California’s historic governor’s mansion reopens with flair

11/04/2013 12:00 AM

11/04/2013 8:00 PM

The third floor of the California governor’s mansion, which reopens to the public this evening after being closed to visitors for decades, is a place filled with history that’s mostly quiet and personal rather than political: a place of family memories.

Gov. Jerry Brown, already in seminary and college when his father, Pat Brown, was elected governor in 1959, remembers holing up in the third floor in early 1965 to study for the California bar exam.

“I spent a lot of time there,” he said through a spokesperson. “The whole house was quite livable.”

His sister, former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, spent much of her teenage years living in the mansion. She was the last governor’s child to occupy the house, which has been a state park since shortly after Nancy Reagan famously declared it a firetrap in 1967 and refused to live there. Kathleen Brown remembers the third floor as a secluded and unpretentious space in a large, grand house.

“The third floor had two bedrooms and an office, but it wasn’t used much,” she said by phone from Los Angeles. “There was an attic room, and I set up a clubhouse there.”

More than a decade before the Brown era, Robert Warren, the youngest of Gov. Earl Warren’s five children, also remembers spending time on the third floor, which then housed his father’s home office.

“My dad didn’t use it a lot,” said Warren, now 78 and a longtime Davis resident. “It was mostly a workplace for my mom. I spent a fair amount of time in my dad’s office helping my mom. At Christmas, she sat there and sent out many, many Christmas cards – she’d actually write and address each one by hand. My job was to seal and stamp them.

“The mansion was a real home to us. My mother made it a wonderful place to be raised.”

Now, the third floor has undergone an extensive renovation, which reveals its original ballroom and billiards room, with intricately inlaid wood floors and a historically accurate paint job showcasing trompe l’oeil art on the ceilings.

The renovation marks the beginning of another chapter in the 136-year history of the governor’s mansion, which was on the budget chopping block as a state park only a little more than a year ago. Besides the third floor project, the improvements include two pro bono projects: an environmentally friendly irrigation system in the garden and a new outdoor LED lighting system that makes the filigreed Victorian look like it’s been hit with moon glow.

The mansion was one of the grandest houses in Sacramento when Albert Gallatin, a wealthy hardware merchant, built it at 1526 H St. in 1877 for $75,000. The state bought it in 1903, and it housed 13 governors and their families until 1967. Over the next decades, even as occasional renovations caged the exterior in scaffolding for months on end, the mansion became a mainstay for history-minded tourists, especially fourth-graders learning California history.

They visited the formal rooms downstairs, with their soaring ceilings and grand marble fireplaces. Stemware and china purchased by Mrs. Earl Warren still gleam in the formal dining room. The carefully preserved apparel of former first ladies still hang in the master bedroom closet on the second floor. And the toenails on one of the claw-footed bathtubs on the second floor – painted bright red by a young Kathleen Brown – still make tourists smile.

But visitors never saw the mansion’s mysterious third floor. It was closed. And frankly, it was a bit of a mess.

“It was dirty and filled with junk, and there were rotting windowsills,” said Al Howenstein, chairman of the California State Historic Governor’s Mansion Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds to support the mansion. “Today it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a dream come true.”

Funding for the $103,500 renovation came from the docents, who amassed donations earmarked for that purpose for more than 30 years, no doubt weary of telling California schoolkids they couldn’t climb the stairs leading up from the second floor. (Wait until those fourth-graders glimpse the steep staircase winding upward from the third floor into the cupola, which remains closed to the public.)

First, Howenstein and the foundation brokered a two-year, $135,000 deal with the state parks department to keep the mansion open at least until mid-2014. Next, the foundation marshaled the docents’ renovation money into a yearlong project that started with a chip of paint and a hunk of plaster.

The renovation needed to be historically accurate to adhere to National Register of Historic Places standards, as well as state parks preservation guidelines, said parks department restoration specialist Tim Gellinck. For a long time, the last known history of the third floor dated from Earl Warren’s decade as governor, which began in 1943, as well as the Pat Brown era.

“We were going to re-create the Brown-Warren era on the third floor,” Gellinck said. “But there was a provision in our general plan that said if we found anything historically significant up there, we could take it back to the Gallatin era instead.”

Repairing the crown molding in the billiards room, he scraped away a patch of paint and found the original paint colors from 1877: pale pink walls with curlicued line art in hot pink, of all things. Beneath the ceiling’s crumbling plaster was artwork of crossed cue sticks and billiard balls. In a closet that housed an ancient water tank, Gellinck pulled out another hunk of old plaster crown molding, which had the same style of line art but in green and purple.

An historical paint analysis revealed the appropriate paint colors and plaster molding for each of the third floor rooms, which include the billiards room, ballroom, a small game room and wide entry hall. New Victorian-era carpet has also been installed.

“When Tim made the discovery, we’d already invested $15,000 to $20,000 in the Brown-Warren concept,” Howenstein said. “But it was like, hallelujah. Everybody said, ‘Let’s go for 1877 instead.’ The only part of the building directly reminiscent of 1877 will be the third floor. The rest of the rooms, everything changed with the decor.

“This is a rare opportunity to return a treasure to where it should be.”

Robert Warren serves on the foundation board and visits the mansion several times a year. His fond memories of the mansion, where he lived from age 7 to 17, include rollerskating a time or two across the concrete floors of the basement and unpretentious gatherings in the family room to celebrate his siblings’ birthdays. He remembers his father walking to work at the Capitol. And he remembers his mother, Nina, working hard to make her family comfortable in the governor’s mansion and spending hours on the third floor.

“She was the wheel that kept the machine rolling, and she never got much recognition for it,” Warren said. “She was so attached to that place. She really loved the mansion.”

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service