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Governor's Mansion Rising From Ashes

The careful restoration of the historic Texas Governor’s Mansion, nearly obliterated in 2008 when an arsonist tossed a Molotov cocktail on the front porch, will soon be complete.

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Editor's note: This story is the first of a two-part series about the Texas governor's living accommodations. Coming Wednesday, the Tribune reports on the controversy over Rick Perry's costly temporary living arrangements.

The Texas Governor’s Mansion, the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi, has seen death and drama, political joy and heartache, marriages, parties, wakes and — legend has it — regular visits from the ghost of Sam Houston.

All of that history nearly went up in smoke on June 8, 2008, when an unknown arsonist tossed a Molotov cocktail on the front porch. Ten more minutes of burning and the historic landmark probably would have been wiped off the face of Texas, officials say.

Now, more than three years later, a careful restoration of the Greek Revival structure is finally heading toward completion. Though the roof and front windows were destroyed during the blaze, most of the building — including the elaborate ceiling cornices and pine wood subflooring — survived. All of the furnishings, light fixtures and historic artwork, which had been put in storage before the fire, will be returned to the building. And sometime in the not-too-distant future, the historic home will open again to tourists.

“We really lost very little,” said Dealey Herndon, who is overseeing the restoration at the Texas State Preservation Board. “The real historic fabric was able to be saved and actually strengthened in some ways. … A 150-, almost 160-year old house has been beaten and battered, and we’ve been able to put it back together.”

So much water was used to fight the fire that it filled the basement and left 8 inches of standing water inside the mansion. But once it dried, and the mold was sucked out, workers were amazed to discover that the expert millwork and craftsmanship had largely survived intact beneath the char.

“It’s unbelievable how they could really make this stuff as straight and as perfect," said head plasterer Albert Clemon Fountain, adding that even with modern technology workers have trouble matching the original craftsmanship.

Renovation of the mansion's exterior is now largely complete. Restoration of the interior and an addition to the back are on track to be finished in June 2012. Herndon said visitors won’t notice much change to the inside, but there will be significant upgrades to the private living quarters upstairs and a whole new look outside.

Out front, on the east side, Colorado Street will be closed to vehicle traffic by security bollards on each end, making the gated entrance pedestrian friendly. The old white brick fence around the perimeter, erected after John Connally was shot in Dallas during the 1963 Kennedy assassination, will be torn down and replaced with a wrought-iron decorative fence.

New green features will also be incorporated into the building. Workers dug 53 wells, at a depth of 300 feet, for the installation of a geothermal heat pump, which takes advantage of the earth’s constant temperature for air conditioning and heating. It will also have solar collectors on the roof to generate most of the hot water used in the mansion.

“It saves a ton of electricity,” Herndon said. “It’s just the responsible thing to do.”

A little more than 1,500 square feet of interior living space will be added to make the building compliant with the American Disabilities Act, to upgrade the private quarters upstairs and to add a new scullery for the kitchen. It will also have a much larger basement, mostly to accommodate mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, along with new fire protection equipment. There will also be a new guard booth and security screening facility outside.

Built under the direction of architect Abner Cook, the Greek Revival-style mansion has served as the home of Texas governors since 1856. Sam Houston is said to have paced its floors as he contemplated whether Texas should secede from the Union in 1861, and his ghost supposedly still haunts the mansion.

The ghost of former Gov. Pendleton Murrah’s nephew is also said to moan at night from within the mansion walls. During the Civil War, the nephew shot himself in an upstairs room on the north side of the building after an attractive young woman, a guest at the mansion, spurned his marriage proposal.

There have been several weddings in the mansion, and countless dignitaries, including the Queen of England, have visited the historic building. It’s also where former Gov. George W. Bush waited, in vain, to learn the results of a 2000 presidential race that wasn’t decided until the election contest in Florida was settled in his favor.

Rick Perry, who became governor on Dec. 21, 2000, moved out of the mansion in 2007 so the state could give it a facelift and upgrades that were to include a fire safety system. Luckily, project managers had already removed all of the furnishings — including Sam Houston’s four-poster bed. It was designed to accommodate Houston's large frame and cost the state $30 at the time.

Also headed back to the restored residence: Stephen F. Austin’s writing desk, numerous antique chandeliers and irreplaceable paintings, such as a portrait of Davy Crockett and "The Fall of the Alamo" by Robert Onderdonk.

The Legislature appropriated $21.5 million for the mansion restoration, and private donors are chipping in another $3.5 million. 

After the mansion nearly fell to arson — a crime that remains unsolved — some said it was too expensive to rebuild. Others called for it to be turned into a museum. Herndon, despite her preservationist zeal, would sooner have seen the mansion torn down than have it used for anything other than the Texas governor's home.

The current governor is hoping he’ll be preparing to accept his party’s nomination for president by the time he gets the green light to move back in this summer. Either way, the building is expected to be re-opened to public tours soon thereafter.

“The architecture and the fact that the governors have all lived here is the real relevance of this house,” Herndon said. The Perrys "have a very passionate commitment to having the public back in.”

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