“Austin Askew”–Chapter VI– Ma and Pa, Naked Sam, and the Hair Helmet Kid: Tales of the Texas Governor’s Mansion

In “progressive,” open-minded Austin, people care less how you live your life than where you live it. Location is everything.

For years I lived in a derelict apartment complex in North Campus, though everyone insisted on saying it was in Hyde Park. I have a friend who lives way out off East Riverside, far east of I-35, yet for reasons known only to himself, he says he’s a “resident of Central Austin.”

Not surprisingly, Michael Dell lives in the largest and most expensive house in town, but I’ve seen photos and floor plans of the place, and not to sound like I’m feasting on sour grapes here, but “stately Dell Manor” looks like a cross between Lakeline Mall and a business conference center. Homey it ain’t.

If you’ve seen the first few scenes in “Spy Kids,” then you’ve seen the castle director Robert Rodriguez lives in west of town. And of course everybody’s heard about the millions Sandra Bullock poured into a lovely dump of a house that’s sadly destined for the wrecker’s ball.

Yes, there are larger and nicer houses in Austin, but for 150 years no address has been as coveted as 1010 Colorado–the Texas Governor’s Mansion.

The mansion was built between 1854 and 1856 by local architect and master builder Abner Cook. The eleven-room, 6,000 square foot brick house cost $14,500 and the furnishings $2,500.

Cook had lived for a few years in Nashville, and had no doubt seen Andrew Jackson’s home, “The Hermitage,” which had a two-story central block with pillared porticos across the front and back and one-story wings to either side. The Texas Governor’s Mansion was originally to have these one-story wings as well, which certainly would’ve provided much-needed space for entertaining, but for budgetary reasons the wings were never built.

The chief feature of the house is the eastern portico, which is 58 feet wide and 29 feet high, and supports a 6 foot tall entablature. The columns, topped with expertly carved Ionic capitals, were supposedly made of pine from Bastrop. Each tapered column consists of wooden staves, fitted together like those of a barrel, and there are several discs inside the column to ensure it keeps it shape. The fluting, or ridges, on the outside of the columns, was carved by hand.

A balcony has always stretched the width of the house, but it wasn’t extended out to the columns until later in the 19th century. For much of the twentieth century the balcony was screened-in, so the First Family would have a cool place to sleep in the days before air conditioning.

Most antebellum Southern houses had the same floor plan upstairs and down: a central hallway with two rooms to the left and two rooms to the right. This plan initially evolved due to economic and climatic conditions.

When a family first settled a farm or plantation, they’d usually just build a one-room cabin with one door, one fireplace, and several shuttered openings covered serving as windows. If the family prospered and grew a second cabin would be built alongside the first, and a roofed breezeway would be built to connect the two structures. This breezeway was called the “dog-trot” because it was where the dogs, and indeed the rest of the family, spent most of their time.

Eventually rooms would be added behind the first two, the breezeway would be extended and enclosed into a hallway, the log walls would be covered by milled lumber which would in turn be white-washed or painted, glass would be put into the windows, stairs and a second floor would be added, and porches would be added to the front and back of the house, if not built all the way around it. Even if a person skipped all these steps and built a big house from the start, he still usually stuck to the four rooms and a hallway plan. Now this might seem awfully boring and conformist, but open up the weekend “Homes” section of any major newspaper and you’ll no doubt see how the floor plans of most suburban houses these days pretty much resemble one another.

In America in those days a man didn’t go to school to become an architect, he apprenticed himself to a carpenter or builder. Then he’d buy one of the popular design manuals of the time, by Asher Benjamin or Minard Lafever, for instance, and reproduce the designs he liked, modifying them if he wished. A few generations before Abner Cook, Thomas Jefferson had taught himself how to be an architect just by following the design manuals of ancient and Renaissance architects such as Vitruvius and Palladio.

The Governor’s Mansion originally consisted of that four rooms and a hallway plan, with the first floor consisting of two parlors to the north of the hall and a library and dining room to the south, and four bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was put in a separate building to the west of the house for reasons of fire safety. Within a year, though, the service ell was attached to the house and a second story was added to that wing for servants.

