An Open and Shut Case
The front doors of the State Capitol first opened before Edison invented the light bulb. It’s time to shed some light on why they were locked in 2014 and correct this Capitol offense.
In January of this year, the Joint Rules Committee at the State Capitol issued a memo stating that the east end of the Capitol (essentially the back of the building) would no longer be open to the public as of Feb. 1; only staff, lobbyists and media would be able to enter through there.
The reason cited was that security was being tightened in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings.
The memo explained that the public could enter through either the north or south security pavilions that were installed in 2006 as part of a larger security effort that stemmed from a 2001 incident where a truck driver drove his big rig into the south side of the Capitol.
The memo seemed innocuous enough, but it was what was not in the memo that was perhaps more notable.
There was no mention of the west entrance of the Capitol.
So what’s the big deal with the west entrance? Well, for one thing, it’s the main entrance to the building. For another, it’s no longer accessible to anyone at all.
That’s right—the front doors to the State Capitol have been locked since September 2014.
I believe I can say with little to no bias that our Capitol building is one of the most beautiful capitols in the United States. Its majestic proportions and gleaming white columns are a beacon to tourists and a point of pride to locals. It’s also our single most important building, one that largely represents Sacramento’s raison d’être. As much as any structure in our city, it is the one most closely tied to our civic identity.
And just like that, 147 years after the California State Legislature moved into the newly built, and still unfinished, Capitol in 1869, the front door to “the people’s house”—and Sacramento’s top tourist attraction—was permanently, and unceremoniously, locked.
Where was the memo on that? It turns out there wasn’t one.
The doors were simply closed one day. And if you walk up to the front door today, you’ll see a piece of paper—affixed with Scotch tape(!) to the glass embedded in one of the enormous, beautifully hand-carved wooden doors—that states, “The Capitol is OPEN. Please use L St. entrance.”
The sign exists, of course, because from that vantage point, the Capitol does appear closed. No one is walking into or out of the building. There’s no activity. There’s only a cheap sign taped to the glass. The architects and artisans and state leaders who spent years creating a spectacular entrance to the building must be turning over in their graves.
With one turn of the key, the front entryway to California’s cradle of democracy became nothing more than an Instagram photo op for tourists—a physical backdrop with all the authenticity of Hollywood sets like those fake building façades in the fictional town of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles.
No longer can visitors—not even lobbyists!—walk through the main doors of the Capitol directly into the awe-inspiring rotunda 120 feet below the inner dome. There are few, if any, more spectacular spaces in Sacramento, or even in California.
And now, once tourists find their way into the building via some side entrance, they need directions to find this gem.
How did this happen? For part of the answer, you need to look all the way back to World War II. In an abundance of caution, the dome of the Capitol Building, which had been open to the public for some 70 years, was closed, preventing citizens from ascending to what remains the single best 360-degree view of the capital city. Sadly, after the war ended, it wasn’t reopened (but it should be).
During a 1967 protest, the Black Panthers showed up at the Capitol with loaded weapons. In turn, lawmakers banned guns in public places in California. Fair enough.
But then a security creep began that persists to this day, and now threatens to get worse if we’re not careful.
After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, state legislators reacted by rushing to fortify the Capitol. Their solution was to erect a $3 million fence around the building. The idea was heavily criticized and ultimately rejected (although security cameras were installed). Some also suggested metal detectors at the entrances, but that idea, too, was rejected, at least for a while.
In 1998, a shooting incident at the U.S. Capitol prompted more concern, resulting in armed CHP officers at every entrance and more calls for increased security.
And in 2001, two incidents occurred that really turned talk into action. First, the aforementioned truck driver slammed his rig into the building in January (fortunately no one was hurt but the driver, who died in the crash), and then 9/11 later that year. By 2002, metal detectors had been installed at every entrance and, after much debate, a $7 million plan was adopted to ring the Capitol with steel bollards, steel cable and concrete planters in 2005 and 2006.
Further, two “security pavilions” with X-ray machines were installed at the north and south entrances.
