Three special buildings—including two historic houses and a really fine art museum—provide appealing destinations for a day or weekend trip to Sacramento this winter, especially when rainy or cold weather argues in favor of indoor activities.
First up is the newly opened Stanford Mansion, a solid Italianate Victorian near the Capitol. Both family home and official residence for Leland Stanford when he became Governor in 1862, it is now a State Historic Park. Just opened to the public after a lengthy and meticulous restoration, assisted by private donors, the house doubles as an official State reception venue.
Built by Sacramento merchant Shelton Fogus in 1856-57, it was expanded several times by the Stanfords. They raised the house a full story after a flood and added a mansard-roofed upper floor and an office wing, which ballooned the building from an original 4,000 to some 19,000 square feet.
Donated by the widowed Jane Stanford to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Sacramento in 1900 and used for decades as a “home for friendless children” then a social work headquarters, the mansion was purchased by the State of California in 1978.
Inside, the restored house gleams with original polished woodwork, rich carpeting, and original or replicated period furnishings, including a massive wooden sideboard carved to look like the front end of a locomotive. The large and ornate public rooms recall the Stanford family era, documented in 1872 in Eadweard Muybridge photos.
One upstairs bedroom is equipped with furnishings, including small, white-painted, iron bedsteads, which recall the orphanage use. The ground floor ballroom is now an event space and art gallery with changing exhibits; currently there is a very impressive show of plein air paintings of California scenes.
Leland Stanford, Jr., the only child of Leland and Jane, was born at this house in May, 1868. His death at age 15 would later inspire his parents to create Stanford University in his memory. Stanfordites may venerate the second floor bedroom where he was born, and the room next door touchingly filled with little Leland’s toys.
However, a more important Blessed Event took place in the Governor’s Office that Stanford appended to the east side of the building and later made available to two of his successors. It was there that Governor Henry Haight had his office when he signed the Organic Act creating the University of California on March 23, 1868.
The office and house were also used by Governor Frederick Low, Haight’s predecessor, who helped gestate the public University by suggesting the combination of the private College of California and State efforts.
Thus, in a symbolic way at least, both the University of California and Stanford University were born in the same place.
Around the house are newly refurbished grounds and a gift shop and visitor center, the latter handsomely equipped with interesting visual and video displays and a clever, take-apart, model showing the structure through several stages of remodeling and expansion.
Tired of too much Stanford? Head on over to the other old Governor’s Mansion, a wooden wedding-cake white Victorian Italinate built by hardware merchant Albert Gallatin in 1877.
The East Bay has strong historic connections to this house, although they’re not that apparent in the displays or the guided tour of two floors. Purchased by the State, it served from 1903 through 1967 as official residence for 13 Governors.
Two governors from Berkeley, Friend W. Richardson and C.C. Young, made this their Sacramento home, as did Oaklanders George Pardee and Earl Warren. Governor Pat Brown also had close UC connections, and several gubernatorial children attended UC campuses. This was also the home of the parents of crusading journalist and Berkeley alumnus Lincoln Steffens whom our guide identified vaguely as a “magazine writer.”
The interior of the house is festooned with elaborate painted plasterwork, including allegorical heads. Original Gallatin stained woodwork and murals were painted over during various remodels.
While the main floor retains its late Victorian/early 20th century character and appointments, the resident families placed an early modern stamp on much of the interior from the 1940s through the 1960s, and elements of their improvised décor, from wallpaper to table lamps to linoleum, remain.
There’s a clawfoot tub with painted red toenails, and another tub wallpapered on the outside (really). Other modernizations include a “Scandinavian” kitchen featuring a huge copper range hood, and early TV’s and air conditioners.
Much of the furniture and feel of the families is still in the house, including a dark wooden plum upholstered parlor set purchased by the Hiram Johnsons, the piano bought by Mrs. Pardee that J.F.K. supposedly played during a visit, and the kitchen table where Earl Warren read the morning paper.
