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The stately home sits in a small, green oasis in the heart of urban Austin. Graced by six 29-foot Ionic columns across a two-story portico, the Texas Governor’s Mansion gleams a brilliant white a few years after an arsonist nearly destroyed the state’s most historic home.
From its completion in 1856, the Governor’s Mansion has endured the comings and goings of 40 governors. Numerous changes and renovations were made to the Greek Revival structure over its 157-year history, most ordered by governors trying to make the mansion more comfortable to live in.
The more the structure was transformed over time, the less it resembled the classic antebellum mansion designed and built by Abner Cook to serve as a “suitable residence” for the state’s chief executive. It took a tragic fire to return it to its former glory.
“One thing that history tells us is that every governor changed the mansion in some way to make it their own,” says Dealy Herndon, the State Preservation Board project manager who came out of retirement to oversee the home’s restoration after the still-unsolved 2008 arson. “Imagine moving into a three bedroom, 19th-century mansion with eight children and there are no closets to hang clothes in. That’s what Sam Houston found.”
New governors often found the mansion needing serious repair, says State Preservation Board Architect Kevin Koch. Often updates were done on shoestring budgets with little regard to historic preservation.
“Holes were punched in walls to run wiring and install plugins for lights, as an example,” Koch says. “Over time, architectural details were hidden or structural changes made to introduce modern conveniences like air conditioning and plumbing.”
In 2007, a major renovation that was to include the installation of the structure’s first fire-suppression system was begun. That work was never completed. In June 2008, someone threw a Molotov cocktail onto the front porch, igniting a fire. Photos of the aftermath show the mansion still standing, but charred columns barely hold up the blackened second-floor balcony. Fire and water damage collapsed the roof and destroyed the second floor with most of the debris falling into the home’s central hallway.
Because of the renovation, Gov. Rick Perry and his family already had been living elsewhere in Austin, and the home’s historic furnishings and art were in storage. Despite that silver lining, some believed the mansion was beyond saving, Herndon says.
“There was not a single inch of that building that wasn’t affected,” she says, recalling the six weeks she spent devising a plan for restoring the structure.
Herndon, who knew the mansion intimately and who had worked on historic restoration projects for 30 years, said she immediately understood the challenges the state faced. How do you rebuild a treasured historic landmark but make it state-of-the-art, accessible to the public and comfortable for a modern family to live in?
Herndon’s plan involved preserving the historic integrity of the mansion, including recovering original architectural details lost to time and the fire, while introducing contemporary technology where appropriate and required.
The home, including public areas and private quarters, was for the first time made compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Kitchens were modernized and living quarters upstairs expanded with office space added for the governor. Until the restoration, there was no place for a governor to work in the private quarters.
Some of the most dramatic changes have been made in how the mansion is heated and cooled. Designed as a 19th-century home that relied on large floor-to-ceiling windows for light that were opened for summer cooling, the mansion was modernized in the restoration with a ground-source heat pump system that made it energy efficient while preserving required historic details such as the original single-pane windows.
Koch says the mansion, even with added living space, is 50 percent more energy efficient with electric bills consistently 30 percent less than before the fire.
“We’ve been able to show that you can integrate new technology with old construction techniques to maintain sustainability and energy efficiency in a 150-year-old building,” Koch says.
He is submitting an application for LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification for the restoration. LEED certification rates building projects for using environmentally sustainable design and construction methods. Koch says earning LEED certification would demonstrate the value of saving historic landmarks while working in a sustainable way.
The project required a $21.5 million appropriation from the Legislature and an additional $3.5 million in private donations.
In July 2012, four years after the fire, the restoration was completed, and the Perrys moved back into the mansion. This spring the mansion, on the corner of 11th and Lavaca streets, was reopened for public tours.
Herndon, who was also project manager for a 1983 renovation of the Capitol, says the mansion project was the most challenging she’s undertaken. She says she wishes she could talk to Abner Cook about what he thinks of his most famous architectural work.
“This is the closest the mansion has come to look like his original vision for more than 150 years,” says Herndon who retired again this summer. “It’s so beautifully simple in its design. It’s so pure now.”
Jeff Joiner is Texas Co-op Power editor.