The Governor’s Mansion Renovation Has Some Preservationists Wringing Their Hands

The recent renovation to the state's most historic home left some preservationists worried that the changes to the mansion would be too significant.
Controversy Behind the Renovation
Photo by Bob Daemmrich

First Lady Anita Perry appeared nervous and excited one morning earlier this month as she guided reporters through the Governor’s Mansion, open for the first time since June 8, 2008, when an arsonist's Molotov cocktail ignited a blaze that took one hundred firefighters and two million gallons of water to squelch.

Perry pointed at the painting of Governor Sam Houston in the small parlor—which, like the rest of the mansion’s prized possessions was in storage at the time of the fire due to maintenance repairs—and said, “He watches over this home. He is our guardian.”

Entering the formal dining room, Perry said that Janey Briscoe, one her favorite first ladies, was a Texas Tech fan and had decorated the room with red wallpaper. The walls were later painted blue, only she thought the color too dark so Perry requested to have the sheers on the windows left open.

Elsewhere on Perry’s sneak peak of the immaculate restoration of the Greek Revival property that was built by Abner Cook in 1856, she pointed to enhancements like the fire suppression system, heightened security, energy-efficient geo-exchange heating and cooling system, plus all the creature comforts of the new addition, as elements that would “bring the mansion into the twenty-first century.”

During the restoration, the Perrys lived in a gated community in West Austin, leasing a house for $8,500 per month, a figure that raised eyebrows. But now after four years and $25 million—$21.5 million in appropriations from the Texas Legislature and $3.5 million in private funding—the Perrys are returning to the home that 39 other governors have occupied.

The calculated restoration of the mansion is a testament to state officials’ devotion to Texas history, but the construction was fraught with controversy and has some preservationists nervous.

It started in 2009, more than a year after the fire, when the Legislature officially transferred the preservation duties of the Governor’s Mansion to the State Preservation Board, which is chaired by Governor Perry. It was the first time those responsibilities had changed hands since 1989, when the Legislature appointed the Texas Historical Commission as the state agency to officially oversee the preservation duties, a move that raised some eyebrows.

T.R. Fehrenbach, commissioner emeritus of the Texas Historical Commission and author of the best-selling Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans,  said that Governor Perry undid legislation that Fehrenbach pushed through with Lieutenant Governor William Hobby, “And he did it in a sneaky way,” Fehrenbach said. “I think he did that because he wanted to make changes to the mansion, and he knew he was going to have trouble from the preservationists.”

Later that year the State Preservation Board proposed that the mansion restoration should include a 3,000 square foot, two-story expansion on the north side, and many people, including Fehrenbach, cried foul. Fehrenbach’s main concern was that the addition would alter the “aspect and appearance” of the front view of the mansion.

The size of the expansion, though, was not much of a point of contention. The silver lining to the destructive arson was that it presented the opportunity to package various upgrades of necessity and convenience into one restoration. The addition would also provide more living space for future gubernatorial families since, out of the 8,900 square feet, only a small fraction of the upstairs was used as living quarters.

The preservation board and the historical commission eventually reached consensus on a scaled-back expansion plan. The designs called for more than 1,500 square feet to be added onto the west wing, which had been expanded by Governor Oscar Colquitt in 1914, making it the least historic part of the most historic house in Texas. As part of the renovation, the handicapped accessibility was brought up to code; the first-floor catering kitchen was modernized; the basement was modified; and the upstairs, originally a “postage-stamp” kitchen and two bedrooms with a small porch that was used as a third bedroom, now has a revamped kitchen, a restored porch, a new office and three bedrooms.

But all of this has led to a rocky relationship between the historical commission and Perry, who in 2011 proposed suspending its financing.

“There is bad blood over this issue,” said Wayne Bell, the commission’s first state restoration architect and former director of the National Register Program in Texas. “It appears he wants to diminish some of the commission’s powers.”

However the preservationboard still requires the commission’s consent to alter historic landmarks. And as Allison Castle, the governor’s press secretary, pointed out, the governor and first lady did not come up with the restoration plans. “Those were developed and presented by the State Preservation Board staff,” Castle said.

Regardless of the controversy, the reopening of the Texas's most historic and treasured home created excitement around the state. As Governor Perry said at the news conference, “I get to say the six words I’ve been waiting a long time to say, ‘Welcome to the Texas Governor’s Mansion.’”

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