In 1914, during the Colquitt administration, the service wing was expanded, sleeping porches on the western side of the house were turned into rooms, and a porte-cochere (a fancy word for what is basically a carport) was added so the First Family could come and go with some measure of privacy. Also in the early part of the twentieth century a carriage house was built that has served at times as servant’s quarters and children’s playhouse, but is now mostly a Department of Public Safety security outpost.

Many Governor’s Mansions throughout the US have had the same problem: they have lots of rooms full of artifacts and antiques, all done up for formal entertaining, but precious little room for the Governor and his family to actually live in. You know, you can’t really sit in a formal parlor in your underwear, watching “The View” and eating peanut M&Ms, if you know that at 10am some docent in a hoop skirt is going to be bringing a tour group of little old ladies through who are hellbent on seeing Mrs. Beauford Jester’s china pattern.

The last major renovation of the Texas Governor’s Mansion was in 1982, and it left the house with 21 rooms and 8,920 square feet, though private space is still at a premium. For instance, the Conservatory was added on the southwest corner of the house in 1914 so the Family could have an informal place to eat, but since the State Dining Room is so small, at big dinner parties this second room is pressed into service, with the Governor and First Lady shuttling back and forth between rooms.

The Sam Houston Room on the second floor has always been a museum room as well as an official State Guest Room, but in 1982, Governor Bill Clements set aside another State Guest Room in honor of the Mansion’s first occupants, Elisha and Lucadia Pease. Another bedroom has been divided into a bathroom and dressing room, and the latter has been pressed into service as an office for the First Lady. So excluding the two museum rooms, the second floor private quarters consist of one large bedroom, two smaller ones, the dressing room/office, a kitchenette, and a living/dining room.

Say whatever you will about Abner Cook, he apparently inspired brand loyalty. Cook had built a home for State Comptroller James B. Shaw, but after Shaw’s wife and child died, he sold the place to Governor Pease, who at that time was just leaving office. The house, named “Woodlawn” by the Peases, closely resembles the Governor’s Mansion, but is much larger. It also has a six-columned portico with Ionic capitals, but its second floor balcony extends only over the front door.

Pease descendants lived in “Woodlawn” for a century, before selling it to outgoing Governor Allan Shivers. For fifty years there was talk that “Woodlawn” should become the new Texas Governor’s Mansion, leaving the old one downtown to serve as a museum. There was much to recommend this plan, as “Woodlawn” sits on a large piece of ground in a quiet residential area (as opposed to the middle of the city), and there is ample space for formal public entertaining and informal private living.

Allan Shivers died in 1985 and his widow in 1996, leaving “Woodlawn” to the University of Texas. UT thought the house a white elephant and sold it to the State. Reportedly, one of the things former Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock asked Governor George W. Bush before his death in 1999 was that “Woodlawn” be made the new Governor’s Mansion, but Bush didn’t like the idea. After several years of red tape and general run-around, the house was purchased by Austin investor Jeff Sandefer, who removed the additions Shivers had made, and spent several million dollars restoring the place for his own family.

Not to be outdone, Price Daniel, Shivers’s immediate successor (and old domino-playing buddy of your humble correspondent’s grandfather), decided to build a replica of the Governor’s Mansion on his ranch, and build it with the one-story wings that had been on the original plans. Well, I’m sad to say the attempt wasn’t entirely successful. I’ve seen photos of the house and it’s clear Daniel hired a builder, or at least a very unskilled architect, for the job.

The front pillars are too narrow, the main block of the house is too broad and squat, the entablature is both improperly proportioned and top-heavy, and the wings look like garages made to appear as parts of the house. The whole idea behind the design seems to have been, “Oh well, that’s close enough.” The Texas State Library took over the place in 1998, operating it as an archive of Daniel’s life and political career.

The third man to occupy the real Governor’s Mansion was Sam Houston, hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, President of the Republic of Texas, protégé of Andrew Jackson, and world-class drunkard. But by the time he was elected Governor, Houston was clean and sober, married to his third wife, and father of seven kids with an eighth on the way. Houston also anticipated Austinite Matthew McConaughey by almost a century-and-a-half: thanks to all his years living in the great outdoors with the Indians, Houston was a lifelong nudist, and thought nothing of parading about the Mansion in the altogether, which I’m sure went over really well with his staunch Baptist wife.

