Monday, March 14, 2016

The California Governor Reestablishes a Downtown Anchor

California Governor's Mansion
(from Wikipedia)
In the summer of 1962, my family moved from Southern California to Sacramento.  As a nine-year-old, there seemed something mystical and powerful about moving to the state capital.  I recall serious conversations with a soon-to-be-left-behind neighbor and friend about the prospects of living so close to the seat of power.

Perhaps sensing my youthful naivet√© or perhaps trying to provide educational experiences for my sister and me, my parents took us on frequent outings to the State Capitol, where we wandered the halls gazing at the portraits of past Governors and of the fruits of California agriculture.  And we also drove past the Governor’s Mansion, an Italianate palace that impressed me greatly.

The family stay in Sacramento was only temporary, lasting barely more than a year.  But five years later, my parents moved back to Sacramento, building a home in which they would live for nearly a half century.

During our few years away, big changes had come to the Governor’s Mansion.  Nancy Reagan, wife of newly-elected Governor Ronald Reagan, had decried the building as a “firetrap” and had insisted on alternative accommodations.  A rental home a few miles east was soon found.

On our way to check on the progress on our home construction, my father would sometimes drive past the home the Reagans had rented.  It was a marvelous home, a brick Georgian if I recall correctly, but it seemed somehow less impressive than the Governor’s Mansion had been.  Looking back, I think what I sensed was a loss of cohesiveness.  A Governor’s Mansion that was three-quarters of a mile from Capitol, walkable if the Governor wished and his security detail allowed, had been traded for a rental home that required a car trip.

Similarly looking back, I suspect that Mrs. Reagan wasn’t rejecting the old Mansion as a fire trap.  No matter what the State Architect’s Office may have thought of Reagan or his predecessors, I doubt they would have let a prestigious building under their care become hazardous.  Instead, I suspect Mrs. Reagan was looking for an excuse to return to a more suburban lifestyle, consistent with the aspirations of many of her generation.

Once unplugged from the Governor’s Mansion, the governors continued to migrate toward the suburbs.  A group of Reagan cronies built a mansion for their friend in Carmichael, not far from my new family home.

But the house wasn’t finished until shortly after Reagan left office.  His successor, Jerry Brown in his first turn in the barrel, had no interest in a suburban lifestyle, instead living in an austere downtown apartment.  The state soon sold the new home, without any governor ever occupying it.

Brown’s successors lived in a rented home in the Carmichael area, as the governorship felt increasingly untethered from Sacramento, the antithesis of the seat of power I’d visualized when moving to Sacramento as a nine-year-old.

The abandoned Governor’s Mansion had an afterlife as a state park, but it was a mostly hollow use, focused on the past.

Upon his return for another stint as California Governor, Jerry Brown again found a downtown apartment, which was good, but felt temporary in its impact.  However, last fall, he and wife decided to reoccupy the Governor’s Mansion, completing the circle.  Much like many demographic segments, the home of the governor had left downtown, decamping for the suburbs, but eventually remembered the value of urban life and returned downtown.  Although the move may have few direct impacts on urbanism, the symbolic impact seems great.

I understand that the next governor, or the next first lady, can again abandon the Governor’s Mansion in favor of a suburban life.  But I think that Brown and his wife have tapped into the direction of history and that the return to the Governor’s Mansion will stick for a long time.  That pleases both the nine-year-old me and the 60-plus-year-old me.

Next time, I’ll write about corruption.  Many argue that the looming collapse of the drivable suburban model is caused not by an underlying weakness in the model, but by corruption of officials.  A new study does much to undermine that argument.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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