Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Interview with former First Lady Roxane Gilmore

Mrs. Roxane Gilmore is the former First Lady of Virginia.  She is a native of Suffolk Virginia, and the author of a new book, "Restoring the Virginia Governor's House."  

Virginia Gentleman: I know it must have been an honor to spearhead the renovation of the Governors mansion, but with such extensive renovations taking place did you get to spend much time in the House?

Mrs. Gilmore: “It was one of my greatest honors as First Lady of Virginia to serve as Chairman of the Committee to Restore the Governor’s House.  We were asked before Jim took office to undertake the restoration and Jim was told that we would have to move out for a year during construction.  He agreed to move for 6 months and our committee was able to develop a plan to accommodate that and still finish a quality project on time.  The entire project took 2 years, but we were only out of the building for 6 months.

Virginia Gentleman: The Virginia Governors Mansion will be 200 years old next year.  Was it built with the purpose of being the executive mansion?

Mrs. Gilmore: “The first governors of Virginia served while the capital was still in Williamsburg and they lived in the Governor’s Palace.  Thomas Jefferson, the last governor to live there, actually made plans to put classical features on that house such as a colonnade (these plans still exist in his papers) which were never carried out.  When the capital moved to Richmond in the 1780’s, Virginia’s beautiful Capitol, modeled after the Maison Carreé in Nîmes, France was constructed.  There was a house already in Capitol Square where governors were expected to live.  It was in such poor condition, however, that many governors refused.  Money was finally appropriated and a new Governor’s House was finally built and ready for use in May 1813.”

Virginia Gentleman: I know there was some work done on the Governor's Mansion during the Baliles administration in the 1980's.  What did they do?

Mrs. Gilmore: “In the late 1980s the exterior of the house needed extensive work and the Baliles administration decided at that time to return the house to its 1823 appearance.  The exterior appearance of the house underwent numerous extensive changes over the years that I discuss in my book, and Baliles chose to use that early era as its focus."

Virginia Gentleman: The mansion was totally renovated during the Gilmore administration.  My understanding is that the House was basically gutted, and thoroughly renovated.  Describe the extend of the renovation?  How long did it take?

Mrs. Gilmore: “No, it is not correct that the house was totally gutted.  In fact, the first floor, the floor that still contained historic features, was left in large part and new modern features that were added to serve that floor were done either from above or below.  We wanted to preserve as much of the historic fabric of the building as possible and it is that type of decision that I discuss in my book.   As I mentioned above, the entire project took two years.  But it is now a 200 year old building – it will always have needs.”

Virginia Gentleman: I would imagine that anytime there is such a massive renovation of an historic home there is the concern about how to preserve its original look.  Describe some of the steps taken to keep the home as close to Alexander Paris and Duncan Lee's original intent.

Mrs. Gilmore:“This is a very complex question and one that is impossible to answer in this space.  Because it is an important question for this house, that is one of the reasons I document in my book the choices we made and why.  Briefly, however, our project began by identifying how we were going to incorporate both architects since each had such a dramatic influence in the house.  They are both represented, we believe in a way that accents their special marks on the structure.”

Virginia Gentleman: The House was built in 1813 by famed Architect Alexander Paris, but in 1906 Virginia architect Duncan Lee did some remodeling.  What did he do?

Mrs. Gilmore:“It is a dramatic understatement to say that Lee did “some remodeling.”  His work was incredibly extensive, altering the entry hall, making two separate back parlors into the large Ballroom of today, and adding an octagonally shaped Dining Room.  Features of his changes have been the subject of debate since their installation and I address many of those in my book.  But even with these dramatic changes, the footprint of the original Alexander Parris building is still there.”

Virginia Gentleman: Most Virginians only see the first floor of the House, but was the renovation as precise and extensive on the second floor?

Mrs. Gilmore: “By the time of the restoration the only historic space remaining on the second floor were three rooms across the front of the house.  They were in fairly good condition and we restored those as we did the first floor.  However the back of the living quarters had been significantly altered over time and it was that space that we began anew.  A new addition on the northeast corner, in fact, gave the First Family a full kitchen with a small dining area in the living quarters for the first time.”

Virginia Gentleman: You had the opportunity to live in the House.  Did you have a favorite feature or room in the House?

Mrs. Gilmore: “Because of the work that we did, the entire house is special to me and it is impossible to pick one feature or room over another.  In the Ladies Parlor I was honored when Scalamandre renamed the wallpaper border that we chose, Roxane’s Lyre, in my honor.  I was proud that we were able to wallpaper made like some we found in the basement that dated to the 1840s and was probably that added by Governor Extra Billy Smith.  We put that wallpaper in the Lafayette Bedroom and had a special tester made for the bed and draperies for the windows.  Architectural Digest put a feature picture of that in their article about the restoration.  But I could go on, and I talk about many more things in my book.”

These are all excellent questions but ones that really require a great deal more discussion than I can do here.  I urge people to read my book, Restoring the Virginia Governor’s House, Preserving a Historic Home for a New Century, to learn about the entire project.  It can be obtained from The Dietz Press, www.dietzpress.com, 804-733-0123 or on Amazon or from Barnes and Noble.”

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