In 1860, Temple Lea Houston was born in a big four-poster bed in the Mansion, and proved to be the child that most took after his flamboyant father. Temple was a lawyer and orator who spoke at the 1888 dedication of the State Capitol, was notorious for his quick-draw skills, loved to go on amateur archaeological digs, was a flashy dresser, carried a bottle of Tabasco sauce in his Prince Albert coat wherever he went so he could make any food he ate “palatable,” and died in Oklahoma when he was only forty-five.

Temple’s older brother Andrew Jackson Houston once saw fit to lock the entire State Senate up in their Chamber and only let them out when his father threatened to have him put in jail. Still, Houston later chuckled that the boy had more control over the Senators than he did.

Naturally, for a house this old and famous, the Mansion has at least one ghost attached to it. Some say it is that of Sam Houston, either angry he was forced out of office for refusing to support the Confederacy or maybe just looking for where he left his clothes. Others think it is Pendleton Murrah, who was Governor at the end of the Civil War. Fearing Yankee capture, he apparently just took off for Mexico without bothering to resign, tell the Lieutenant Governor, or cancel the the newspaper and milk deliveries. But the most common theory holds that Murrah’s niece once rejected a young man’s proposal of marriage, and he responded by blowing his brains out in one of the Mansion bedrooms, then coming back to haunt everybody thereafter.

The most colorful nineteenth century family to occupy the Mansion was that of Populist Jim Hogg. The Hoggs moved in with dozens of pets and four children, the latter of which had a great fondness for sliding down the banister of the curved staircase in the hallway. When one of the boys fell off and almost broke his neck, the Governor responded by sticking nails at intervals in the banister.

Now I must go on a rant. All my life I’ve heard half-wits authoritatively say, thinking they’re the most clever people in the world, that Jim Hogg had children named Ima Hogg, as well as Ura, Hesa, Shesa, Wera, Itsa, Theyra, Porky, Arnold, Babe, and I don’t know what all else. For the record, once and for all, the Hogg children were named William Clifford, Thomas Elisha II, Michael Stephen, and yes, Ima.

It seems an “Ima” was the heroine in Jim Hogg’s brother Tom’s epic poem, “The Fate of Marvin” (Yeah, really romantic names, there, Tom), and the Gov was just showing some family loyalty, albeit the blind sort, in the naming of his only daughter. Not long after Jim Hogg died, oil was discovered on his land, and his children became rich as Croesus. “Miss Ima” never married, became a generous philanthropist, and always defended her name with pride.

The next really colorful family to occupy the Mansion was the Fergusons, James E. and Miriam Amanda. “Farmer Jim” only served from 1915 to 1917, when his run-ins with the University of Texas and his shady financial deals got him impeached. The Fergusons waved their fists at the Old Guard, and vowed they’d one day return to the Mansion in triumph, riding in the same car they used to flee it in disgrace.

And in 1925 they did just that. Ferguson had been barred from holding a state office in Texas ever again, so when women got the vote, he had the bright idea of running his wife in his place. With “Ma” and “Pa” Ferguson, he insisted, Texans would get “two Governors for the price of one.” Ma Ferguson served from 1925 to 1927, and again from 1933 to 1935, but lost several other races, including her last one in 1940.

There was, of course, never any real doubt as to who was running the show. Jim Ferguson had a desk right alongside his wife’s in the Capitol, and the disgrace of impeachment didn’t slow down his crooked deals one iota. Whenever Ma Ferguson got stumped over an issue a reporter would ask her about, she’d say, “I don’t know that, but I do know that my Redeemer liveth!,” which I imagine made for many awkward silences in her press conferences.

Lawyer Dan Moody was the youngest man elected Governor of Texas, and he and his wife were still newlyweds when they moved into the Mansion. One of the main problems they had when they lived in the house was rats. Moody himself hunted them with his rifle in the basement, and in gratitude, a host of them climbed up into the walls and died, the stench of their putrefying flesh making itself manifest during a major State dinner.

