And because the house belongs to the citizens of the commonwealth, in what has become a holiday tradition, the front double doors are thrown open for public tours in the days leading up to Christmas. It's a prime opportunity for visitors to enjoy the building's neoclassical architecture, as well as its antiques, paintings, décor and holiday decorations. The last were created and installed largely by talented volunteers (using no state funds, the governor's staff is quick to point out). Visitors also receive a gentle and genteel dose of history from volunteer docents who will point out such things as a side table that belonged to Virginia's first governor, Patrick Henry (whose term preceded construction of the mansion), and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, in whose honor the state was named.
In addition to tours, the mansion's halls are filled with many holiday parties some of them back-to-back on the same day. The schedule gives the mansion's seven full-time staff members a workout as furniture is shifted or removed temporarily, the dining room's long table is set for either a buffet or a sit-down repast, and Virginia ham biscuits and crab dip are readied in the kitchen. Fires glowing in four fireplaces on the first floor (now retrofitted with gas logs) add a final touch of warmth.
But not too warm, please. Back in 1926, a few days after Christmas, Gov. Elbert Lee Trinkle's 5-year-old son, Billy, waved a sparkler too close to the dry Christmas tree. Delight turned to terror as the mansion's ballroom was engulfed in flames. Outside, firemen arrived to contain the blaze as the Trinkles and others looked on. Suddenly, first lady Helen Trinkle realized her 15-year-old son, Lee, was still inside the house asleep. She pushed her way through the front door, tore upstairs and awakened him. By now they were both engulfed in smoke and were forced to jump from an upper window. Lee was unharmed, but his mother was badly burned.
Things were decidedly calmer perhaps bittersweet on a recent weekday in late November. Inside the mansion, Amy Bridge, a Roanoke native and the mansion's affable director, was finalizing plans for decorating and entertaining that she and departing first lady, Lisa Collis, had devised.
Outside, symbolizing the change of administrations set to occur Jan. 14 when Gov.-elect Tim Kaine and his family take up residence, Anne Holton Kaine was in the driveway being photographed by The Washington Post. The theme for the accompanying story was that another chapter in the mansion's 193-year history will begin early next year, when the former first daughter and future first lady moves back to the mansion. She'll be the first person to live there on two occasions (with the exception of Gov. Mills Godwin and his wife, Katherine. Godwin served two nonconsecutive terms). Anne Holton Kaine, daughter of former Gov. A. Linwood Holton, is stepping down as judge in Richmond's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court to become a full-time first lady.
If the Kaines and their three children are making the transition from their rambling Confederate Avenue home in Ginter Park to the formality of Capitol Square, the Warners have already gotten a head start moving out. The governor's three daughters Eliza, 11, Gillian, 14, and Madison, 16 moved back to their Alexandria home late last summer so that they could begin an uninterrupted school year there.
They will all be back in Richmond during the holidays, however, to celebrate their last Christmas in the mansion. And that includes Buster, a Portuguese water dog, and Beau, a cockapoo, who have always enjoyed free run of the mansion and its grounds.
Although Gov. Warner's personal preference reportedly is for colored lights on a Christmas tree, he and his family will open their presents under a 12-foot Fraser fir adorned in tiny white lights. The evergreen was cut in Southwest Virginia's Carroll County in mid-November the same day it was delivered to the mansion's front driveway and received by the first lady.
Taking a brief break from her duties as mansion director, Amy Bridge discussed the job of readying the mansion for the holidays as if it were a military operation. She says it takes three intense days to decorate the place.
On day one the tree is installed in the southeast corner of the ballroom where the grand piano usually reigns. State-employed grounds people, who regularly tend to the lawns and gardens that surround the mansion, string the lights. "That's the best part of being governor," says Bridge, smiling: "Someone else puts up the tree lights."
On day two the tree is decorated. "In years past I've seen Lisa Collis go up and down the ladder a hundred times," says Bridge, referring to a decorating chore that is undertaken by the first family.
During the Warner years, tree ornaments have been made by craftsmen from across the state, an effort organized by the Virginia Commission for the Arts. This year a number of handmade paper ornaments will be added to the collection of unique glass and fiber/textile decorations that were created and donated in previous seasons.
The mansion's exterior decorations, including fresh evergreen wreaths and garlands, are also installed the second day. This year, the wreaths were made and given by the Glengary Christmas Tree Farm in Culpeper, with the roping from Hanover Pines, suggesting that even when it comes to decorating, representing a broad geographic swath of the state is a good thing politically.
Finally, fresh greenery and floral decorations are placed throughout the house, a project overseen each year by 20 or so volunteers from the various Virginia garden clubs and the Virginia Professional Florist Association. This year, Richmond's Three Chopt Garden Club oversaw the décor. "They tend not to put fresh flowers on the mantels where it's dry," Bridge says. "Greens that tend to dry well, like holly, magnolia and boxwood, are placed on mantels." As she underscores, "the amazing thing is that so many of the greens that decorate the mansion come from garden club members' own yards or are clipped from their friends' gardens."
Visitors to the mansion should be forewarned that Capitol Square looks like a combat zone this Christmas season because of construction work from the major renovation under way at the Capitol and the dramatic underground expansion to the south of the building. Because of this upheaval, this year there's no official state Christmas tree, a decades-long tradition.
The governor's official entertaining began Dec. 1 with two official receptions, one for the state's various military officials and groups, and another for citizens involved in planning the upcoming 400-year anniversary of the 1607 Jamestown settlement. And on the weekend of Dec. 3-4, the mansion expected hundreds of visitors for the traditional public open house.
Although tours and receptions dominate the holiday schedule, those who are entertained at more intimate sit-down meals will probably dine on the new official mansion china that was recently delivered. Four years ago, when the Warners moved into the mansion, Bridge says the china inventory was down to 22 dinner plates. The governor and his wife raised money from private sources and made a gift of 100 seven-piece place settings of a new, custom-designed china pattern by Lenox. On a field of cream and dark red, tiny stylized renditions of native Virginia plants including dogwood and Virginia creeper ring the dishes. On the dinner plates, 95 small dots, each representing a Virginia county, form a border. At the center, embossed in gold, is the state seal.
Although such details as elegant official china and the very idea of an official residence for the governor bespeak formality in an increasingly informal world, Bridge stresses that, above all, the executive mansion is a private place. "This has always been a family home, an oasis from the outside world," Bridge says. "And in good times and in bad, every family writes its own chapter, leaves its own mark."