Virginia Gentleman: Who are among the most famous guests to visit the Governor’s Mansion?
Mrs.McDonnell: The Executive Mansion has had a number of distinguished visitors and famous guests over the years. During Governor Stanely’s administration in 1954, Queen Elizabeth visited the Mansion. A little over 50 years later, in 2007, Queen Elizabeth II was welcomed to the mansion by Governor Tim Kaine and his wife, Anne Holton. The mansion has also hosted countless American presidents; among these presidential guests are James Madison, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, although Obama came while he was campaigning. The mansion has not only received important political leaders, but many celebrities as well; Elizabeth Taylor, Bill Cosby, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Hanks, to name a few. In 2011, my husband and I hosted a reception for Steven Spielberg when he was in Richmond for the filming of Lincoln. A particular scene in the film was actually filmed inside the Executive Mansion—my daughter and I were able to stand in as extras in the scene. This was a lot of fun and certainly a unique experience!
Virginia Gentleman: When Winston Churchill came to America in the 1920’s he stayed at the Mansion as a guest of Governor Byrd. Any good stories of his stay?
Mrs. McDonnell: During the late 1920’s Winston Churchill was hosted at the Mansion by Governor Harry Byrd and his wife. He stayed at the Executive Mansion for five days in the Lafayette bedchamber while in town to walk the nearby Civil War battle fields with the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Douglas Southall Freeman. Churchill was a Civil War enthusiast and had a particular interest in Generals Lee and Jackson. Churchill’s visit took place during the Prohibition Era and this visitor from England was accustomed to drinking a quart of brandy every day. Governor Bryd was a careful observer of the prohibition law, but he wanted Churchill to be pleased and enjoy his stay. Byrd called his friend and said, “I’m in a terrible fix. I need you to deliver a quart of French brandy to the mansion every day this week.” Needless to say, Winston Churchill did not have to go without; he had his quart of brandy every day while he was staying at the Virginia Governor’s Mansion.
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. McDonnell: The year 2013 marks the bicentennial of the mansion! Governor John Tyler was the first to suggest the building of a new Governor’s residence. In 1811, during Governor James Monroe’s second term, funding was finally allocated and building began. Governor James Barbour and his family were the first people to move into the home and it has been a residence, office, and social setting for Virginia’s Governors and their families since.
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. McDonnell: The interior and exterior of the mansion have undergone several changes and improvements over the years. During the Balilies’ administration, the mansion underwent a major facelift in order to return the façade to its earlier appearance. The wooden roof and portico balustrades that were damaged in the Civil War fire were replaced and so were the ornamental panels below all of the windows. Later, the Gilmores spearheaded a $7.5 million renovation, where almost everything was gutted and restored, while keeping the historic fabric of the mansion intact. Over the past 2 ½ years, we have renovated the front south garden, restored the floors and ceilings, and replaced half of the roof. Several other Governors and First Ladies invested a lot of time and effort into restoring the mansion and we are so grateful to them for taking care of this important Virginia landmark and providing us with a beautiful place to live.
Virginia Gentleman: Most Virginians only see the first floor of the House, but over the years were additions made to the second floor?
Mrs. McDonnell: The first floor of the mansion is open to the public for tours. The first floor is historically appropriate in order to provide visitors with a sense of what the mansion looked like when it was first built; however, what most people don’t realize is that my husband, our children, and I live upstairs on the second floor. The second floor, or the private quarters, is the space where we eat, sleep, and spend time together. During Governor Gilmore’s administration, First Lady Roxanne Gilmore and the Citizens Advisory Committee went to great efforts to restore and preserve the mansion interior, as I previously mentioned. In addition to the extensive restoration of the first floor, the second floor was reconfigured to include a small kitchen for the first family, a study, and modernized bathrooms. I find it interesting that each Governor and First Lady have the opportunity to furbish and decorate the space in the private quarters as they please, so the look of the second floor is always changing and represents the family residing in the mansion.
Virginia Gentleman: You have the opportunity to live in the House. Do you have a favorite feature or room in the House?
Mrs. McDonnell: I would have to say my favorite feature of the mansion is the Gillette garden. In the spring of 2000 the garden, designed by Charles Gillette, was restored by the Garden Club of Virginia. Today it is a beautiful green space with pink and yellow roses, boxwoods, and a small pool surrounded by white azaleas. My daughter, Cailin, also had her wedding reception in the garden in June of 2010. Bob and I often enjoy having meals in the garden as well. It is the perfect spot to host a reception or just to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
Virginia Gentleman: I have always heard rumors that the Mansion was haunted…
Mrs. McDonnell: We do indeed have a ghost here at the mansion – well, at least that is what most everyone who lives or works here believes. I have never encountered her, but many staff say they have and several past Governors and their families claim to have seen her or felt her presence. The mysterious specter is said to be a young woman dressed in a gray ball gown. The story goes—that this is the ghost of a young woman who died in a carriage accident after attending a ball at the mansion. Efforts to discover more information about this woman have turned up nothing, so the true identity of our ghost still remains a mystery.
When my husband carried me over the threshold of the Executive Mansion on Inauguration Day in 2010, it was hard to comprehend this unique opportunity of living in the footsteps of history, while in the midst of the current moment of history in the making. As First Lady of Virginia, I have been given a remarkable opportunity to promote my four pillars of health and wellness, military families, women in business, and economic development. However, not only am I able to promote areas that I am most passionate about, but my family is the residents of the Executive Mansion during a very significant time in our nation’s history – the 200th anniversary of the oldest occupied governor’s residence all fifty states. It is truly an honor to enhance the Mansion during this time, as well as be a part of producing the official book of the Mansion’s bicentennial: First House: Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families.
I invite you all to purchase your copy of First House. This coffee table book, written by historian Mary Miley Theobald with an introduction by novelist David Baldacci, and designed by Carol Roper Hoffler of Literati, chronicles the Mansion's important role as a residence, office, and social setting for the past fifty-four Virginia governors. Conceived during the Revolutionary War, built during the War of 1812, and looted during the Civil War, the Mansion has endured fires, threats, riots, and hurricanes. Research unearthed a wealth of stories and illustrations never before published. Tales of famous guests, pets, pranks, and ghosts weave through two centuries of additions, modernizations, and changing interior fashions. Newly discovered photographs, drawings, paintings, and antiques from private and public collections throughout Virginia and around the country bring these stories to life. Interviews with all ten living First Ladies and several of the Governors provided a peek into the upstairs lives of the commonwealth's First Families.
Books can be purchased at the Virginia Shops at the Library of Virginia and the Capitol or online at:www.thevirginiashop.org/firsthouse.aspx
I also invite you to join us for the 200th birthday of the Mansion on Saturday, March 16, 2013. Following the party, we will have an evening movie on the lawn. The film will be the launching of First House the Movie. Please mark your calendar for these events and check our website and facebook for updates, details, and times.