Before Sacramento became California's permanent state capitol in 1854, the honor was held briefly by four other cities.
Growing up in San Jose, I vividly recall learning in fourth grade California history class that my hometown was the first state capitol. In the mind of nine year-olds, being first was pretty darned important. I remember how my class mates and I were certain that we San Joseans had it all over Sacramento because we were first!
In addition to San Jose, San Francisco, Vallejo and Benicia were all briefly the seat of state government. Of these four short-lived capitols, only the building at Benicia State Capitol Sate Historic Park survives.
The town of Benicia - named after General Vallejo's wife - welcomed the legislature in February 1853. Benicia had grown rapidly due to an ordinance depot and a military post. The Capitol building is a two story brick building with two large rooms for the legislative chambers and many smaller committee rooms. Two large doric columns at the entrance welcome visitors in grand style.
Benicia State Capitol is located in one of Benicia's charming old neighborhoods, on a street lined with modest Victorian era homes. I was able to park right across the street and it's only a five minute detour from I-680, so it's simple to make a quick stop if you're driving through the area. Well, except for one thing. It is no longer open daily. A hand written sign is pasted over the old hours, indicating that Saturday and Sunday are now the only days it is open. I had almost made the mistake of driving to see it on a Thursday a couple of weeks earlier. So here I was - on a Sunday afternoon - and it was closed!
I tried the front door several times, and looked through keyholes and windows to see if there was any sign of life.I wondered if my information on the hours was incorrect or out of date, but I ran into a few other folks who came to see the old capitol and had the same info I did. Hm. Well, might as well see what we can see. Roxy and I strolled around the exterior perimeter of the building. I stood on some spongy slats and took a couple of photos through some windows. The large upstairs meeting room looks as though it is still used sometimes. But still no sign of anyone inside.
A pretty herb garden made a nice spot for pretty Roxy to have her picture taken. A small rose garden held a miniature replica of the Benicia Capitol Building. I wondered which would have the best chance of survival, the miniature, or the real thing.
Several plaques and monuments proclaiming various historic events surrounded a naked flagpole.
A garden path led away from the capitol building to the historic Fischer Halon House, also closed today. After about 45 minutes, I’d see all there was to see without being able to go inside. During that time I’d say at least a dozen other folks came by with the specific intent to tour the building. Like me, most were baffled that it was closed.
As I drove away I speculated as to what might have happened. I had a hunch that it was largely volunteer run. I know from experience that with volunteer situations, sometimes things come up at the last minute and replacements can’t be found.
The heyday of Benicia as the state capitol was short lived. The town was unable to adequately accommodate California’s lawmakers. Over 100 men had no place to sleep except in saloons. So, on February 25, 1854, Governor Bigler accepted Sacramento’s offer of a spacious courthouse and new capitol building. On that very day, the legislatures, governor and all baggage and furnishings were loaded onto a steamer for the voyage to Sacramento. The Benicia State Capitol was closed.
Last week men were seen at the building measuring the exterior of the windows. It seems they were getting the dimensions so as to purchase material to board them up. Apparently closure is once again imminent.
It’s tending to a look a little grim for Benicia, but the residents are far from throwing in the towel. A recent article the Benicia Herald writes of how the community is organizing to keep their beloved capitol building open.
Once back home, I left a voicemail for Benicia State Capitol, inquiring as to their hours and whether or not they were already closed. I received a call back. My suspicions were accurate. Volunteers had been unable to man the building on that particular Sunday. Replacements could not be obtained. Therefore it was left to the park ranger to keep the building open. But as this sole ranger has several area parks to oversee, he/she must lock the Capitol while they check on the other parks. Apparently I had arrived during the ranger's window of absence. I was encouraged to return on another weekend to see the interior. I drive to the bay area about once a month, so I hope to be able to do so. In the mean time...
65 more parks to visit.
Hope to see you there!