The first Texas governor to use a wheelchair will soon move into a mansion built 134 years before laws started requiring that public buildings be accessible to the disabled.
But thanks to an arsonist’s Molotov cocktail, the 1856 Greek Revival-style mansion in the heart of downtown Austin needs only minor fixes before the January arrival of Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and his family.
Early on June 8, 2008, an arsonist eluded security and hurled a Molotov cocktail at the mansion, igniting a four-alarm fire. Fortunately, the house was empty. Gov. Rick Perry and his wife had moved out while the building was undergoing repairs, and historic relics and artwork had been removed.
The fire and the water used to douse it caused major damage. Restoring the mansion cost $25 million, and the Perrys did not move back in until 2012. The mansion retained its historic antebellum look but was upgraded with bathrooms, doors and elevators in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A few details — like the second-floor balcony, which has a seven-inch step — do need to be tweaked. Chris Currens, director of special projects for the State Preservation Board, which oversees the mansion, said a planned ramp would allow the governor to enjoy the eastern view.
“We are working on a transition that fits into the historic aesthetic without too much disruption, but allows the governor to use the balcony as he would want to,” Currens said.
The governor’s office, across the street at the Capitol, is also getting a look. The Capitol building was brought up to code during a 1990 renovation, right after the federal disability act passed.
But there are still accessibility problems, as state Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, found after she broke her leg during the 2013 legislative session and struggled to get around using crutches and a wheelchair.
In response to King’s concerns, the preservation board asked the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities to study the building’s ease of access.
“It was a real eye opener, to be sure,” King said. “People were irritated with those of us that could not move as fast. All around it was very difficult, especially in a crowded building during session.”
The biggest problem, says Chase Bearden, the coalition’s director of advocacy, is that only the Capitol’s north entrance has a ramp. The building’s south entrance is really its front door, where most events, including governors’ inaugurations, are held.
“We basically have to go through the back door of the Capitol to get in,” Bearden said. “When you look at participating in advocacy, the south side is where most rallies are held, most press conferences are held.”
As attorney general, Abbott has visited the Capitol often, and his staff has set up temporary ramps to the south entrance. The preservation board is planning to do the same whenever Abbott uses the House and Senate chamber podiums to address legislators.
As for the Jan. 20 inauguration, Currens said little would change, since a ramp connecting the Capitol’s front door to the stage was typically built for the ceremonies.
If Abbott should someday cast an eye on higher office, as Texas governors are wont to do, another prominent executive mansion also has been updated for wheelchair mobility.
In the 1930s, the White House’s West Wing, housing the cabinet room and the Oval Office, was expanded and ramps were added. In the 1950s, the east rooms requiring stairs were leveled to meet up within a foot of the connecting building.