Monday, July 18, 2011

California Governor's Mansion State Historic Park: Trip 2 of 70

I lived in San Jose for the first 27 years of my life and finally visited the Winchester Mystery House last summer. I suppose that set the precedent for living in the greater Sacramento area for 30 years and only now seeing the Governor's Mansion for the first time. And isn't that how it so often goes? We ignore what's in our own backyards until we're on the verge of losing it. On Friday my friends Jim, Geneva and I took the Light Rail out of Folsom to downtown Sacramento to see both the California Governor's Mansion and the Leland Stanford Mansion, two historic state parks on the closure list. It was a perfect summer day. The weather topped out around 80 degrees rather than the not uncommon central valley triple digit July heat. A light breeze made the walks between the train and the mansions very comfortable. Nine short blocks got us from the train to the California Governor's Mansion on the corner of 16th & H Streets. The mansion sits in an ordinary neighborhood at this very busy intersection. No doubt I've driven or walked by it many times over the years in search of a free parking spot for an event at the Community Center.Tours are offered hourly.
We arrived at 10am sharp, but were advised that we'd probably be happier waiting until 11am as there were already 50 people (who were late) booked for the 10 o'clock tour. Indeed, moments later we saw the bus arrive with the "tourists," and agreed that waiting was a good idea.

Strolling around the outside of the building, and the gardens, I was surprised at the small size of the backyard. Where does the Dog get to play? The only fencing was the wrought iron around the side and front of the house, a barrier insufficient to keep out a panhandler who wanted my spare change, never my keeping in a pooch. I was reminded that when it was originally built in 1877 that neither traffic from the road nor close neighbors or businesses were an issue.

While perusing the museum and shop - located in the old carriage house - the docent informed us that they are hopeful the Governor's Mansion will escape closure. The possibility of a sponsorship and a potential partnership with a nonprofit organization are in the works. Raley's/Bel Air has a program where they will donate a nickel for every reusable shopping bag - paper, plastic or cloth - to the State Parks, beginning with the Governor's Mansion. So optimistic are they, that they are moving forward with plans to restore - and eventually offer for public use - the swimming pool that was built for Gov. Pat Brown.

An amusing tale goes along with the creation of Governor Brown's pool. It seems that he loved to swim, but alas, there was no pool at the mansion. So, he made it a habit to go for swims at a nearby hotel. Then one day he was photographed by a journalist leaving said hotel in his bathrobe, allowing the public to make a variety of innuendos from the picture. At that point, First Lady Bernice Brown made it a priority to raise the $6,000 needed to build the governor his own swimming pool!

California's executive mansion was built in 1877 for Albert and Clemenza Gallatin at a cost of $75,000 (at a time when the average Sacramento home was built for around $700). Albert was a partner in the Sacramento hardware store of Huntington & Hopkins. The State of California purchased the house from Joseph and Louisa Steffens to use as a home for California's first families in 1903 for $32,500. Victorian architecture was somewhat out of style by then, but the house was suitably impressive, conveniently located, and comfortable. Governor George Pardee, his wife Helen and four daughters were the first residents of the "new" Governor's Mansion. During the next 64 years it was home to the families of 12 other governors. Among these were Nina and Earl Warren (who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Courts) with six children, Bernice and Pat Brown with four children, and briefly, Nancy and Ronald Reagan with their two children.

The Reagans only occupied the mansion for three months. Nancy believed both the house and the neighborhood to be unsafe, and they rented a home in Sacramento's "Fabulous Forties" neighborhood for most of the eight years in office. Nancy Reagan took quite a bit of flack for what was often perceived as a snub to the mansion.

But in truth, the location of the house at the busy intersection was becoming a security risk, and the fire department deemed the mansion a fire trap. Harassment from passing cars, kidnapping threats, and windows lit with pretty Victorian lamps that were literally only a stones throw away from the sidewalk, made it an unsafe place for a governor and his family to live. The Reagans built a new "mansion" in the Carmichael area of Sacramento. It was completed just before he left office. When the new Governor, Jerry Brown, refused to live there, the state sold it. Since then, California no longer provides an official residence for it's governor.

The clock struck eleven and our tour guide waved us toward the mansion along with a small group of Finnish tourists wearing yellow sneakers. Happily for me, non-flash photos are allowed inside the mansion.

Today's guests see marble fireplaces from Italy, gold framed mirrors from France, and exquisitely handcrafted hinges and doorknobs, all of which are reminders of the Gallatins and the Victorian era. Samples of dishware and gowns selected by the various First Ladies are on display, as well as many of the original chandeliers.

The first piece of furniture every acquired for the mansion was a Steinway piano. Good choice!

Here and there some "borrowed" items decorate the abode. Several pieces of statuary have graced the entry hall since 1930, courtesy of the De Young Museum. About a year ago, the De Young became aware of the "loan"... so soon our little alabaster friends will be traveling back to San Francisco!

There are both formal and informal dining rooms, and bedrooms for the children. The third floor is currently closed for renovation, but includes a ballroom and game room. And much much more...

I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of the Victorian era, so my personal enjoyment of the tour (and it truly was enjoyable) had more to do with the history than the decor. A 1950s era kitchen - complete with one of the first air conditioners ever - completed the tour.

Today's tour brought back a memory of something I had forgotten for over 40 years. Twas 1969 when I was a freshman in high school. Our history teacher had assigned everyone in the class specific topics for oral reports, and mine was to be on Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown. He had just recently finished his terms as governor. Not knowing where to get any info on him, I wrote directly to the governors office and within a couple of weeks - in plenty of time for my report - I received a personal biography signed by Governor Brown himself (and got an "A" on my report.) But that was a different time. I was 14 years old and living 50 miles south of Haight Ashbury. Not even even a personal note from the former governor could impress a youngster absorbed in The Jefferson Airplane, Donovan and the Beatles. Fun memory though...

Jim, Geneva and I walked a few block to Luna's Cafe for a delicious vegetarian lunch (except for the bacon on Jim's sandwich), and then walked another eight blocks for a tour of the Leland Stanford Mansion, which was to be a completely different experience... but that's for the next blog. I want each of the 70 parks to have it's own page (besides which, this blog is long enough!)

See you at the Parks.


All posts, opinions and photos are by Lucy D'Mot and are available to all for reposting/reprinting, so as to raise awareness of the California State Parks on the closure list, and encourage others to visit.


  1. What a fantastic history lesson. I had no idea that California does not provide housing for the governor these days. Oh, and I LOVE the name of the cafe!!!


  2. Haha Linda, of course you love the cafe... didn't think of that. It's a great little place and they support local artists, musicians and theatre as well.

  3. Thanks Lucy! I live so close and never have visited this wonderful place. A distant relative of mine, Lincoln Steffens supposedly won the mansion in a card game! Don't know whether that is true or just a piece of family mythology. Great blogs so far and a good road map for a retiree looking for cool things to do after visiting 10 states in the last month.


    So... the Governor's mansion is part of YOUR family history! According to the state park, the mansion was sold to his parents... but the book review in the above link sure makes him sound like the kind of character that would do something like. Love the book title!


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