Historically speaking

Vito Sgromo

Photo by Larry Dalton

As curator of the State Capitol, Vito Sgromo is the building’s historian. Not only does he safeguard and convey historical information about the 142-year-old building and its many inhabitants, but he’s also in charge of recording current events for the benefit of future historians. And 2001 was a history-making year like none he’s seen since arriving in 1984, with the building set ablaze after being rammed by a suicidal truck driver and the September 11 attacks back east prompting unprecedented changes in security and public access, not to mention an energy crisis that prompted two extraordinary legislative sessions and warmer committee rooms. With the Legislature coming back into session this week after a three-month break, we chatted about life under the dome.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in this place?

I’d say the biggest change over the last 20 years has been more with term limits than the recent changes in security. The building is managed by the Legislature. It is entrusted to the Legislature by the people of California. Term limits has changed the operation more than anything.


There’s more of a learning curve. On a positive note, there’s more diversity. We now have the largest number of women and Latinos that we’ve seen. That’s positive. But one thing that has been kinda frustrating is that with all the new members, they hire new staff and they’re all learning. There’s just a huge learning curve, and that means that people are relying on us more and more for institutional memory.

Our aspect of this is the tours, the exhibits and preserving the history, so they’re asking us more and more questions that in the past they knew when the staff was here longer. So that means that we have to be more involved in the training. There is more of a rapid movement of government than there was in the past. Term limits accelerated the process of government.

How about the more recent changes in security?

The truck incident involved dramatic changes for us because we documented the changes and we were also deeply involved in preserving the building when it was being repaired. So all the artwork and furniture, we had to move it and make sure it was stored properly. And we had to be a resource. For example, where did we get the light bulbs and the globes? We had to be a resource for the contractors who were repairing the building, as well as documenting the repairs.

How do you keep track of details like where the lamp globes came from?

We have a database. Since the complete restoration 20 years ago, they left all the names and contacts. The restoration industry has grown considerably, so I not only have to know who bought that in 1980, but now they’re asking, “Now who else makes it?” because they get competitive bidding. So we’re a resource.

And then September 11 changed things again.

Oh yeah, that caused huge changes in security. For a while, they closed down on weekends, but now we’re open. They’re hiring more security people to screen at the two open entrances. So far, we’re not hearing anybody who’s complaining. But now, with the proposed new security changes—whether they’re the planters, or there’s talk of a fence and other things—the physical structure of the building might change now.

As you notice, there are tents at the north and south entrances where people get screened. Well, they can’t have them out there all the time. Either they’re going to move them in or build an addition to the building outside. And if they do a fence, how historical does it have to be? All those changes, we’ll be out there documenting with our cameras, recording everything, getting copies of the work orders, that kind of thing. That’s history. Everything that happens today is history tomorrow.

Can you think of any more historically significant year for this building?

Not in one year. All the other changes have been more gradual. Like term limits passed in 1990, but by the time people started to phase out in the amount of time they could serve, it was 1996. And then ‘97 and ‘98 is when things started to change as far as how the building operated.

In the history of the building, the only thing I can think of that represents this kind of dramatic change is in the 1960s when the Legislature went full time. That was in ‘66 and ‘67, when Jesse Unruh passed it. All of a sudden, there was a new focus in how do we handle the workload in a full-time Legislature, be professional, there was a change in how they handled the press. There was a big change in government than that equates to term limits, but it was also phased in and didn’t really kick in until 1971.

How does the mood here change when the Legislature comes back?

The fascinating thing about this building is its heartbeat. It’s like the blood going through the veins on Monday when you see the Legislature coming back, the public, now the lobbyists coming in, and the TV crews, the press coming back, everything gears up and becomes more exciting. You get the dignitaries—probably President Fox from Mexico, maybe President Bush—and it’s an atmosphere that continues, no matter what happens with the security, or the fire of last year. You can’t stop the process of government.