Former Ship, Former Capitol - California’s oldest state capitol building is still opening its doors
By Matt Larson
Photo Credit: Benicia Historical Museum
Just a bridge’s journey outside of West County you can find the very first California state capitol building, restored to pretty much exactly how it existed in 1853. Preserved today as the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, you can visit California’s third official seat of government, and learn quite a bit about the history of our state while you’re at it.
The original capitol was in San Jose, then to Vallejo, then to Benicia, and finally now in Sacramento. But there was no official state capitol building in San Jose or Vallejo. Vallejo was in the process of building one, but this was during the time of the gold rush, so importing building materials was not a high priority for transportation services as gold was one everyone’s minds, so they’d rather send people than construction materials.
As Vallejo was struggling to get their building completed in time, it’s believed that Tom Larkin (a friend of General Vallejo’s who pretty much owned half of Benicia at the time) decided to spearhead the secret construction of a capitol building in Benicia. “A lie was made up that it would be city hall, because everyone wanted the capitol!” said Victor Edmonds, of the docents at the Benicia Capitol State Historical Park. But where to find building materials? Well, during this time, if there was a ship nearby without anyone caring for it, its parts were yours for the taking.
“The whole building is pretty much a recycled ship,” said Edmonds. “It’s kind of a miraculous thing. I just happened so fast! They built it that summer, out of boat parts, for pretty much free! They had to pay labor, but when they needed money Larkin just took it out of his pocket.”
Edmonds tells us that when the legislature arrived in Vallejo expecting to see a completed state capitol building, and didn’t see one, they were pretty upset, so Benicia invited them over to see their faux city hall. “It was the biggest and nicest building in the state at that time,” said Edmonds. “When they saw it they probably thought: Who knew there was a Greek temple in California!?” The only deal was that if they used the building, Benicia had to be the official state capitol, and so it was from 1853-54.
One of Edmonds’ favorite things to do on his tours is show visitors the original seal press which includes the goddess Athena. “She’s the symbol of California,” he explains. According to the mythology, Athena came from her father’s head, without having a childhood. “So California wants to come straight into the union, without the ‘childhood’ of being a territory.” This is what he tells the visitors, and then he shows them the seal press itself. “It’s basically her father’s head! So the seal with Athena on it comes out of the head of her father in the seal press room.” The architect of the capitol clearly had this in mind, as the building is quite reminiscent of the Temple of Athena Pronaia in Delphi, Greece. “To me that’s just sort of amazing that this whole building is a symbol in itself of the origins of the state.”
Edmonds has only been a docent here at the park for that past 3 or 4 years, but as a retired Director of Educational Technology at UC Berkeley, learning is kind of his thing. He estimates that he’s probably got a total of 14 hours worth of information to share with his visitors, so every time you come it could be a different experience, and they customize each tour for each individual.
We could barely scratch the surface of all Edmonds had to share with us, so maybe pay him a visit and see if you could learn a thing or two about the history of this amazing place. The Benicia Capitol State Historic Park is open Thursday-Sunday, $3 admission, located at 115 West G Street, Benicia. For more information call (707) 745-3385, or visit parks.ca.gov.