It was shortly before 2 a.m. on June 8, 2008, when the 150-year-old Texas governor’s mansion went up in flames. An anonymous, and still unidentified, assailant had jumped the perimeter fence and thrown a Molotov cocktail onto the front porch.
Yet there was good news: The governor and his family weren’t home—nor were the historic furnishings that normally abided there. The mansion had been under construction, undergoing general maintenance and repairs. The first family had already relocated, and the furnishings and many historic materials—including original doors, windows, shutters, light fixtures, and a collection of 19th-century American antiques—had already been moved into storage off-site. Historic features that couldn’t be easily taken out, like mantels and the grand staircase, had been swaddled in a protective layer of insulation material. Finally, and perhaps most important from a restoration standpoint, the house’s masonry walls stood strong even as steel trusses melted and the roof tumbled in. The house was still structurally sound, and thus restorable.
The Greek Revival governor’s mansion is a point of pride for Texans that crosses party lines and spans much of the state’s history. It has housed every Texas governor since its opening in June 1856, just 20 years after the siege at the Alamo, and 11 years after Texas traded its independence for U.S. statehood. Located adjacent to the Capitol grounds in Austin, the mansion was positioned so that the governor could watch from the home’s porch or balcony as the Capitol itself was built.
The mansion was constructed for $14,500 by Abner Cook, a local master builder. A deep veranda, wide hallways, tall ceilings, and floor-length windows maximized airflow through the house’s 6,000 square feet in the beastly Texas summers, while 28′-tall Ionic columns hearkened back to ancient Greece. Buff-colored bricks for the project came from a clay pit on the banks of the river that runs through Austin, and the columns were hewn from the towering pines that grew in a forest in nearby Bastrop County.
Since its initial construction, time has brought changes. The original kitchen wing was demolished and a new kitchen and service addition built in 1914. Air-conditioning came in the 1950s. In the 1980s, a $1-million state appropriation restored the structure and refurbished the interior. Another $3 million in private donations purchased museum-quality American antiques to supplement the historic collection. Yet the mansion’s original configuration and overall character have remained essentially the same.
The six columns that stretch from porch to roof in front of the mansion define it. Far more than an accessory, their towering height and curvaceous Ionic capitals give the mansion its Greek Revival identity. But where the Greeks would have used stone, Texans used wood—carved fluted boards, or staves, with splines between them. They sit on carved limestone bases and taper subtly as they rise to the Ionic capitals.
The columns were on the front line when the fire started on the mansion’s porch. In some places, fire penetrated the columns at their joints and burned into them. Then the fire traveled through the house and the balcony, licking at the capitals from above. Yet the columns stood strong as the fire burned, even as the building’s roof collapsed.
Then came the water—essential to conquering the fire, but a second wave of assault to the columns. At battle’s end, only three of the six columns sustained serious damage from burning. But all of them would require restoration of varying degrees. The least damaged would be allowed to dry thoroughly before being stripped or scraped and repainted. The worst among them were left with gaping holes to be filled. But all remained structurally sound.
Restoring the columns, as well as the rest of the house, would turn out to be an evolving process. To oversee the restoration, Texas’s State Preservation Board brought in Dealey Herndon, a veteran preservation project manager who had formerly managed a massive project to restore and expand the Texas Capitol. Herndon, in turn, hired Kevin Koch, a registered architect with a breadth of construction and management experience and an interest in preservation. Together, Herndon, Koch, and a crack team of specialists would evaluate new challenges and apply new fixes as they worked.
The first steps in addressing the columns comprised a sort of restoration triage: The structural engineer recommended the team secure heavy-duty ratcheting canvas around the water-logged wood to prevent further swelling and possible bursting. They also tacked up wire over holes so animals couldn’t move in. And they trained a boroscope inside the two center columns to ensure that no debris or water remained to promote mold or rot.
Herndon and her team had to decide whether to remove the columns or restore them in situ. Although conventional wisdom seemed at first to point to taking them down, experts recommended the opposite. The columns would fare best if restored where they stood.
The capitals, however, were a different story. The tight angles under their curling volutes couldn’t be thoroughly accessed while they sat on top of the columns. And accessing the entire surface area was essential to ferreting out every bit of char—an important consideration, since old char can be highly flammable. Ultimately, all six capitals were taken down, and two were shipped to a restoration studio in Ohio for specialized repairs. While the capitals were down, the team seized the opportunity to look inside the columns from above, watching for spots of daylight to pinpoint previously unseen holes.
