Recalling the stately story of 'the most historic house in Texas'
The Texas Governor's Mansion is usually one of the most-visited sites in Texas each year. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains closed to the general public and only virtual tours are offered.
In lieu of a quick trip to Austin to visit this famous estate, let's dive into its history and how it came to sit in its present location:
Before Texas was annexed to the United States of America in 1845, Austin was home to the president of the Republic of Texas. President Mirabeau Lamar lived in the President's House at the corner of 7th and San Jacinto streets, where the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown is today.
After a permanent president's home was built in Washington-on-the Brazos, duplicating the ramshackle wooden home in downtown Austin, the city became the site of the Texas Governor's Mansion.
Building "the most historic house in Texas"
Billed as "the most historic house in Texas," the mansion was built in 1854-58 with $14,500 in funding from the sale of donated lots in Austin. The mansion was established before the Texas Capitol, which was later built a short walk from the mansion on Congress Avenue in 1885.
Until the Texas Governor's Mansion became reality, the state's first four governors stayed in local hotels or boardinghouses when the legislature was in session. Once the Texas Governor's Mansion became a reality, furnishings from the President's Home were safely installed for posterity.
The first residents of the home were Gov. Elisha Pease, wife Lucadia, and their three daughters. Not only did Governor Pease have the distinction of being the first resident of the mansion, but he also served as both the 5th and 13th governor of the Lone Star State, ensuring that he lived in the home not once, but twice.
Mansion's changes over history
Although minor changes to the home are typically made at the beginning of new gubernatorial administrations, major structural adaptations have been made throughout the mansion's history to ensure livability and comfort in the home. Among these updates was gas lighting added in the 1870s, telephones and indoor plumbing installed in the 1880s, and electricity wired in the building in the 1890s.
In the late 1970s, when Gov. Bill Clements was in office, $1 million was set aside for extensive renovations to the mansion. To help oversee education and mansion activities, nonprofit The Friends of the Texas Governor's Mansion was established. The Friends successfully raised an additional $3 million toward general repair and refurbishing.
In June 2008, the Texas Governor's Mansion was torched by a Molotov cocktail. Fortunately, then-governor Rick Perry and his family weren't in residence due to renovations. The fire was catastrophic and firefighters were fighting the blaze well into the next morning. Many locals thought it was a miracle that the home was even saved. Although a suspect was identified, charges were never filed and the infamous incident remains a mystery.
In 2012, more renovations were implemented and the grounds as well as the home were adapted to ADA regulations. According to Erika Herndon, executive director of the Friends of the Governor's Mansion, "a sloping path" was added from the gardens into the home, as well as a new, accessible public entrance at the southeast corner of the grounds.
Making the mansion "a home"
Texas historian and author Carl McQueary's book Dining at the Governor's Mansion not only includes recipes served in the mansion throughout history, but stories about the first families and their experiences living in the home.
When asked about his favorite recipes, McQueary shared: "I am a fan of Mrs. Ferguson's [aka "Ma" Ferguson, who served as governor from 1925 to 1927 and 1933 to 1935] Russian Rocks, Mrs. Sayers' Sunshine Cake, and almost anything from Mrs. Shivers. I loved Nellie Connally's anecdote about their favorite meal being buttermilk and corn bread."
Mansion guests especially enjoy Laura Bush's Cowboy Cookies.
More Texas-sized tidbits
The Texas Governor's Mansion is the oldest governor's home west of the Mississippi. The oldest mansion in the country is in Richmond, Virginia. It was opened in 1813.
Four states (Massahusetts, Rhode Island, Arizona, and Vermont) have governor's mansions outside of the capital city.
Former Republic of Texas president turned Texas Governor Sam Houston installed an extra-large bed in the southeast bedroom of the home. Later, the Houston's first family's son, Temple Lea, was born in the bed and became the first person born in the mansion.