Virginia's Executive Mansion Restored
The Original House
As originally designed, the first floor consisted of four rooms, to either side of a wide central hall. Surprisingly, there was no grand staircase as was so common in the 18th century. Instead, stair halls ran perpendicular to the hall, providing a servants' stair and a slightly grander stair for the family.
From the front entry, the governor's office was to the left and the ladies' parlor to the right. Both rooms had front doors opening off the center hall and rear doors opening off the stair halls. Beyond the stair halls were the dining room to the right and drawing room to the left.
This was an adequate floor plan, but hardly grand enough for Virginia's Governor. After all, 18th and 19th century Virginia produced many national leaders, including Thomas Jefferson who had been governor before he became president. (He achieved both offices before this house was built).
The First Addition
Only in 1906, nearly 100 years after completion, did the house reach the grandeur appropriate for a governor's mansion. That year Duncan Lee, a prominent Virginia architect best known for his work in historic preservation, combined the two rear parlors to create a large ballroom and designed an oval dining room which was built at the rear of the house.
The two halves of the ballroom and the entrance to the dining room were demarcated by handsome arched openings. The elegant dining room, perfectly proportioned, forms the visual focus of the wide center hall. Immediately upon entering the house, one's eye is drawn to the dining room.
In 1926, the house suffered a fire that seriously damaged the ballroom, dining room, and other rooms. The damage was repaired, and over the subsequent years the house has undergone periodic redecorating and enlargement.
In 1930 the front entrance was redone. Central air conditioning was added in 1952. In 1954, a breakfast room and library were added at the southeast corner of the building, ending the symmetry of the back of the building.
Fit for a Governor?
But the inadequacies of a 19th century executive mansion to meet the 20th/21st century needs of the governor required more drastic solutions.
Completed early last year, this most recent renovation of the executive mansion included the replacement of electrical, lighting, HVAC, sewer, and water systems; upgrading the security system; repairing the masonry, roof, parapets, and such major architectural details as the columns and portico; and building a northeast wing that enlarged and substantially upgraded the kitchen, while adding an accessible entrance and elevator service to all the floors.
The new wing also balanced the 1954 breakfast room addition so now the rear facade has the bow of the dining room flanked by identical wings. The construction of that first addition had blocked the floor-to-ceiling rear window on the south half of the ballroom. By using mirrored glass above the jib door, this blocked window appears to someone in the ballroom as a functioning French door.
When the recent addition was built on the north side of the ballroom, the existing window was removed, instead of being reglazed with mirrored glass and jib door, creating a nearly floor-to-ceiling opening, leading to the new elevator and (accessible) bathroom.
Because both this door and the blind French door occupy opposite positions on the rear wall of the ballroom and are decorated with the same drapery from the valance above the door, it appears that the south door is simply closed while the north door is open back into the door jamb.
This slight trompe d'oeil solution calls the least attention to the difference in the rear additions and nicely complements the ballroom's decor.
On the second floor, the front bedroom is the restored Lafayette Bedroom, which he did not stay in, although he was one of many distinguished visitors to the mansion. The remainder of the floor has been reconfigured and renovated to provide bedrooms for Governor Gilmore and his wife, and separate bedrooms for their teenage sons.
As part of the restoration, the grounds and gardens of the executive mansion have been redesigned and replanted. The Garden Club of Virginia paid for the handsome garden, designed by Charles Gillette, located between the mansion and original 19th century stables.
First Lady Roxane Gilmore, who teaches classics at a Virginia university, made the seven million dollar restoration of the executive mansion her special project and for more than two years worked closely with restoration architect John Paul Hanbury, FAIA of Hanbury Evans Newill Vlattas.
With its renovation, the mansion is not only more handsome and more sparkling than it has been in years, but with its new, enlarged kitchen and additional bathrooms, side entrance, and elevator (all accessible), it is better able to host the governor and first lady's guests at state functions, from intimate dinners to elaborate balls.
William Lebovich is an architectural historian and photographer from Chevy Chase, Maryland who photographs new projects for architects and developers and documents properties of historical, architectural, engineering, or industrial significance throughout the continental United States.