Heavy Weather for State Archives : Rain Highlights Plight of Building Housing Paper Trove

When it rains here, Secretary of State March Fong Eu has cause for anxiety.

That's because the roof leaks.

One of her duties, in addition to being California's chief of elections officer, is to oversee the state's archives. It is a collection of more than 120 million documents. While some date back to the era when California was under Spanish and later Mexican rule, the greater part of this immense collection begins with 1850, following the war with Mexico when California became a state.

These are housed in a three-story building at 1020 "O" St., constructed in 1922. An addition was built in 1928, making this the oldest state building in use in this city after the Capitol. The patter of raindrops on the roof means trouble. And leaks.

Quest for Support

"The California State Archives is a disaster waiting to happen," Eu tells audiences in her quest for public and legislative support as she campaigns to either have the building renovated or replaced.

"The current archives is totally unsuited for storing the state's historical records," she declares. "During the winter monsoon season in Sacramento, one has to carry an umbrella into the archives building in order to avoid getting drenched while viewing some of the records on the top floor. Many records are held in areas that lack fire suppression systems, temperature and humidity controls and physical security." Eu is also worried about the seismic safety of the building. (The disastrous earthquake and fire that leveled San Francisco on April 18, 1906, destroyed records that had been kept for years by numerous firms.)

There are other problems.

Persistent Pigeons

"One light-well has become the home of several generations of pigeons," Eu notes. "They defied expert attempts to evict them. The smell is atrocious."

Eu points out that she has a staff of 17 at the State Archives to care for about 60,000 cubic feet of records. Each year 1,000 more file drawers are added to the crowded building. "We've simply run out of space," she says.

The archives was created by the first bill the Legislature passed in 1850. It was designated as the repository for the permanent historical and legal records of the state government. It collects, preserves, restores, exhibits and provides public access to many of the state's administrative, legislative and executive papers and records.

"While the Legislature created the archives after California attained statehood in 1850, they didn't see fit to create a staff to do the work until 1889," Eu explained in an interview. "One of our former governors once referred to the state's archives as a place where old papers are tied up with strings."

Visitors Every Day

Such is not the case. Walking through row after row of shelves filled with large leather-bound volumes and long columns of metal file cabinets stacked to the ceiling, one quickly realizes that here are the cumulative records of nearly 150 years of California history, ranging from the tumultuous decade of the 1850s to the present. The documents bring visitors to the building each day: historians who chronicle the state's past in books and periodicals, attorneys who study case files of decisions rendered by the California Supreme Court and genealogists who are tracing family roots. Nearly all the material is available for public view.

'Most Prized Possessions'

John F. Burns, the chief of archives, brought two documents from a vault, placing them on a desk. "These are our most prized and significant possessions," Eu explained. "They are the two original hand-written constitutions of the State of California. One was written in Spanish, the other in English."

At the end of the war with Mexico in 1847, when California was acquired by the United States, the future state was ruled by a military government until the first Constitutional Convention was convened Oct. 2, 1849, at Colton Hall in Monterey. Forty-eight delegates were elected from 10 districts to write the constitution and request that California be admitted to the union as a state rather than as a territory. Six of the delegates were Mexicans who had been on the opposing side during the recent conflict. Long hours were spent in debating such topics as education, boundaries and taxation. A design for a state seal was approved, although there was a dispute over the price of the press, which was $1,000. That same seal is still being used in the secretary of state's Sacramento office.

The constitutions of New York and Iowa were followed extensively in preparing California's official charter. The document was completed and signed by the delegates Oct. 13, 1849, and California was admitted to the Union on Sept. 9, 1850.

Feasibility Study

Legislation was signed last year by Gov. George Deukmejian that funded a feasibility study of the archives building to determine whether it should be rehabilitated or replaced. James B. Rhoads, who served as archivist of the United States from 1968 to 1979, was engaged as a consultant. His completed analysis was released recently.

Rhoads found the archives space inadequate for storage volume and environmental security. Another problem is that the secretary of state's office is six blocks from the building. For greater efficiency, it should be consolidated into one building, preferably where the archives are kept, he said.

It is now up to the Legislature to decide what to do next.

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