Up on the third floor (currently not accessible to visitors) Teddy Roosevelt plotted campaign strategy in the Hiram Johnson era and Governor “Sunny Jim” Rolph reportedly hosted discrete card games. Examples of various formal silver, crystal, and china services are on display, some of the silver decorated with little raised-relief California bears.
Upstairs in one of the front bedrooms is a curving recliner or chaise lounge where, our guide said, Pat Brown would lie down on nights he couldn’t fall comfortably asleep in bed because of death penalty cases that were troubling him. Downstairs, a dynamite bomb shattered part of the kitchen in 1917, with I.W.W. activists blamed for the attack.
Happier stories include Governor Goodwin Knight carrying his new bride over the threshold no less than twice for photographers, then once for himself, children sliding down the banister of the wonderfully curving stairs, and a young Kathleen Brown (Jerry’s sister) throwing water balloons from the cupola on Halloween.
With the house museums behind you, recross downtown to the Sacramento River edge to one of the finest regional art museums I’ve seen. The Crocker Art Museum—one of the oldest in California, given in 1885 as a public trust to the City of Sacramento—is certainly worth a two or three hour visit.
Portions of the complex date back to 1872 and the main, early, wing retains much of its original handsome character, including richly tiled floors, a fantastic double staircase, and a steamboat shaped gallery overlooking an ornate ballroom.
The old gallery is tied by various additions to an original Crocker family mansion, restored on the exterior but sadly rebuilt inside in a modern “white box” modernist character in 1989. These Crockers—relatives of Charles Crocker, one of the railroad “Big Four”—benefited from a flood of railroad money in the 19th century and amassed on their European travels what was, at one time, the largest private art collection in the United States.
As early as the 1870s they also started collecting significant California artists, so the Museum has good Hills, Bierdstadts, Keiths and Nahls, among others.
The upper galleries are divided between an inner display of largely scenic and allegorical California painting—overlooked by a gigantic, “Yosemite” by Thomas Hill—and an outer gallery of eclectic European treasures.
Elsewhere there’s a not-too-extensive sampling of Asian art, a nice selection of modern sculpture and painting, and changing exhibit space.
One gallery currently displays (through Jan. 29, 2006) a rather remarkable survey of the work of Marsden Hartley, who seems to have eclectically mastered and practiced most of the avant garde painting and drawing styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
My one disappointment with these visits that the Stanford Mansion exhibits and descriptions treat Leland Stanford with almost saintly reverence, with no mention I could find of the more controversial aspects of his business and political life. The Crockers are similarly, but not as ostentatiously, venerated in the Crocker Gallery.
Both these families grew massively rich, in a frequent California way, not just from hard work and commercial acumen but from political connections, large sole-source government contracts, and preferentially favorable attention from well-cultivated legislative and legal bodies.
Although they commendably left much of their property to charitable purposes, I could not help wondering if a century hence Americans will be viewing the former mansions and benefactions of the executives and major stockholders of Halliburton, Chevron, and the like, and learning about their business past in a similarly sanitized manner.
IF YOU GO
The old Governor’s Mansion is at 1526 H St. several blocks northeast of the capitol. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Access to the house is only by guided tour on the hour, $4 per adult.
The Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park stands at 800 N St., corner of 8th Street, two blocks west of the Capitol building.
Definitely double-check if the house is open for tours when you plan to visit, since it closes irregularly for special events. (916) 324-0575. www.lelandstanfordmansion.org
The Crocker Museum is down near the river at 216 0 St. at 3rd Street, south of “Old Sacramento” but separated from it and the water by the sunken I-5 freeway. Hours are Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Thursdays until 9 p.m. Sundays are free before 1 p.m. Admission is $6 adults, $4 seniors, $3 students. (916) 264-5423 crockerartmuseum.org
The Crocker and Stanford interiors are wheelchair accessible; the old Governor’s Mansion tour climbs two steep flights of stairs.?