How two governors in a bathroom changed California’s Capitol

‘It was not at all what California is about. It was embarrassing’

By Shawn Hubler

New York Times

SACRAMENTO — California’s big, domed, white Capitol is a grand and inspiring building. But California’s governor’s office? How to say this delicately?

“Rinky-dink.”

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 in the westside region of Los Angeles. “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 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, Cooley 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 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 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 from a gallery in Aspen, Colorado, 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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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