A tale of two mansions

West Sacramento appears poised to house a new governor’s mansion, but a coalition in Carmichael is pushing a place already built for the job

The political tussle over the governor’s mansion began with the first one, built in Capitol Park in the 1870s. Whenlegislators wouldn’t fund decorations or furnishings, former Governor Newton Booth refused to live there. The house was turned into a printing plant and was torn down decades later.

The political tussle over the governor’s mansion began with the first one, built in Capitol Park in the 1870s. Whenlegislators wouldn’t fund decorations or furnishings, former Governor Newton Booth refused to live there. The house was turned into a printing plant and was torn down decades later.

Courtesy Of California Department of Parks and Recreation

As the state moves forward with a plan to build a governor’s mansion in West Sacramento, Ross Davidson says there’s a better option out in Carmichael. Why built a new one when the governor could just move into the mansion the state built for the governor in the 1970s?

“This can be bought for $5.9 million, and they can move in tomorrow,” Davidson said, noting that California is one of just six states without an official governor’s residence.

Working with a few other members of the Carmichael Chamber of Commerce, the genial, retired Air Force colonel has been gathering hundreds of signatures as part of a drive to get a governor into the mansion.

The Carmichael home, built in the mid-1970s after the Reagans moved out of the Victorian mansion many governors had occupied in downtown Sacramento, wasn’t what the next governor had in mind. Jerry Brown refused to live there and famously chose a mattress on the floor of a Downtown studio instead. The state sold the Carmichael mansion a few years later.

Getting a governor into it would be a historic first, considering no California governor ever has lived in a home built specifically to house the governor. Davidson said the Carmichael home deserves another shot because it’s a faster and far cheaper option than building a new mansion.

Carmichael might be too late in its quest to capture the governor, though. State officials are looking the other way, negotiating the final stages of an agreement with West Sacramento for a large parcel there, a site both closer to the Capitol and more secure than the Carmichael spread.

West Sacramento picked up the land, located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers across from Discovery Park, from a failed development. The city offered it to the governor after a state commission that was scouting mansion locations in Sacramento could find only parcels that had security risks or that would have required expensive demolitions of existing buildings.

The West Sacramento City Council is on the verge of approving the project and formally offering the property to the state. If the city and the state can agree on a deal, a nonprofit foundation would raise money for construction. Completion of the mansion still would be several years away.

That’s why Davidson said the Carmichael option makes more sense. “This should be the easiest decision the state will ever make,” he said.

The wealthy widow who owns the mansion now wants to unload it. She also happens to be friends with Davidson, who lives around the corner. The estate, at the south end of California Avenue, sprawls across six acres along the American River.

Foot-tall gold letters splashed across a wall between the two front gates spell out, “Casa de los Gobernadores.” A small plaque states the site was once an Indian burial ground.

Inside the gates, the one-story, hacienda-style mansion sits at the bottom of a gently sloping expanse of lawn. The house is made of white brick, with a low-pitched, red-tiled roof and no front windows. It’s an underwhelming first sight, more like an overgrown suburban tract home than a stately mansion.

Leading a tour of the house, Davidson walked in past the bubbling fountains in the courtyard entry. He opened the 20-foot-tall front door, which boasts a state seal, to reveal a framed photo of Ron and Nancy Reagan inside.

Davidson showed off the living room, a cavernous space dominated by a giant chandelier. From there, he moved into the entertainment areas, starting with the dining room and then the other dining room. In the kitchen—the biggest of three kitchens, actually—was a bonanza of appliances, including two giant fridges, four ovens, two dishwashers and two ranges.

Down the mirrored hall, which leads to one side of the U-shaped house, was a maze of bedrooms, servants’ quarters, an office, bathrooms and a four-car garage. The mansion’s interior is mostly turquoise and white, and somewhere within the 12,000-square-foot structure are eight bathrooms and nine bedrooms.

Basking in the architecture of another era, the house gives the unmistakable feel of California living, like something from an old Sunset magazine except on a grander scale. Though it may not be beautiful, the house is a perfect representation of the dominant trend in California architecture of the era: a flat, sprawling home that looks inward and to the rear instead of out at the street.

Governor Gray Davis already has his own suburban, ranch-style home. It’s off of Fair Oaks Boulevard, just outside of Carmichael. Davis lives there when he’s not at the condo he owns in Los Angeles. Leased by his supporters, Davis’ house stands at the end of the long, often-politicized history of finding a place for the governor to live.

