Sacramento's Gold Rush Mansions: California history, written in brick and mortar

Old buildings are relics of bygone eras -- three-dimensional structures that can evoke the past through an accessible art form. In the character of a building -- an adobe hut, a Roman column, a castle on a hill -- a whole history can be revealed.

There are many examples of famous buildings that have been preserved for the benefit of future generations. But the vast majority are institutional structures rather than family homes. In Sacramento, a group of four Gold Rush-era mansions remain intact and open for the public to enjoy. These mansions share common architectural styles and, in three cases, the same architects. Each has a special place in California history -- from the city's political legacies to the railroad wealth of the late 1800s and the architectural heritage of the Victorian era. More than just mansions, they are pages from a history book, inscribed in wood, brick, and mortar.  

Governor's Mansion

The Governor's Mansion is perhaps the best example of a structure that tells a story -- over a dozen stories, in fact. Built for a wealthy merchant in 1877, the house remained in the family until 1903, when the state purchased it for the use of the California governor. Thirteen governors lived in that home, the last being Ronald Reagan. At the time that Reagan left office in 1967, a new governor's mansion had been built, but Reagan's successor, Jerry Brown, refused to live in it, and the state eventually sold it.

The mansion's design is a combination of two schools under the umbrella of Victorian architecture: Second Empire (a Gothic-revival style) and Italianate (a neo-classical style). The rather ornate building is a clear nod to the mercantile wealth experienced in the early days of Sacramento's business sector. While very little has been done to alter the historic building, small signs of its familial heritage are present. For example, in an upstairs bathroom, if you look closely you'll see that the claw-foot bathtub has painted toenails.

The Governor's Mansion State Historic Park is open Wednesday - Sunday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., with a $5 admission fee.

Leland Stanford Mansion

Originally built by a Gold Rush merchant in 1855, the Leland Stanford Mansion was purchased by the wealthy railroad tycoon in 1861. Stanford was a member of the "Big Four" -- the four principal entrepreneurs behind the Central Pacific Railroad -- and went on to become a prominent member of the Republican party, serving as California governor and U.S. senator. His most notable legacy is his eponymous university, the world renowned Stanford University in Palo Alto.

A true testament to the exuberant wealth of the railroad boom in post-Gold Rush California, this Renaissance-revival mansion is spectacularly elaborate, and is still used as the formal reception residence for international diplomats and guests of state.

The Leland Stanford Mansion is open Wednesday - Sunday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., with a $5 admission fee.

Crocker Mansion

Built in 1872 in the Italianate style -- an extravagant reference to wealth and prestige -- the Crocker Mansion was originally conceived as both a home and an art gallery. Edwin Crocker was a judge on the California Supreme Court and the legal council for the Central Pacific Railroad, where his brother, Charles Crocker, was a "Big Four" member. He had an impressive personal art collection that he wanted to display, so the house was divided into two sections, with the elaborate gallery sitting adjacent to the family home. A civically engaged citizen, Crocker and his wife opened the galleries to the public in 1885, showcasing one of the largest collections of California art that dates back to Gold Rush.

The Crocker Art Museum is open Tuesday - Sunday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 with a student ID. The museum is housed in the original Crocker Mansion, as well as a recently opened extension.    

Llewellyn Williams Mansion

Designed by Seth Babson and James Seadler -- the same architects who designed the Crocker and Stanford mansions -- the Llewellyn Williams Mansion was completed in 1885 and is considered one of the finest examples of Italiante-Stick style architecture in California. "Lew" Williams lived there for only six years before his death, and since then the mansion has passed through several incarnations -- as a private club, a restaurant, and even a funeral parlor. The mansion also has the unique distinction of having been picked up and moved across the street in 1994, and then picked up and moved back again in 2001! Today, the Llewellyn Williams Mansion is home to the Sacramento Hostel.

Sacramento Hostel staff provide free tours of the mansion from 5-10 p.m. daily, and to groups by appointment. Tours are open to the general public by appointment; please call the hostel at (916) 443-1691 to reserve.

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If You Go 

Stay overnight at the Sacramento Hostel, in the Gold Rush-era Llewellyn Williams Mansion.