Capitol
The construction of the state Capitol began on September 24, 1860. The first work was excavation of the basement wall near M and 11th streets. The cornerstone, laid at the northeast corner of the building, was placed on May 15, 1861. Because the hill that the Capitol sits on had not been formed at the time, the cornerstone is now located approximately six feet underground. Most of the granite for the construction was mined from a quarry on the American River in Folsom on the grounds of the state prison. According to the State Capitol Museum, as construction continued through the first floor, the source of granite was changed from Folsom to Penryn (seven miles north of Folsom). On the exterior of the building, the darker granite is from the Folsom area; the lighter is from Penryn.
The offices of the governor and secretary of state opened for the first time on November 26, 1869. The gold-plated ball at the top of the cupola (240 feet above street level) was signed by the secretary of state on October 30, 1871. Construction finally finished in 1874. The rotunda was open to the public until about 1877, when Thomas Beck ordered it closed because of graffiti and “obscene and improper writing.”
Even at the turn of the century, the state Legislature was beginning to outgrow its home. In 1899, Secretary of State C.F. Curry authorized the conversion of the Capitol attic (until then used for storage) into a new fourth floor that would be used for office space. This space is occupied by committee rooms and the offices of the President pro Tem of the State Senate.
This work lessened the pressure to expand and further construction was delayed until the addition of the Capitol Annex in the 1940s. The groundbreaking for the Annex took place on June 3, 1949. The Apse, which had been home to the State Library for 80 years, was demolished in July and August, with the new structure quickly rising in its place. The Annex was completed, and the hallways connecting it to the “New Capitol” were opened at the end of 1951. Earl Warren became the first to occupy the new governor’s office on October 29, 1951.
The 2001 Truck Attack
On the evening of January 16, 2001, the south side of the State Capitol was severely damaged when a semitrailer smashed into a committee room. Shortly after 9 p.m., long-distance truck driver Mike Bowers took the downtown exit from Highway 99. At 9:22 p.m., the semi sped through a red light at N Street and, hopping the three-inch curb that rings Capitol Park, up the South Lawn and crashed into the South Portico. The fuel tanks burst into flames, starting a four-alarm fire that would burn for a half hour, filling the Capitol with smoke. Although most of the damage from the fire itself was contained to the area around the South Portico and Room 113, there was massive water and smoke damage to the southern half of the Capitol (including the Senate Chambers and Historic Governor’s Office). The restoration would eventually total $15 million.