Virginia’s Executive Mansion is the second oldest governor’s residence in the United States. And, perhaps more importantly, it is the oldest executive residence still being used as such in the nation. Virginia’s first two governors after the Revolution, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, lived in the old Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. After that, governors occupied rental properties in Richmond, after Jefferson decided to move the center of government from Williamsburg. For a period of over a decade, governors lived in a modest frame house that was located on the site where the current Executive Mansion stands today. It was there that future presidents of the United States lived—James Monroe, while serving as Virginia’s governor, and William Henry Harrison and John Tyler while their fathers were serving as governor.
It was John Tyler, Sr., who approached the state legislature to build a suitable house for the governor’s residence. He called the frame house “intolerable for a private family.” In 1811, the General Assembly voted to construct a house; Governor James Barbour and his family took up residence at the mansion in the summer of 1812. British troops were in Williamsburg and were making war on the Virginia coastline. The independence of the nation was once again in jeopardy.
Built as it was at the high noon of the American movement called “federalism,” the house is a perfect example of architectural restraint and elegance. The federal style in design and architecture was an outgrowth of the neo-classical style that developed principally in Britain toward the end of the eighteenth century. Rejecting some of the heavier elements of the Georgian period, the new taste of the federal period ran more toward lightness of form, line, and ornamentation. Native plants, for example, can often be found in federal design, such as in the capitals of columns. If the Georgian style reveled in confidence and expression, the federal period proclaimed restraint, dignity, and the virtues of republican America. One was florid, the other chaste. One was masculine, the other as feminine as a diaphanous empire gown worn by the goddess of Liberty.
The Executive Mansion embodies these ideals perfectly. Indeed, were a textbook example to be furnished of federal architecture in America, Virginia’s Executive Mansion would fit virtually all the criteria of the period. In fact, while the interior of the house has changed radically over the past two hundred years with changing tastes and styles, its exterior has remained, in large part, untouched except for minor details of paint color and spare architectural additions and subtractions.
The house was designed by the American architect Alexander Parris. He came from New England but was in Richmond designing houses for wealthy and prominent individuals. Parris was given the princely sum of fifty dollars to design a new residence for the governor. In monetary terms today, his fee was the equivalent of nearly the semi-annual income of a yeoman farmer. Parris’ design was modified during construction by the builder, Christopher Tompkins, and the house was finished in 1813 at a total cost of $18,871.82.
When it was completed, the Executive Mansion was the finest official home of any governor in the United States. Its only rival was The White House in Washington, soon to be torched in August 1814 by the advancing British during the War of 1812.
Today the interior of the Executive Mansion is larger than the house finished by Tompkins in 1813. At the time the first floor of the house held but four rooms, a ladies’ parlor, the governor’s office, a dining room, another parlor, and its fine and spacious broad entrance hall. There was no front porch, just simple wooden steps leading to the entrance hall. Two very plain porches were built on the north and south sides of the house. Upstairs, there were four bedrooms and a storeroom. Dependencies outside held a laundry, kitchen, and slave quarters. The slave quarters are today a guest cottage.
In the 1830s the front porch was built over the entrance to the mansion, the side porches were replaced, and parapets above the eaves to the house were built. Yet the biggest addition to the house came in the early years of the last century when Governor Claude Swanson chose architect Duncan Lee to combine the original parlor and dining room into one large ballroom, and construct on oval-shaped dining room at the rear of the house.
In addition, the upstairs of the house has been generally sealed off, allowing the sitting governor and his family privacy in their fairly spacious but not overly grand living quarters. Here are five bedrooms, a den, a study, a large foyer, and a small kitchen, should the governor feel compelled to make himself a late night snack. In this area of the house, Virginia’s first families are allowed wide latitude in the choice of décor.