At that point, it’s hard to imagine what more could be done, but the inhabitants of the Capitol kept finding more ways—and more reasons—to lock down the building.
In 2011, after the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Arizona, the 17 sergeants-at-arms—the officers responsible for security inside the Capitol—began carrying semiautomatic weapons for the first time. Several legislators were also given concealed weapon permits to carry guns in the Capitol. Those were quickly revoked, but legislation was introduced to make it even easier for elected officials to obtain concealed weapon permits.
Suddenly, there were a lot of guns in a building where a shooting hadn’t occurred since 1927 (and that was caused by a lovers’ quarrel, not an unhappy constituent).
That brings us to 2014. It was at that time that a man entered through the exit door of the then-open west entrance and slipped by an armed officer, disappearing into the building for a bit. When security located him, they found he was not armed and appeared to pose no threat.
Apparently, some visitors were also tripping while exiting the west entrance—a seemingly surmountable obstacle.
Still, bafflingly, these factors were considered enough of a breach to shutter the front doors of the Capitol for good.
And the proposed Feb. 1 closing of the east entrance to the public that was supposedly linked to the San Bernardino shootings? Happily, enough people objected to the idea of lobbyists getting more access than the public, and the proposal was quietly swept under the rug.
But this persistent security creep begs the question: How much further will the state fortify our state house, and how much harder will it be for the people to enter and visit “the people’s house”?
We need to stop letting every tragedy, or potential tragedy, impinge upon our access to this living museum. Let’s not forget that the Capitol’s exterior is already ringed with hidden barriers, patrolled by police officers in cars, and on bikes and horses, fitted with cameras and metal detectors, guarded by officers with guns at the entrances, and protected inside by sergeants-at-arms with semiautomatic weapons. What's next? A moat?
Short of constructing a steel sphere over the building, it seems that our current security apparatus might well be sufficient.
For some perspective, none of our neighboring Western states have locked their respective capitols’ front doors; not Oregon or Washington, not Nevada or Arizona, not New Mexico or Utah or Idaho, and not Hawaii or Alaska. Not even Texas, the country’s second most populous state. In fact, in Texas, not only can citizens with concealed gun permits walk through the front door of the State Capitol packing heat, but they even get their own special entrance devoid of metal detectors.
Our closest neighboring state that has locked its front doors is Colorado, and the issue is not without controversy. According to Colorado State history professor Derek Everett, who wrote a book on the Colorado Capitol, six of the building’s eight entrances were closed after 9/11. But by 2002, opposition to the restrictions had grown.
“Legislators who’d been around for many years didn’t like the feel of the closed-down Capitol, and referred to it as ‘Fortress Colorado,’ ” says Everett. In fact, Everett says that one senator commented, “We’ve got to quit hiding behind these walls as though we were fairy princesses.” All entrances were then reopened that year.
But, as Everett explains, after a mentally ill man stormed the governor’s office with a gun in 2007 (only the gunman was shot), six of the eight entrances were locked again. Everett says there’s some chatter about reopening them, but no firm plans in place. “The shuttered atmosphere contradicts the openness that people deserve from the building that reflects their shared community and identity,” he says.
Here in California, Debra Gravert, the chief administrative officer for the Joint Rules Committee says that the only way decisions like these get overturned is if a legislator champions the cause.
That’s what needs to happen here. Someone needs to step up and realize that a mistake has been made; that a line has been crossed. They need to realize that an entrance with metal detectors, X-ray machines, cameras and officers with loaded guns is more than adequate.
Some security personnel in the Capitol may suggest that the entryway inside the front doors is a bit cramped for all that security, but let’s not forget that it worked just fine for 12 years until an unarmed man slipped through and—eek—toured the building. I have more than enough confidence in the Capitol security team to secure that space.
There’s a massive bronze replica of the seal of California embedded in the cement just before you reach the front doors of the building. The bronze piece, as it happens, was fashioned by inmates at San Quentin State Prison who know a thing or two about locked doors.
So what’s the difference between San Quentin Prison and the west entrance of California’s Capitol? It’s a whole lot easier to get into San Quentin. S