If Walls Could Talk

Through fire, a mob attack, years of remodeling and 58 governors, Virginia's Executive Mansion endures after 200 years.

Its brick walls have withstood pummeling by a rock-throwing mob. Bottles were smashed against it by a governor’s daughter practicing swings for a battleship’s christening. Another first child set the place afire while playing with sparklers, threatening a house that had withstood Richmond’s Civil War evacuation fire. Oh, did we mention the place is haunted?

But perhaps the greatest insult to the nation’s oldest occupied governor’s mansion was hurled in 1974, when Gov. Mills Godwin suggested it be abandoned for suburbia. Capitol Square was OK to visit, but downtown was no place to live.

Yet 58 of Virginia’s governors have made do with the storied mansion, which marks its 200th year this month.

Nearby, if Old City Hall looms castlelike, and the Patrick Henry Building is as moderne as Rockefeller Center, the toughest building along Capitol Street is the comparatively effete Executive Mansion. Don’t let its butter-cream-colored exterior, dainty swags and finely detailed porches fool you. It’s not the nation’s fanciest nor largest governor’s house — and has no street address — it’s resilient. As home to Virginia’s first families, the mansion is a marvel of continuity amid constant physical change. For two centuries alterations were the norm—so many additions, wall movings and redecorations that its architect, New Englander Alexander Parris, wouldn’t recognize the place.

But holds up it does, still witnessing history. Once and future presidents — Tyler, Taft, Cleveland, Ford, Clinton and two Roosevelts — were feted here. Queen Elizabeth II came for lunch. Lafayette, the Prince of Wales, Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Bill Cosby, Arthur Ashe and Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped by. And if the house has played host to celebrities, it’s also seen grief from deaths of governors’ wives and children. And it was the scene of official mourning in 1863 when Gen. Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was embalmed in a back parlor.

But mostly it’s a home, adding a human, as well as an architectural dimension of Virginia’s government center.

“From time to time people have thought it was fuddy-duddy, but its classical details look at home,” says Richmond architectural historian and author Sarah Shields Driggs, “It plays a vital part in the dance of Capitol Square.”


Decades before Gov. James Barbour first occupied the mansion in 1813, governors lived on or near this site at Capitol Square’s northeast corner.

Gov. Thomas Jefferson moved the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780. He rented a house near the intersection of what are now Broad and Governor streets.

Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Harrison followed as governor. It was during his term that Virginia acquired a four-room house with brick chimneys on to the current mansion’s site. Described as “very plain … but spacious enough,” fencing was added to keep cows and goats at bay.

Gov. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a widower, arrived with eight slaves and wasted no time remodeling and building a new kitchen. In 1792, while away on business, Lee’s young son died and was buried in the yard. He was later reburied in Westmoreland County. Spirits were lifted when the 37-year-old governor married Anne Hill Carter, 20. George Washington wrote that his military pal had “exchanged the rugged and dangerous road of Mars for the soft and pleasurable bed of Venus.”

But the old house wasn’t holding up. “Nearly everything was ruined,” Gov. James Wood complained in 1799. When James Monroe took office that year he refused to move in, calling the house “a large chicken coop.” He and his stylish wife, Elizabeth, probably furnished their rented home with fashionable furniture from Paris, because he’d served there as minister to France (the Monroe family spoke French among themselves). But the death of their only son darkened the Monroes’ Richmond residency.

By 1808 Gov. John Tyler Sr. was calling the grounds “untamed and unbroken,” complaining that “conditions were intolerable for a private family.” He lobbied so effectively for a new residence that when Monroe returned for a second term in 1811, within weeks he’d signed legislation to replace the creaky old house.


The General Assembly appropriated $12,000 for a new house in 1811 “on the lot which the present governor’s house stands.” Alexander Parris of Boston, working in Richmond because the Napoleonic wars had crippled New England’s commerce, was chosen as architect (he also designed a house for lawyer John Wickham, which still stands on East Clay Street) and paid $50 for his designs. Christopher Tompkins was contractor.

