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The governor's 'Taj Mahal'

December 13, 2007|Chris Iovenko

IN 1973, Conrad Buff and Donald Hensman got the biggest commission of their careers: the opportunity to design the new California governor's mansion. The idea for a new mansion was conceived by Ronald Reagan's team in 1967 after Gov. Reagan and wife Nancy moved out of the old mansion, a historic 1877 Victorian house that she deemed a firetrap.

The new mansion was intended to be elegant enough for entertaining guests of the state, even royalty, on an 11-acre estate overlooking the American River in Carmichael, Calif. Buff & Hensman submitted a daring design typical of their style, with glass walls that opened to the outdoors. The plan was rejected by Ronald Reagan out of a difference in taste and because of security concerns.

Buff & Hensman resubmitted a more traditional design with less glass and a red tile roof, as had been requested. The proportions were on a grand scale with roughly 10,000 square feet of interior living and entertaining space, close to 5,000 square feet of interior courtyard and more than 2,000 square feet of covered patios. This second design was approved, and the project moved forward with an appropriation in the state budget. Soon, however, troubles arose.

Questions about the cost and differences of opinion over the design made the mansion a public relations nightmare and a political hot potato. By the time it was finished in the mid-'70s, Reagan was out and Gov. Jerry Brown was in. Brown, a bachelor who embarked on a new austerity plan, was no fan of the new mansion, which he dubbed the "Taj Mahal." Instead, Brown moved into an apartment in downtown Sacramento. With no governor to occupy it, the mansion sat empty for years and was finally auctioned off to a private party in 1982.

-- Chris Iovenko

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