I had read that getting into the Virginia Executive Mansion, official home to Virginia’s governor, was a little tricky. It is, ostensibly, open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10 to 2. But that schedule is subject to mansion events. More than one tourist review complained about how difficult it was to pin anyone down about whether it was open, and what it took to get in.
The process we went through was rather painless. We asked the Capitol building receptionist – she of the Virginia dirt story – what we needed to do to take a tour of the house. She confirmed for us that it was open for tours that day (a Wednesday) and said to just show up at the mansion gates at 10:00.
We showed up at the gates at about 9:45. At exactly 10, a guard came out and asked if we wanted a tour and when we said yes and he let us in. Almost immediately, a tour guide came out of the house, and off we went. Kathie and I were the only ones on the tour.
The house was finished in 1813 and is the oldest building in the US built and continuously used as a governor’s residence. James Barbour, of the Barboursville ruins, was the first governor to live there. The current governor, Bob McDonnell, lives on the second floor with his family. The tour covers the official rooms on the first floor.
There were two small(ish – it’s all relative) rooms when we first entered – a First Ladies Parlor and the Old Governor’s Office. Both the rooms have been restored to the way they could have looked in 1813.
The 16th century portrait of Elizabeth I in the First Ladies Parlor was a gift from Nancy, Viscountess Astor (nee Nancy Langhorne of Danville, Virginia), the first female member of Britain’s Parliament. They cleaned and restored it 12 years ago and found that changes had been made to the painting through the years, such as adding a chair and changing the position of the queen’s hand. The restoration took the portrait back to the original.
The governors worked in the Old Governors Office until Governor Andrew Jackson Montague decided to move his office to the capitol in 1902. There was a sad story attached to the painting of the three Native Americans in the portrait above the fireplace. I don’t remember it completely, but the gist of the story was that the man in the center was a defeated Algonquin chief, and they made him wear European style clothes and pose for the portrait to humiliate him.
Beyond the front rooms is the ballroom, spanning both sides of the center hall. There are two serviceable staircases on each side of the central hall, between the front rooms and the ballroom. No impressive central staircase. Architect Alexander Parris must have gone to the Thomas Jefferson school of design.
At the end back of the house is an oval state dining room. The picture above the sideboard is a portrait of James Monroe by (they think) Rembrandt Peale. It’s on a two year loan from the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in commemoration of the mansion’s 200th anniversary. Monroe was the one who, as Governor of Virginia in 1811, signed the legislation that authorized construction of the residence. The portrait of Elizabeth I – the one that’s now in the First Ladies Parlor – usually hangs there.
The tour gives a bit of the history of the house, along with stories about the families who lived there. The story I remember best was the one about William, son of Governor Elbert Lee Trinkle, who held a sparkler too close to a tree in the ballroom during Christmas of 1926. The resulting fire decimated much of the first floor, so most of the furnishings in the official rooms have been acquired since the fire. Everyone in the house survived, though William’s mother was severly injuried when she and his brother jumped out of a second floor window. When there was a reunion of the children of former governors at the mansion not too long ago, William was the only invitee who didn’t attend. “Too embarrassed,” said the guide.
We walk out of the house after about 40 minutes. There are gardens and dependencies, but how much of those the tour guide would have shown us, we don’t know, because we had to leave the tour at that point. We needed to check out of the hotel at 11:00, and it was as a 15 minute walk back.
It’s a beautiful house and we had a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. And — happy, happy, joy, joy — photographs are allowed inside!
Early in the tour, when we were just inside the front door, we heard a commotion outside. “The Governor is here,” said the guide. “We’re not allowed to speak to him.” So we pretended to be very interested in the Old Governor’s Office as Governor McDonnell came in. That reminded me of another Elizabeth II story from the receptionist at the Capitol. Capitol staff were instructed not to speak to the Queen unless she spoke to them. When Elizabeth came through the reception area, she said “Good morning,” to the receptionist, so the receptionist got to say “Good morning” back. The Governor didn’t even glance our way as he strode down the hall and disappeared up the staircase.