For millionaire Ross Sterling, one of the founders of Humble Oil (now known as Exxon), the move into the Governor’s Mansion was something of a let-down, as he owned a 34-room, 21,000 square foot home in Morgan’s Point, that was at the time of its construction the largest house in Texas. The story goes he wanted his mansion to look like the White House, so he handed his architect, Alfred C. Finn (who later designed the San Jacinto Monument) a $20 bill, flipped it over, and pointing to the picture on the back, said, “Build me that!”

James V. Allred was Governor at the time of the Texas Centennial, and his youngest son, future cabaret performer Sam Houston Allred, was born in the Sam Houston Room in Sam Houston’s bed, in 1937. Local readers should take note that this Sam Allred is not to be confused with his cousin Sammy Allred, radio personality, Geezinslaw Brother, pitchman extraordinaire, and local folk hero. Anyway, I think Sammy’s middle name is “Norris.”

And bringing up radio personalities allows me to make a perfect segue in Governor “Pappy” O’Daniel. He originally went by his first name, “Wilbert,” but later figured out “W. Lee” appealed more to Southerners. I wrote recently about how he broadcast his folksy radio show from the Mansion, and about his fondness for inviting the general public to massive parties on the Mansion grounds. 25,000 people, for instance, showed up to celebrate his daughter’s wedding, though only 150 actually made it inside the house.

Things were much more low-key during the Coke Stevenson administration because First Lady Fay Stevenson was confined to a wheelchair and fatally ill. The Mansion Library was fitted up with a bed, the south vestibule between the Library and Dining Room was converted into a bathroom, and an elevator was installed next to the kitchen.

After John and Nellie Connally returned from their nightmare on Elm Street with JFK in Dallas in November 1963, it became very obvious that security was now a major priority.The Mansion could no longer be accessible to just anybody who wanted to walk up the steps and knock on the front door, so an iron fence with brick piers was built around the perimeter of the property. At the same time, though, Nellie Connally had the Mansion grounds beautifully landscaped.

Wealthy Uvalde rancher Dolph Briscoe and his wife Janey were crazy about Victorian furniture, and filled the Mansion with elaborate Belter chairs and couches. Wine red wall-to-wall carpeting was installed in most of the public rooms. An historian who visited the Mansion in those days said, “It looked like a West Texas whorehouse.”

By the time Bill Clements started his first term, the Mansion was a wreck and an embarrassment. Clements persuaded the Legislature to appropriate $1 million to restore the structure of the house, and $3 million more in private donations was raised to finish the job and decorate the house with antebellum antiques and reproductions. The renovation lasted from 1979 to 1982, during which time Clements and his wife lived in a condo near the Capitol.

Unfortunately, in 1983, shortly after Mark White and his family moved into the house, part of the plaster ceiling in the Back Parlor collapsed, which makes me wonder just how thorough the renovation was.

Ann Richards thought the private quarters in the Mansion looked like a men’s club, what with all the dark wallpaper, dim lighting, and framed hunting prints. She brightened the upstairs up, turning it into what she called her “little New York City apartment.”

In 2000 the eyes of the world turned to the Mansion when Texas Governor George W. Bush was elected President. As you’ll recall, it took several weeks to ascertain whether or not Bush actually won the election, but when the matter was decided, more or less, Bush turned the house over to his successor, the first Aggie-American Governor of Texas, the pretty boy with the professional skateboarder’s name and impervious helmet of hair, Rick Perry, who lives there still.

With any luck, the Mansion will last us thirty to fifty more years before another major renovation is needed. We blew our chance to acquire “Woodland” and Texans are probably too cheap to ever want to build a new Mansion. So what will we do? Maybe we can build an underground extension the way they did at the Capitol. Or who knows, maybe we can move the Governor, the Legislature, and all the various Boards, Departments, and Agencies into the Old Dell Place–it should be for sale by then.

—April 14, 2005

{In 2008 the Mansion was closed for another major renovation. It was badly damaged by a fire started on June 8, 2008 by Molotov cocktail thrown by an arsonist.}

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