The first floor rooms and the wide entrance hall are the main reception rooms, what is called in official residences, the “state floor.” Here upon entering, the visitor to the Executive Mansion passes through heavy double doors. The hall, with its impressive and elegant series of arches leading to the dining room, has been painted a buff grey, a popular color in the American federal period. It is accented with portraits of famous Virginians, including but certainly not limited to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Pocahontas. These and other portraits frequently are moved around the house. But their gilt frames against the grey walls make for an attractive introduction to the beauty of the Executive Mansion. The hall also boasts a superb collection of federal furniture in the Sheraton and Hepplewhite-inspired styles.
To the right and left of the entrance are two rooms. To the right is the First Lady’s Parlor, hung with portraits of the Virginia’s first ladies and also furnished with an exceptionally fine collection of early nineteenth-century furniture in the federal and American empire styles. Above the fireplace hangs a particularly superb example of a federal period overmantel mirror with églomise painting. The room is hung in a reproduction wallpaper from about the 1810 period with floral borders. The windows are hung with bold scarlet curtains draped in the manner of the same period. On the floor is a reproduction carpet of federal geometric designs. The same carpet is found in the opposite room across the hall.
Indeed, the room directly opposite from the First Lady’s Parlor is the Old Governor’s Office. In this room, Virginia governors worked until 1902, when Governor Andrew Jackson Montague moved his office over to a room on the third floor of the Capitol building.
In the long stretch of the nineteenth century the daily business of the governor was considerably different than it is today. Anyone could call on the governor, especially during the legislative session. Life in the mansion was perhaps not quite as serene as today, as men waited in the hall chewing and spitting tobacco to have their minutes with the governor.
Photographs in the late nineteenth century show the Old Governor’s Office in a profusion of pictures, prints, paintings, over-stuffed furniture, gaslight, electrical lamps, floral wallpaper, and bric a brac of all sorts. In Victorian terms it might have been called “a snuggery.” In modern terms it looks hideously appalling.
Gone today is all that, including a bear rug with head attached. In its place is a room that praises the early federal style in ways that even the early mansion might not have recognized. If it is a museum reproduction, or contrivance, call it what you will, it is a beautiful contrivance nonetheless.
The Old Governor’s Office remains a masculine domain, however. It contains a fine series of early Virginia maps and bird prints, a number fine period pieces of furniture, a few pieces being in the Georgian period rather than strictly federal, a handsome corner chair (what in England is called a “smoking chair”), a very good eighteenth-century mirror, and the matching carpet from an 1800 pattern to compliment the one in the First Lady’s Parlor.
Moving down the hall, the room opens to the ballroom flanking right and left. The ballroom is a grand space, with two exceptional chandeliers from about 1840. Both sides of the room are furnished with federal-style sofas. A new addition is an exceptional bookcase. Again portraits include not only Virginia first ladies, a new addition is the portrait of Anne Hill Carter, mother of Robert E. Lee, but also examples of Virginia landscapes by Virginia artists, or of Virginia scenes by artists from elsewhere. The ballroom is used frequently for official receptions.
Moving beyond through the enfilade we come to the crowning end of the state floor of the mansion: the oval dining room. This room, part of the 1906 addition, is also painted in a light shade of federal pearl grey and hung with red curtains bordered in yellow fringe and tassels. A large oval carpet decorated with classical motifs and the state seal of Virginia is on the floor. The dining table is also oval and can seat a dozen people quite comfortably. A portrait, reportedly of Elizabeth I for whom Virginia was named, hangs on the wall over a sideboard. Demi-lune federal-style tables and flowers grace the room at
Outside the mansion, the brick is painted a pale yellow with dark green shutters. In the late 1990s the mansion underwent extensive structural restoration. Caring for it is a dedicated staff of professionals who know that the work they do reflects the pride and history that Virginians take in their state. The Executive Mansion of Virginia represents not only the Commonwealth today, but the traditions that made Virginia the birthplace of patriots and the mother of American liberty.
Tours of the Executive Mansion may be made by calling 804-371-8687, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.