The two-story, shingled roof house had a full basement, wooden steps and no front porch. But a wide entry hall opened onto four large rooms suitable for entertaining. During construction, Gov. James Barbour, renting quarters, examined the plans and sought $8,000 more to build side porches and enhance the outbuildings.

In March 1813, he, his wife, Lucy, and their three children moved in. A bon vivant, Barbour wasted no time enjoying the new digs: Whiskey punch over ice was ladled from a silver bowl — an icehouse was on site — and meals from a detached kitchen were paraded into the dining room.

The new mansion’s isolated location soon was melded into the overall design of Capitol Square in 1816, when a French engineer, Maximilian Godefroy, landscaped the block. His highly formal plan placed a roadway that established an axis linking the mansion with Grace Street.

The mansion continued to dispense hospitality when wildly popular Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in and financially supported the Revolution, dined at the mansion in October 1824. And the social season beginning late 1829 proved a last hurrah for those who’d fought in the Revolution. During a Constitutional Convention, attended by James Madison and John Marshall, one observer noted: “The party at the Gov.’s was … a very agreeable one. There was a great deal of beauty assembled, perhaps more than I ever saw in one room in Richmond.”

But most governors, finding the place lacking amenities, were anxious to modernize. Gov. William Giles installed the first running water in the late 1820s, piped in from a front yard spring. He also replaced candles with oil-burning lights.

The mansion began to gain an appearance closer to how it looks today when Gov. John Floyd (1830-1834) added the front porch to good reviews. The Richmond Whig reported: “By the addition of the porticoes and Colonnade,” the house was transformed from “being externally, one of the homeliest dwellings in Richmond … [to one] now entitled to the appellation of elegance, taste and sustainability.”

And entertainment continued. Floyd played host to Vice President John C. Calhoun for dinner in March 1831, and later that fall, prominent naturalist John James Audubon.

A successor, James McDowell, who didn’t serve liquor, installed the mansion’s first ice cream freezer. And during his term (1843-1846) paid “slave convicts” maintained the mansion’s grounds.

A lively and extravagant governor, William Smith, arrived in 1846 only to vacate soon thereafter for four months while major improvements were made. More elaborate columns were placed on the portico and sliding pocket doors were installed connecting the rear parlors. The kitchen passageway was covered and the dining room moved to the basement. Smith added coal heat and introduced bathrooms.

In 1851, with the American aesthetic embracing nature as a response to industrialism, Philadelphia architect John Notman redesigned Capitol Square in a rural style. Mansion greenhouses were built near the stables that same year.

Joseph Johnson, from what is now West Virginia, and his wife, Sarah, lived quietly and held Baptist worship services in the mansion. Their tranquility was disrupted in May 1852 after he commuted the death sentence of a factory slave worker who’d killed an abusive supervisor. A mob of 1,000 descended on the mansion, pelting it with rocks. While windows were broken by the torch-carrying “shouting, hissing and cursing” protesters, Smith didn’t flee as his staff urged.

A happier occasion came in November 1857, when the equestrian George Washington statue was hauled into the square by hundreds of men and boys. Gov. Henry Wise invited them all to the mansion for refreshments — after furniture was removed and floors covered with protective tarps. An image of that equestrian statute became the official Confederate seal.

It was Gov. Phillip W. McKinney (1890-1894) who first saw a ghost that some later governors also encountered. She was an attractive young woman in flowing white attire, seated at a second-floor window. “Who is your guest in there?” McKinney asked his wife. That was no guest, she responded.


The turn of the 20th century brought the most radical changes to the mansion’s size and appearance. At a legislative party Gov. Andrew Montague held, changes were set in motion when the portly chairman of a finance committee plopped on rickety chair and it crashed into splinters. The Montagues already had complained about conditions in the almost 100-year-old mansion. A major appropriation for modernization and expansion was forthcoming.

