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Home to the chief

Where to house California's first family has long been a contentious political issue, leaving several of the state's governors without an official executive mansion.

November 16, 2003|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

When Arnold Schwarzenegger is sworn in as the 38th governor of California on Monday, he will inherit the power and privileges that come with running the nation's most populous state.

There is one thing, however, he and wife, Maria Shriver, will not inherit: his predecessors' four-bedroom suburban ranch house on Lake Wilhaggin Drive in Sacramento. It's going on the market.

In a state where realty is next to godliness, even the governor's house is up for grabs. Not that the Schwarzeneggers would necessarily want that cozy casa. At 3,800 square feet, it pales compared to, say, Kentucky's Beaux Arts-style governor's mansion, Iowa's Second Empire masterpiece or New York's Queen Anne-style residence.

It can't hold a candle to the couple's own 6-acre, $11.9-million Brentwood spread: a five-bedroom, 11-bath estate in 11,000 square feet.

But if the state's chief executive gets tired of commuting by private jet from Los Angeles to Sacramento, he is sure to face what the capital's denizens euphemistically call the "legacy issue": the perennial problem of where to house the state's first family.

The political bickering and fiscal fights that have long gripped the Legislature have similarly strangled efforts to house California's governors for more than a century, forcing several chief executives and their families to scramble for housing.

Since 1967, executive residences -- from simple to sumptuous -- have been discussed, planned, rented, built, bought and sold. One is a museum. Another is listed for sale for $5.9 million. But over nearly four decades, no grand governor's residence, or a plan for one, has met with bipartisan approval.

In fact, no California governor has ever lived in a state-owned mansion built specifically for the chief executive. That places California among only six states -- including Massachusetts, Idaho, Arizona, Vermont and Rhode Island -- with no official executive residence.

"It's a sad commentary on the state that we don't have a suitable residence for the governor," said Steve Merksamer, a prominent Northern California lawyer and former chief of staff for Gov. George Deukmejian. "It reflects the respect we show public officials."

And not just our own. The queen of England, for example, was feted in the Capitol's breezy rotunda in 1983 for lack of an appropriate facility to entertain the monarch in regal style. Most embarrassing, locals say, is the common practice of shuttling the state's movers and shakers in buses from school parking lots to hotel ballrooms for events honoring dignitaries.

Rather than relying on restaurants and hotels for more intimate dinners, out-of-state visitors could "be entertained in a governor's residence in which you can serve dinner for 90 ... guests," Merksamer said. "It says something about what kind of state we are."

Partisan squabbling about gubernatorial housing dates to 1870, when GOP Gov. Newton Booth eschewed a $50,000 mansion built for him in Capitol Park by a Democratic Legislature, declaring it a monument to extravagance. In 1903, the state bought a 12,000-square-foot Victorian with 30 rooms, 14-foot ceilings, Italian marble fireplaces and antique furnishings, which 13 governors, from George Pardee through Pat Brown, occupied in relative harmony.

Gov. Ronald Reagan, whose family was the last to occupy the Victorian relic on a major thoroughfare, left the "firetrap," as Nancy Reagan called it, and lived in a home friends bought and rented to them. The Victorian mansion is now a museum.

The Reagans' supporters eventually donated more than $1 million for the purchase of 11 acres overlooking the American River in nearby Carmichael, where a sprawling residence was built for the first family and future governors. The state paid for the home, which was finished after Reagan's term ended in 1975. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown snubbed what he called the "Taj Mahal" and instead took an apartment across the street from the Capitol.

Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, thought the Carmichael mansion was perfect, but the Democrat-controlled state Senate, led by Alfred Alquist from San Jose, aborted the move, saying that the governor should reside in downtown Sacramento. So the house was sold in 1983 for $1.5 million. That sum, put in a special account to be used solely for the building of a new governor's mansion, now totals about $3.5 million. The Carmichael property is on the market now for about $5.9 million.

After residing in a Holiday Inn and a condo for several weeks, the Deukmejians ended up in the Lake Wilhaggin house, purchased for $387,000 in 1984 by the Governor's Residence Foundation -- created by some of the Deukmejians' friends -- and leased to the first family for $1 a year. The state paid the rent and picked up the maintenance costs as well. Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle, and Gov. Gray Davis and his wife, Sharon, lived there under the same arrangement.

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