The California State Capitol (1874) is one of the iconic buildings in American architecture. Rapid development of Sacramento required functional and beautiful design to implement certain political objectives. As a result, local authorities ordered the Capitol project to be based on what had already been built in Washington. The California State Legislature conducts political sessions and decides strategic state issues in this building. In addition to its political purpose, the construction perfectly performs the aesthetic function. The building has been based on the U.S. Capitol, which uses a combination of Greek and Roman styles known as neoclassicism. Despite this, the building stands out for its originality and unique eclectic design.
Due to active gold mining, Sacramento began to develop rapidly in the 19th century . The first railway was built in North America, which contributed to even more active development of the industrial and economic spheres of the city (“California State Capitol History”). In the middle of the 20th century, Sacramento became one of the most powerful industrial centers of California, with its own railway station, a domestic and an international airport, and a huge man-made canal port. At the same time, it retained its special flavor despite skyscrapers, offices, and cutting-edge manufacturing plants. The California State Capitol represented the traditional and innovative spirit of the industrial style of life (Roth 142), and thus it was a building that absorbed important historical movements, economical convulsions, and architectural trends.
In 1850, California became the 31st state to join the United States of America (“California State Capitol History”). The capital was finally moved to the city of Sacramento in 1854, and from that time on it became a center of economic, political, and cultural life. Accordingly, the capital required a place for official sessions, and the government announced a competition. The initial project for the construction of the Capitol of California was ready in 1856 (Allen 87). However, the start of construction was delayed due to financing problems and the choice of location: “The first time the Legislature convened in Sacramento it was on a temporary basis because the Capitol in Vallejo was still incomplete” (“California State Capitol History”). The Governor of California John Downey signed off on the final decision regarding construction on March 29, 1860 (Allen 89). Two architects, Reuben Clark and M.F. Butler, designed the project.
The building (Figure 1) was designed in neoclassical style, which was a dominant art movement in the 19th century in Europe and America (“Neoclassical Revival”). The main function of neoclassical style was to coordinate the ensemble and stylistic integrity of the capital. The style continued developing with the latest trends, but according to the precepts of antiquity. This contributed to the rise of urban development ideas, which mostly had a historical function, especially in the context of confrontation between the North and the South. Regarding its aesthetic content, neoclassical style “tends to include the features of classical symmetry, full-height porch with columns and temple front, and various classical ornament such as dentil cornices” (“Neoclassical Revival”).This style is quite singular , because it was guided by the best examples of Roman architecture, borrowing its orderly systems of columns and the overall pathos of design. However, Greek temples were also built in the heart of the Capitol and were characterized by distinguished mathematical precision, monumentalism, and simplicity of design (“Neoclassical Revival”). Accordingly, the neoclassical style of the California State Capitol progressively combined both Roman and Greek elements, creating a unique object in the urbanized Sacramento. The style was borrowed from French architecture: “Architecture of the period was marked by the spread of Neoclassicism, evident in the capitol buildings from Washington DC to California or plantations of Louisiana. The historicism of the period found its complement in new modern markets, prisons and bridges” (Onians 212).
The central point of the Capitol is the California Senate Chamber (Figure 2), similar to a corresponding chamber in Washington DC. The California Senate Chamber accommodates forty people. The room is decorated in red, reminiscent of the best examples of European aristocratic style. A portrait of George Washington leads to the Chamber on the second floor. Overall, the interior mixed different architectural elements: sculptures borrowing motives from the ancient mythology, portraits of American politicians, Corinthian columns, and high arched windows (Allen 76). All this creates a feeling of luxury and high-moderate policies, and properly balanced elements exhibit dominance of neoclassical style.
The Italian mosaic (Figure 3) played an exceptional role in the interior. The mosaic was discovered after the reconstruction of the floor in 1906.It is located on the second floor of the north and the south wings of the Capitol (Reed). Mosaic is the foundation of Roman art, which was especially important in palace architecture. The marble mosaic consists of gray and brown elements, and depicts a floral ornament. Each section is separated by golden poppy, creating an effect of a continuous picture.
