Four years after an arsonist nearly burned down the Texas Governor’s Mansion, Gov. Rick Perry and his wife, Anita, stood a few feet from its iconic front porch and announced Wednesday that a painstaking restoration of the 156-year-old structure is complete.
The governor flashed a broad smile when he walked up to the microphone on the hot July morning, telling reporters he had been looking forward to this day.
“I get to say the six words I’ve been waiting a very long time to say,” Perry said. “Welcome to the Texas Governor’s Mansion.”
Standing behind Perry were three of the 100 or so firefighters who responded to the blaze in 2008, and Perry paid tribute to their bravery. He said they rescued the mansion from a “near-death experience” after an unknown arsonist tossed a Molotov cocktail on the porch on June 8, 2008.
A few more minutes of burning, he said, and all that history would have been lost.
Remarkably, most of it was saved from the embers. 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 were saved, too.
Those items had been removed before the fire in anticipation of a makeover — in part designed to install a fire suppression system. The Perrys were out of the country, in Scandinavia, when the fire struck the emptied-out building.
On Wednesday, the governor said he found it “eerie” to walk back into the immaculately restored mansion — as if it hadn't been engulfed in flames four years ago.
Anita Perry gave reporters a tour of the mansion, showing off Stephen F. Austin’s writing desk, antique chandeliers and the gruesome painting depicting the final moments of Texas' most famous battle, "The Fall of the Alamo" by Robert Onderdonk. The massive painting hangs once again in the mansion’s entry hall.
In the Stephen F. Austin library, the first lady pointed to a portrait of Alamo hero Davy Crockett and said, “He’s happy he’s here.”
Afterward, the first lady said she looked forward to moving back in — around the end of the month — and letting her dogs loose on the expansive green lawn.
“I can’t wait until First Dog Lucy Perry gets to show her cousin Rory the squirrels on this ground and all their hiding places,” she said.
Some critics have decried the expenditure of $25 million to restore and expand the Governor’s Mansion at a time when the Legislature has been cutting back on health care, education and other services. (The restoration price tag includes $3.5 million in private donations.)
The governor said the state does a “remarkable job” of striking the right balance between helping the needy and protecting the state’s pro-business climate.
“I think the vast majority of Texans are really proud today of the rebuilding, back to the grandeur of the Texas Governor’s Mansion,” he said.
While the mansion looks a lot like it did before the fire, a variety of enhancements and expansions have been made to the residence and the grounds.
Out front, on the east side, Colorado Street has been permanently closed to vehicle traffic, designed to make the gated entrance pedestrian friendly and more secure.
New green features have also been 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.
A little more than 1,500 square feet of interior living space have been added to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, to upgrade the private quarters upstairs and to add a new scullery for the kitchen.
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 lore has it that his ghost still haunts the mansion.
Perry evoked Houston’s legacy when he was asked to name his favorite room in the mansion. He cited the upstairs balcony, where Houston sat and pondered his decision on secession. Ultimately, he refused to join the Confederacy and was removed from office as a result.
“[It’s] not a room, but it’s a place,” he said. “And that second floor balcony will always be a special and a memorable place for me.”