Former governor’s mansion begins restoration to public service

By Louise Chu, Associated Press
Monday July 01, 2002

SACRAMENTO – It may be the nation’s most populous state and the world’s 5th largest economy, but California’s governor has no official mansion and few places to go in Sacramento for major ceremonies. 

Stories abound of the state’s efforts at improvisation. Gov. George Deukmejian once hosted Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain at the Nut Tree Farm in Vacaville, and in 1999, then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo stayed in a local hotel during his visit to Sacramento. 

But, with the renovation of the old Leland Stanford Mansion, that’s going to change. 

It’s been more than a century since the mansion stood as the state of California’s official residence. 

Built before the Capitol itself by the former governor, railroad pioneer and founder of Stanford University, the four-story Italianate mansion housed three governors before becoming an orphanage and eventually falling into disrepair. Now, a rehabilitation project has started to restore the building to its Civil War-era glory and give the governor a place for official meetings. 

The mansion can be “a center to bring international visitors so that we can show off the historic aspects of the city,” said California first lady Sharon Davis, the honorary chairwoman of the Leland Stanford Mansion Foundation. 

California hasn’t had an official governor’s mansion since 1967, when Gov. Ronald Reagan left 1526 H St. in downtown Sacramento, which housed 13 of California’s first families, starting with Gov. George Pardee’s family in 1903. Calling it a “firetrap,” the Reagans campaigned for the construction of a $1.3 million home on the American River for future governors. 

But when Democrat Jerry Brown, who lived in the old mansion when his father Edmund “Pat” Brown was governor from 1959 to 1967, took office in 1975, he shunned the Reagans’ home and lived in a studio apartment near the Capitol. He called the newly built mansion a “Taj Mahal,” and the Legislature eventually sold it. 

Since then, governors have lived in a leased house in the Sacramento suburbs, where Gov. Gray Davis and his wife currently live. While Davis has resisted plans for a new state-funded executive residence, recent governors have found it increasingly difficult to conduct state protocol business without an official location. 

“The Capitol is beautiful, but there should be a place specifically for the governor to use,” said Gayle Wilson, wife of former Gov. Pete Wilson and honorary co-chairwoman of the foundation with Davis. During her husband’s tenure from 1991 to 1999, state visits were often diverted to San Francisco or Los Angeles, where they could provide better accommodations. 

Since the early 1990s, Wilson has been working with the foundation to raise money to restore the Stanford Mansion. 

“When we started on this project, we never had any thought that this would be a place for the governor to live,” Wilson said. “However, we did feel that the state of California, Sacramento, the governor and the Legislature needed a historic site as a place to entertain foreign dignitaries, to have bill signings and have other historic events.” 

Built in 1857, the mansion served as home and office for three governors, most notably Stanford, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad and California’s first Republican governor. It was also the birthplace of his only son, Leland Stanford Jr., in whose memory he later founded Stanford University after his son’s death from typhoid fever shortly before his 16th birthday. 

After Stanford’s own death in 1893, his wife Jane donated the building to the Catholic bishop of Sacramento, who converted the mansion into an orphanage. It served as a home to hundreds of children for 90 years, and in 1983, Deukmejian officially declareroject, including a $2.5 million donation from the Stanford family and continued funding from the Department of Parks and Recreation. 

The two-year, $17 million rehabilitation project has been divided into two phases. Phase one involves restoration of the exterior and first three floors as well the garden entrance. The foundation is currently raising the $3 million needed for the second phase, which will restore the fourth floor, barn and rest of the garden. 

The mansion is expected to be open for state use and public tours after the completion of the first phase in 2004.