The mosaic was constructed according to a geometric principle with a marquetry influence. It is reminiscent of late Renaissance interiors that were primarily used for aristocracy as well as in Vatican. This effect is achieved by the illusion of specific materials that truly resemble the color of wood. Mau and Company in England produced the tiles. Their company was one of the most popular ones in the late 19th century (“Neoclassical Revival”). It is noteworthy that each piece of tile was created manually, and then assembled by a craftsman step by step. This is especially important, because the Capitol was destroyed several times, and the most difficult task for the conservators was to restore this unique mosaic pattern. Unfortunately, the original tiles were replaced with duplicates after another demolition of the building.
The central architectural element of the Capitol is the rotunda (Figure 4), which is a replica of those built in the Roman era. It has a diameter of 53 feet above the ground, and rises to 128 feet from the foundation of the Capitol (Allen 80). A rotunda in architecture performs various functions. On one hand, it is a part of the space designed for receptions, banquets, and official meetings. On the other hand, the rotunda helps to create a sense of coordination in space, pointing thousands of visitors in the Capitol into the right direction. Yet, the primary function of the Capitol rotunda is to hold official state meetings, so politicians may decide on many important political issues concerning everyday life beyond the Capitol walls.
The rotunda occupies two floors of the Capitol. It begins with black and white tiles and concludes in a large dome. The walls on the first floor are covered by frescoes with various ornamental patterns. For example, an artist painted a fresco of a Griffin on canvas, and afterwards it was copied to the plaster walls. In addition, the basis of the rotunda is a large statue carved out of Carrara marble. It is a statue of kneeling Columbus (Figure 5), who appeals to Quinn Isabella for the last time. It is virtually life-sized and was completed in 1883. The ground floor provides a general view of the Capitol, but it is better to observe from the second floor, where the dome is situated.
The main feature of the dome is its beneficial position that gives an opportunity to observe the Capitol from every angle: “The Capitol’s neoclassical architecture, fountains, sculpture, and other artifacts engage the visitor in walking around the Capitol and its grounds and in viewing the building from many vantages” (Budnick and Petersen 268). In this case, neoclassical architecture has a slight advantage, because it utilizes simple geometric principles of constructions. The dome plays a special role in the architectural design of the California State Capitol. This has also been borrowed from the Roman style, where it represented Roman dominion over other countries. Accordingly, the rotunda performs the same function in the Capitol, embodying the growing political and economical power of America in the late 19th century among colonialist countries. The dome is supported by columns, so it gives an impression of stability and trustworthiness.
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The dome (Figure 6) combines Victorian, Renaissance, and classical elements, mixing these components in the right aesthetic proportions. In addition, there are also state symbols such as the Gold Seal and Eureka. The dome can be seen from the second floor, which displays it in its full glory. The rotunda rises almost 100 feet on the second floor, so there is plenty of space. The architects used sixteen windows and light bulbs surrounding the windows to let more light into the room. Hence, the dome is always illuminated inside. It was particularly innovative in the middle of the 19th century. The floral ornament in the dome and rotunda are typical for neoclassical architecture, which also combines Corinthian capitals and moldings (“California State Capitol History”). All this creates an aura of sophisticated wealth and luxury. Yet, it is not Baroque architecture, because everything is balanced and harmonized according to neoclassical canon.
An ensemble of Corinthian columns is located in the center of the Capitol. It has been borrowed from Greek architecture. The columns form a gold crown of the dome and immediately attract attention of the viewer. A cornice supports the pediment above depicting Minerva surrounded by Education, Justice, Industry, and Mining. The dome of the Capitol is decorated with a gold ball, symbolizing California’s Gold Rush (Carso 184). This is significantly different from other capitols, because most of them are decorated with different statues.
Minerva is one of the main unique symbols of the Capitol. It is located in the dome and draws attention to its bright decorations and ornaments. According to Roman mythology, Minerva developed in artificial conditions until she was fully grown. It became a symbol of California, because the state has also appeared out of nowhere and became one of the most influential ones due to its economic policies. Therefore, Minerva is an example of how to succeed in almost anything. This symbol can be seen on the Great Seal (Figure 7). The Seal represents the people of California, who were able to develop a large and resource-rich territory during the Gold Rush. In 1907, stained glass was installed in the ceiling of the Great Seal in the corridor, which is located in the rotunda of the Capitol (Onians 214). It is used to show the exciting technological breakthroughs in electricity. Today, the Great Seal is used on all approved bills and other important government documents. Another symbol of the Capitol is Eureka (Figure 8). This symbol is located on the first floor of the building. Eureka is the official symbol of California. It means searching for something new and unknown. As Sacramento was built on wild territories, resources were the main discovery in the history of this city. Hence, Eureka embodied the people’s wish to find something new, in spite of difficulties and obstacles (“California State Capitol History”). Eureka was depicted on the California grizzly bear, which is a reinterpretation of a Roman legend in the context of American national culture. The large mosaic tiles were transported from Ohio, and installed in 1986 (Onians 214). There is also a separate room with Eureka in the Capitol, where visitors can see the original mosaic.