The Montague’s daughter, Gay, hadn’t helped. She later recalled how she’d smashed glass bottles against the mansion’s walls as practice for her upcoming role christening the USS Virginia.

Improvements championed by the Montagues were made during Gov. Claude Swanson’s term (1906-1910). A young architect, Duncan Lee, won first place in a statewide architectural competition sponsored by Mrs. Swanson (she knew him from Ashland). Lee’s clever solution was to add an oval formal dining room at the back of the mansion where Capitol Hill drops precipitously to Governor Street.

The mansion’s next first lady, Etta Mann, wife of William Hodges Mann, wrote of the changes that transformed the interior from neo-classical to the colonial revival style in place today: “… In the rear is the dining room …beautiful…, elliptical in shape, from which stretches [via the front hallway] a wonderful vista, showing the Washington monument in the distance. This room really makes the house perfect.”



Alterations have continued with regularity ever since.

Sometime after 1914, Gov. Henry Carter Stuart added two bedrooms atop the new dining room. He also had both stairways rebuilt to better connect to the front hall.

And with security threats during World War I, Stuart stationed permanent guards outside the house for the first time. As war continued during the administration of Gov. Westmoreland Davis, he and his wife, Marguerite, often entertained troops and medical workers at the mansion.


In February 1922, Gov. E. Lee and Helen Trinkle moved into the mansion, keen on making it more “historic.” They reworked the mantles and much of the woodwork on the first floor. But they almost lost the whole place at the hands of their 5-year-old son. With just days remaining in his father’s term, on Jan. 4, 1926, Billy tore around the house with a sparkler and set the Christmas tree ablaze. As fire engulfed the house, Helen Trinkle, frantic, fought past firemen to re-enter the mansion to rescue another son, Lee, who was asleep. Falling unconscious upstairs, Lee dragged her to a window where they both jumped. He was unharmed, but she was seriously burned.

Despite cries to replace the charred mansion, incoming Gov. Harry F. Byrd restored the house. He made two major changes. First, the large dining-room mantle was removed to make room for a buffet, allowing for more informal entertaining. Byrd also had the openings between the front hall to the stair halls changed to rounded arches.

The governor also repurposed the old kitchen house as a residence for his mother. Although he’d balked at the idea previously, calling it not good enough for the Byrd matriarch, Elsie Cobb Wilson, the New York decorator overseeing the restoration swayed him, saying she’d rather “do over” the old kitchen than the big house.


During part of the Great Depression, John Garland Pollard was governor and brought a sense of history to the mansion, having taught at the College of William and Mary while colonial Williamsburg’s restoration was in full swing. Finding the mansion’s front, glass-paneled double doors too Victorian, he installed solid wooden doors, thus stunting Duncan Lee’s vista from the mansion dining room to Washington’s statue.

And with interest in the backyard heightened by the recent kitchen restoration, another of Pollard’s enhancement was establishing a garden. It was dedicated to the memory of his wife, who died while he was in office. Gov. Pollard later eloped with his secretary in Canada.

Later during the Depression, in 1937, Nancy Peery, the wife of Gov. George Peery, conducted a radio tour of the Executive Mansion — a precursor to Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House in 1963.


But despite its historical significance, deteriorating conditions continued to plague the mansion. By 1938, Gov. James Price wasn’t charmed by the official residence and preferred staying at his Ginter Park home, aware that “innumerable creatures infested the walls and doors” of the mansion. But he became the next in the long list of governors making changes. He added an open breakfast porch and updated the kitchen, including an electric dumbwaiter. But the facilities didn’t get much use. Convening the 1942 General Assembly session just weeks after Pearl Harbor, Price announced cancellation of all entertainment, saying, “This is no time for parties.”

Wartime Gov. Colgate Darden signaled austerity with a simple swearing-in ceremony. The first lady, Constance, planted a vegetable “victory” garden behind the house tended by convicts.

