"Nature is the medium in which life transpires,"
Scott Russel Sanders on Wendell Berry.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 3: Governor's Mansion State Historic Park

23 May, 2011

Day 3: Governor’s Mansion State Historic Park

I arrived at Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park in the State’s Capitol around two in the afternoon. You cannot tour the mansion without a guide, so I roamed around the gift shop and struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter. As usual, I am glad I did. State Park Employees typically possess an impressive library of knowledge not only about the park where they work at, but also about nearby parks, restaurants, accommodations and the local community.

Fortunately for me, the man I spoke with worked at least four of the State Historic Parks in Sacramento including the Governor’s Mansion—the next stop on my list. He recommended that I tour it first; I took his advice.

Upon my arrival, the tour guide at the Governor’s Mansion commended my friend’s advice and my decision to take it. The Governor’s Mansion is smaller than the Leland Stanford Mansion and did not receive the same amount of funding (somewhere around $22 million) for restoration. The Governor’s mansion is the architectural version of what Eric Higgs, author of Nature by Design, would call a “freak landscape”—a landscape that has been altered so many times that it begs the question, what is normal?

In ecological restoration, restorationists must decide what historical period to restore a landscape to. Restoration goals also depend on what they are restoring for: ecological services, an entire landscape, or a specific species. In the case of the Governor’s Mansion we might say that “normal” would be the original Victorian design; however, because we are talking about the restoration of a building, we do not need to worry about the functionality of ecosystems, and I find the mix of furniture from Victorian to the 1960’s quite interesting. There is a quirky mix of the original burgundy velvet drapery and pink shag rugs—someone even painted the toenails on the claw foot tub a sassy shade of red. The remodeling and decor represents each of the governors and the governor’s families that lived in the house, and thus becomes an architectural landscape of democracy representing change and impermanence of political power in the United States.

The architecture of the mansion is exquisite and responds to the physical landscape of the Sacramento region. Downtown Sacramento sits at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. Before the dikes and levees were built, the area experienced massive flooding. Our guide told us the worst recorded flood of the area lasted for four months, and that people could row boats out their front door and travel as far south as Stockton. Thus, the mansion is built very high off the ground; the first floor is actually the basement, so visitors enter the front door on the second floor. This type of basement is called a “Delta basement”; the homes built this way around the Sacramento area are called “high water homes”. I can’t help but love the way language and naming reflects the natural systems and cycles of a region.

Our tour guide possessed an incredible amount of knowledge about the building and conveyed it with passion. Some of my favorite revelations concerned the petticoat mirrors at each fire place, and the purpose of the beautiful ceiling medallions at the center of each rooms; I don’t want to reveal too much here and highly recommend you take the tour.

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