A huge number of styles and movements have influenced the California State Capitol, including classicism, romanticism, Art Deco, and modernism. The building was modeled on the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. The frame style and the whole construction of the California State Capitol are fully consistent with the Capitol in Washington (Allen 81). The architectural principles of exterior and interior were borrowed from Roman and Greek cultures in both Capitols. Besides, the senate wing was also modeled on the U.S. Capitol.
Art Deco and modernism strongly influenced the interior. These styles were associated with the Machine Age and urbanization, which correlates with the subsequent development and restoration of the building. Furthermore, modernism expresses a human desire for freedom and independence. For example, the wall decorations reflect the California government’s loyalty to these democratic ideals. The aesthetic elements from Art Deco and modernism included machine patterns and forms that were styled in wheels, ornaments, and sunbursts (“California State Capitol History”).
Classicism has the greatest influence on the architecture of the Capitol. It is focused primarily in the frontage and park landscape. The main function of classicism is a glorification of power, but the Capitol embodies American democratic values. Classicism is especially noticeable in the ancient colonnade and portico, which is decorated with the relief depicting mythological figures. The desire for pomposity is balanced with rational geometric proportions, creating an effect of architectural expediency.
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Capital Park (Figure 9) is also part of the exterior of the California State Capitol, because many famous statues, buildings, and streets are located in perfect neoclassical order. The park planning was based on the best parks in Europe, which were also oriented towards the principles of classicism (Carso 142). A circle with diverging paved paths is located at the heart of the park. There are many flowerbeds and trees that were planted by the principles of landscape design. In addition, there are about 40 acres of gardens in the vicinity of the park (“California State Capitol History”). These gardens contain unique trees and shrubs from around the world, so the gardens are considered to be individual works of art. The park has 155 memorials of famous people: politicians, writers, diplomats, and sponsors that are associated with the history of California. For example, there are memorials to firefighters (The California Firefighters Memorial), veterans (The California Vietnam Veterans Memorial), and soldiers. Most of the monuments are dedicated to American soldiers, because the history of California is equally connected to wars and peace. Pietro Mezzara was one of the most outstanding sculptors working on the Capitol. He created many important sculptures on mythological themes. He fashioned a number of sculptures on the roof of the Capitol and on the front, adding to the atmospheric romantic mood of the building. He created more than thirty figures and emblems that adorned the Capitol in 1873 (Allen 116). Unfortunately, these figures were destroyed in 1906 during the restoration of the Californian State Capitol. All these statues reflect the influence of Greek culture on the construction of the Capitol, which was reflected in neoclassical movement: “In Grecian times statuary was considered part of the building, not as mere decoration. It was a way to visually communicate and transmit epics and mythology in a largely illiterate society” (“California State Capitol History”).
The California State Capitol is an example of neoclassical architecture with a combination of stylized classical elements and innovative parts. On the one hand, the California State Capitol was created in the image of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, and thus has borrowed the warrant system, geometric design, and rotunda. On the other hand, the function of the Capitol was to demonstrate the most significant achievements of California, particularly in science and technology. Therefore, the building has both natural and artificial lights that symbolize progress and industrialization. The Capitol perfectly combines such opposite movements as classicism, Art Deco, modernism, and romanticism. Moreover, it harmoniously integrates with the environment, such as parks and gardens. The geometric construction represents formal elements in architecture,taken from Greek and Roman cultures. The whole design conforms to the principles of harmony, balance, and appropriateness. The most expressive thing is the interior of the Capitol, especially the rotunda and the dome. The emphasis was made on the dome, which gives the impression of pomp and celebration. Indeed, the Capitol is the place for big politics, but its historical function is to show the American cultural power, and especially the importance of democratic values such as freedom, independence, and equality for the whole world.