Damage to the vertical surfaces of the columns varied widely. In places that hadn’t burned, water had caused the wood to swell, then contract again as it dried, causing paint to flake off. In many areas, the burning created a layer of char about 1⁄16″ thick. Elsewhere, holes resulted where wood burned through—often where patches previously had been made.
The team decided to strip the paint to achieve a consistent surface. Koch tested several different chemical strippers, eventually settling on the formula that left the wood the cleanest. After stripping, the team applied a neutralizer to return the surface to a pH of around 7 (from the 8 or 9 left by the stripper) so primer would stick. Where there was char, workers scraped and scraped. Their tools varied—putty knives, paint scrapers, and the like—but were always plastic to avoid gouging the wood.
When it came to the actual holes in the wood, the subtly tapering, hand-carved fluting proved to be “a sculptural challenge,” says Koch. Restoration carpenter Mike Mullinix flew down several times from his home state of Kentucky to fill the holes with Dutchman patches. For each patch, he made a mock-up that the whole team reviewed, including project architect Ford, Powell, & Carson of San Antonio. Then he created the final patch from reclaimed wood of the same species, era, and grain as the original material. (Even with wood that will be painted, grain matters, as it affects the way the wood moves over time.) Epoxy was used minimally to smooth certain rough areas and blur sharp lines created by scraping away so much paint.
“Smooth” wasn’t the goal everywhere, though. Herndon prioritized retaining the original wood surface wherever possible. As a result of this approach, in some places, slight alligatoring shows through—battle scars to tell the columns’ story.
Once the columns were thoroughly repaired, and the neutralizer fully dried, painting began. All of the painting was done by hand, using brushes. The team primed the columns early to allow time to inspect them again in case more flaws appeared, then painted them in a shade of white as close to the original as possible.
That the columns could be restored at all is a happy fact that project manager Herndon attributes to good wood. They were constructed more than 150 years ago using loblolly pine from Bastrop, a town outside of Austin that was devastated by wildfires last year in the very forest that produced these trees. Their old-growth wood has a dense grain, and the individual boards were thick and long enough to create the columns’ entire length—no splicing meant fewer places for fire to gain foothold and penetrate inside.
As specialists worked on the columns, restoration continued apace on the rest of the house. Herndon’s extensive experience in restoration led her to take some unusual but insightful early steps.
First, she oversaw construction of a complete but temporary roof 8′ above where the home’s historic roof would be reconstructed. It had taken four months for a massive air-conditioning unit to dry out the water-logged house, and Herndon didn’t want to backtrack, as keeping the house dry was essential to preventing problems with mold. The temporary roof would protect the house from rain, with the added bonus of sheltering workers as they built the new, permanent roof. What’s more, she ordered temporary windows for all of the house’s window openings. Far superior to the plastic normally tacked over window openings in such situations, real windows provided surer protection against forceful Texas wind and rain, while also offering easy ventilation as needed.
The team’s experience informed another initial step: Specialists were brought in early with a handheld x-ray fluorescence analyzer, an expensive, professional tool that, when pointed at a painted surface for a few seconds, can determine whether there is lead in underlying paint layers. This allowed the team to devise a comprehensive plan for lead paint abatement at the outset, rather than having to interrupt work to test new areas.
On the house’s exterior, the restoration team paid special attention to the front east façade, itself a key architectural feature. Where original trim was burned beyond repair, they reinstalled salvaged pieces from other parts of the exterior so as to maintain as much original material as possible there. With restored columns and original trim on this façade, the mansion will present its original, historic face to the world.
Throughout the process, Herndon kept an eye to history as she brought the governor’s mansion back to the present. “I’d rather see something original that’s not in perfect condition than something new,” she says. To that end, the central staircase has been cleaned and waxed, but not refinished, so 150 years of dings and blemishes—and the stories behind them—remain. Nail holes in the banister, for instance, are the result of Governor Hogg, who took office in 1891, putting tacks there to stop his four children from sliding down it. Many other stories remain unknown, yet enrich the house just the same.
For more information on the post-fire restoration of the Texas governor’s mansion, visit txfgm.org.Published in: Old-House Journal October/November 2012