Visiting the house of governors Mansion: Built for hardware magnate Albert Gallatin, it was home to California's chief executives from 1903 to 1967. Now, it is open to the public.

August 04, 1996|By Scott McCaffrey | Scott McCaffrey,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

A future Supreme Court chief justice raised his six children there. A future president called it a fire trap and moved out. A man known as Governor Moonbeam spent his college days there, but lived in a rented bachelor pad when his time came to lead the state.

California's historic Governor's Mansion was the home of 13 Golden State chief executives from 1903 to 1967. Since then, it's been open to the public as a monument to the state's incredible growth and the men who oversaw its transition to America's most populous and diverse state.

The house was built in 1877 for Albert Gallatin, who worked his way up from floor sweeper to hardware magnate. Architect Nathaniel Goodell and builder Uriah Reese completed the Victorian/Second Empire mansion in just six months. Ceilings towered 14 feet above the floor, and the home's proud new owner was eager to party with the influential people of the capital.

Construction was expensive, but Gallatin's hardware connections saved him a small fortune. The home still contains door hinges that retailed for $6 -- almost a week's wages for many Californians around the turn of the century. Gallatin was able to get them wholesale for 25 cents apiece.

His home rose six stories, with the basement at ground level because of concern about flooding. Over the years, additions have changed the look of the home, but much remains from the original construction.

A decade after completion, Gallatin's house was sold to local businessman Joseph Steffens. Steffens' son Lincoln Steffens, one of the first muckraking journalists, grew up there.

California was growing at the turn of the century, and its leaders decided a suitable home should be found for its chief executive.

Even though Victorian architecture was quickly falling out of favor, the state bought the mansion in 1903 at a cost of $32,000. Renovations and furnishings added an additional $22,000.

George Cooper Pardee, a Republican and the state's 21st governor, was the first to live in the mansion. He brought along his family, a lamb and a chipmunk.

Among the other famous governors to live there:

Hiram Johnson was the only Sacramento native to live in the mansion as governor. He served from 1911 to 1917, but gained greater fame as vice presidential candidate of Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose party, and as a progressive U.S. senator.

Before being appointed chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren served 10 years as governor of California -- longer than anyone before or since. His wife and six children (Honeybear, Dorothy, Jimmy, Bobby, Virginia and Earl Jr.) lived in the mansion from January 1943 to October 1953.

Edmund G. "Pat" Brown was one of only two Democrats to live in the mansion as governor. He served from 1959 until 1967. Brown loved to swim, but his wife got tired of watching him walk across the street to a hotel pool in his bathing trunks, flip-flops and towel. So shepersuaded friends to pitch in $40 apiece to build the mansion's pool. Brown's son, Jerry, stayed in the mansion on breaks from college; daughter Kathleen grew up in the home.

Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy spent just three months in the mansion in 1967 before they moved out. All previous California governors and their wives had occupied separate bedrooms, and the Reagans were the only couple to share one in the mansion.

Over the years, the home was host to dignitaries ranging from Indira Gandhi to Marshal Tito to Charles Lindbergh. Eisenhower slept here, as did Richard Nixon (as a guest only -- Nixon lost the 1962 governor's race to Pat Brown, which led to his famous "you don't have Nixon to kick around anymore" statement to the press).

The house is furnished with artifacts from many administrations. One of the nation's original window air conditioners was installed in the mansion, and a 1954 Sylvania television recalls the days when a harried governor could unwind by watching Uncle Miltie or Lucy or "Gunsmoke."

Governor Pardee's 1902 Steinway piano remains, as do Persian carpets acquired by the Warrens and the state china bought by the wife of Gov. Goodwin Knight in the 1950s. Coal-burning marble fireplaces from the Victorian era dominate several rooms.

The Reagans cited concerns about fire safety, and on April Fools' Day 1967 they hastily moved into rented housing. Ron Reagan Jr. also didn't like the place; he reportedly complained that his room, previously occupied by young Kathleen Brown, looked too much like a girl's room for his taste. Ron Reagan went on to ballet and celebrity reporting; Kathleen Brown became California's secretary of state and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor.

After the Reagans moved out, the California legislature appropriated funds to build a new mansion in suburban Sacramento.

The 24,000-square-foot house (twice the size of the old place) was completed during Jerry Brown's administration -- but no governor ever called it home.

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