The Governor’s Mansion

Yesterday Jim and I visited Governor’s Mansion State Historic Park in Sacramento, another one of the state parks that was slated for closure last year.  Thankfully, that unfortunate chapter in state parks history is behind us, for the time being at least, and we can go on enjoying the marvelous variety of natural and cultural sites that belong to the people of California. 

The Governor’s Mansion is a wonderful example of Victorian Gothic architecture. Our guide called it second-generation Italianate. Bidwell Mansion is good example of first-generation California Italianate architecture (built 10 years before the Governor’s Mansion), and it is interesting to note the similarities and differences. Both are three story buildings with a basement and a tower. Both have the same kind of decorative wooden brackets around the eaves. Both of them have a similar layout: public rooms on the first floor, bedrooms and servants quarters on the second floor, ballroom on the third floor.  (We didn’t get to see the ballroom–it’s under renovation.)

Both were up-to-date buildings in their day, with running water and flush toilets and all the latest in innovative interior design.

Bidwell Mansion is a broader, more expansive building, with a stucco exterior; the Governor’s Mansion is narrower and seems taller, and is all built of wood, with lots more “gingerbread” decoration. My guess is that, back in the day, Bidwell Mansion was cooler in the summertime, and if you had the choice of which one to live in, Bidwell Mansion would be more comfortable overall.

The Governor’s Mansion was built in 1877 by wealthy merchant Albert Gallatin. In 1903 it was sold by its second owners, the Steffens family, to the state to be used as an executive residence. Twelve governors from George Pardee to Ronald Reagan lived here, but the Reagans moved out after only four months. Here’s how an article in the Sacramento Bee described their reaction:

Here is how political journalist Lou Cannon described the story about the house in his 2003 book, “Governor Reagan, his rise to power:”
“Trading Pacific Palisades was bad enough. Living in a relic that was more suitable as a museum (which it is today) was unthinkable. Nancy Reagan rebelled. She realized that the mansion, which had ropes in the bedrooms instead of fire escapes, was a ‘firetrap.’ A rusted screen that wouldn’t budge covered the window of her son’s second-story bedroom. In case of fire, her son was supposed to smash the screen by running at it with a bureau drawer and then climb onto the roof. Nancy Reagan had no difficulty in persuading her husband to move out of the mansion.
“The Reagans, at their own expense, leased a two-story twelve-bedroom Tudor house in  an exclusive section of eastern Sacramento.”

“Firetrap” was a good excuse, but no doubt Nancy Reagan had other reasons. Antiquated bathroom fixtures, small bedrooms, inadequate space for entertaining, a location right on a busy street—it’s a great place to visit but she didn’t want to live there.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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