The last official governor’s mansion ever to house an official governor was this one at 16th and H streets.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It started with the first governor’s mansion, built in Capitol Park. Joe Wolfenden, a guide at the governor’s mansion museum downtown, said the first mansion stood empty because of a political dispute. When the house was finished in the 1870s, lawmakers wouldn’t fund decorations or furnishings, so the governor at the time, Newton Booth, refused to move in. The empty house was converted into a printing plant and then was torn down in the 1920s.

Some 19th-century governors lived in a boarding house, Wolfenden said, and former Governor Leland Stanford lived in his lavish mansion at 8th and N streets. The state owns the house now and is giving it a major overhaul, to turn the house into a place where the governor and other state officials can host events.

Other plans for an official governor’s residence fizzled until 1903, when the state finally bought the 1877 Victorian mansion at 16th and H streets. It housed 13 governors, but the search for better accommodations continued while they lived there. Plans for a new mansion advanced and were abandoned throughout the years, until the Reagans moved out after living there for a few months in 1967. Nancy declared the place a firetrap and moved the family out. By then, the surrounding neighborhood had gone downhill.

The family moved into a house on 45th Street that was purchased by Reagan supporters. The old mansion became a museum, and Ron had the new mansion built in Carmichael.

Though Jerry Brown just wanted a mattress, George Deukmejian didn’t share Brown’s hangups with the Carmichael home. But, even though he wanted to live in the mansion that had stood empty during Brown’s terms, Deukmejian ended up at the Holiday Inn. Majority Democrats in the Assembly approved a bill that would have let Deukmejian move into the mansion, but Senate Democrats, who were battling the governor over a proposed tax hike, blocked passage.

A few weeks later, Deukmejian announced that he was sick of waiting and would find another home. His backers then bought him the less-flashy ranch house later occupied by both of his successors, and legislators decided to sell the unused mansion.

Though the mansion issue has popped up every few years for more than a century, it came to a head when Mexican President Vicente Fox visited in 1999 and had to stay in a hotel. The visit underscored the fact that the governor didn’t have a place to entertain, and legislators passed a bill by Senator Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, establishing the Governor’s Permanent Residence Commission.

The panel studied dozens of spots in the city of Sacramento—a location mandated by the legislation—and turned out a thick report the following year. None of the sites studied seemed suitable, so nothing happened.

But then, West Sacramento approached the state, and there was talk last year of building a mansion there. Later, those efforts seemed to have faded away, but, as Davidson was gathering signatures in support of moving the governor into the old Carmichael mansion, state officials quietly were negotiating with West Sacramento.

Happy Chastain, deputy secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency, said she’s been talking to West Sacramento redevelopment officials about a 43-acre parcel of undeveloped land overlooking the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. Unlike other sites near the Capitol, she said, this one has plenty of land, great access and no security problems.

Chastain said she can’t talk about the terms of the deal with West Sacramento. Val Toppenberg, the city’s redevelopment director, said the city wound up with the land after Japanese developers halted plans for a luxury development there and abandoned a network of brand-new streets surrounded by empty lots.

Davis himself hasn’t had much to say about the matter, except that he’d like his successor to have a mansion built without taxpayer money. The price of a West Sacramento governor’s mansion would depend on what’s submitted to the design competition, Chastain said, but the goal is not to use state funds.

This may be good news for whoever succeeds Davis, but it doesn’t look good for Davidson. Chastain said she hadn’t even heard about the push in Carmichael.

The state is still negotiating terms with West Sacramento, she said, and a deal could go to the City Council as early as December 11. An agreement would go to the state Public Works Board in January. With those approvals, Chastain said, she hopes to create a nonprofit foundation to raise funds for construction.

As Davidson concluded his tour of the Carmichael mansion, he said he didn’t see the wisdom in taking several years and tens of millions of dollars to buy a governor’s mansion, when the Davises could have a new home in Carmichael tomorrow.

To build support for that idea, the chamber opened the house to the public in May. Jan Otto, the chamber’s executive vice president, said luring the governor to town would generate valuable exposure for the unincorporated suburb. “People would be aware of Carmichael statewide—possibly nationwide, too.”

But, though the mansion was open to the public, the Davises didn’t show up. And they still haven’t. Davidson wrapped up his tour at the pool, which is ringed by classical-looking statues. There are women, cherubs, and lions that shoot water from their mouths.

It’s hard to imagine Davis floating around on an air mattress in this pool.

If the state doesn’t come calling, Davidson cautioned, the place could be snapped up by someone else—such as the oil-company investors set to get the next tour.