Gov. Thomas Stanley, a wealthy businessman, found the mansion considerably smaller than what he was used to, but his wife revived the greenhouse and began the tradition of placing fresh flowers in the house. A more important change was Stanley’s replacement of the iron fence in 1955 with the brick wall in place today. He had security concerns stemming from race riots in other states. And Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, a Massive Resistance proponent, went a step further in 1961, building a brick guard house.

Up to the 1970s, the mansion was furnished nicely enough — like an upscale hotel. But it was hardly distinguished. A thoughtful historical interpretation originated with Gov. Linwood Holton, who moved to Capitol Square in 1970. Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, had burst into the mansion after the inaugural and asked the first lady: “Jinks, where’re the antiques?” The Holtons established a citizens’ advisory committee to provide historical oversight. The new focus came none too soon for one commissioner: “The mansion’s been treated like a stepchild,” quipped Clement Conger, curator of the White House.

But in 1974, with this new historical emphasis, Gov. Mills E. Godwin, serving a second term as a Republican, suggested the time had come for governors to live in the suburbs and have the mansion turned into a museum. The previous Vietnam years had seen numerous assaults on official residences, especially on college campuses: Even the Virginia Commonwealth University’s president’s house had been firebombed.

In part because of the dire 1970s economy, nothing came of his suggestion, and the mansion continued to serve its function. Poverty, some say, is the best preserver.

A big brouhaha surrounded the marriage of a daughter of Gov. John and Edy Dalton in August 1980. Following a service at First Baptist Church, a thousand guests were to repair to the mansion garden. Dalton had purchased at taxpayer expense a large yellow- and white-striped tent to shelter the guests in the garden. When the media questioned the acquisition, the governor backpedaled fast: It would be used for future entertaining as well, he said. But by the time the bride and groom had cut the cake, Dalton personally had paid $2,606 for the tent. As he explained, “It reflects a father’s desire to do everything within his power to make his daughter’s wedding as happy as possible.”

Gov. Charles and Lynda Robb next occupied the mansion. In January 1982, apparently the new first lady, who had known considerable comfort, including life in the White House as the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, found the family quarters lacking. By April the Robbs were remodeling the family quarters, spending $548,000 in privately raised funds.

With the mansion’s approaching 175th anniversary, in 1986 when Gov. Gerald and Jeannie Baliles moved in, the mansion’s advisory committee had established enough clout and conducted enough research to initiate a major exterior restoration. The redo took the facade back to its 1830s look, with classical insert panels and railings along the roofline. But when paint research revealed that the original color fell somewhere between purple and brown, Baliles intervened. He approved the warm shade of cream still seen.


After L. Douglas Wilder became governor in 1990, he moved back to Ginter Park while the mansion underwent a $1 million interior renovation. Asbestos was removed, chimneys rebuilt, disabled access improved and the kitchen updated. Out front an automatic gate opener was installed. A state facilities official gushed: “[This will] give us a mansion that will go into the year 2100.”

Not so fast.

When Gov. George and Susan Allen followed Wilder into the mansion in 1994, they soon found the ballroom floor joists so unstable that dancing was prohibited. In his final budget, Allen proposed $3.8 million for a major overhaul that would include new plumbing, wiring and structural supports.

Fortuitously, it fell to Roxanne Gilmore, the wife of Gov. Jim Gilmore, to oversee what would become, at $7 million, the mansion’s most extensive overhaul. A classics professor at Randolph-Macon College, she became totally immersed in the basement-to-attic restoration in both academic and hands-on ways.

In May 2007, on the 400th anniversary of English settlement in Virginia, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the mansion for a luncheon with Gov. Tim Kaine and first lady Anne Holton, and attended by former governors. The mansion was in tip-top shape.

But who knows what changes await?

And why has the 200 year-old Executive Mansion held its appeal and survived the vicissitudes of time? Perhaps the answer lies in Alexander Parris’ original and simple architectural concept: “It is a basic shape,” historian Sarah Shields Driggs says. “If you asked a child to draw a house, the result would look just like the governor’s mansion.” S


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