Decking the halls of the Old Governor's Mansion

by Kay Harrod Published:

Hundreds drive past it everyday, perhaps taking for granted the stately old brick house that once welcomed visitors like Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt.

Sitting on the corner of High and Clinton, Kentucky’s original Governor’s Mansion appears as just another historic structure relegated to another day and time.

But many consider it one of Kentucky’s most beloved treasures. There are even those who cherish the commonwealth’s first governor’s mansion. They have given time and money to ensure it is still accessible for lovers of Kentucky history.

This holiday season the historic jewel will come alive once more thanks to the talents of two renowned designers – Kentuckian Jon Carloftis and Atlanta native James Farmer III.

Supporting their work to showcase the house in all its grandeur will be two of the South’s most preeminent magazines – Southern Living and Garden & Gun.

Thursday, the two magazines will photograph the designer’s work – most likely for the December 2012 editions.

Thursday night, a special reception will be held to unveil the designer’s work. All three floors of the Old Governor’s Mansion can be seen, the designers, magazine representatives and dignitaries will be on hand, and entertainment and Kentucky Proud food and vintage Christmas cookies will be served.

“I’m not sure the magazine’s goal is to get shots for its Christmas issue next year, but instead feature the governor’s mansion and our work now,” Farmer said talking by phone to the State Journal from Atlanta.

Farmer, whose designs are featured in the October, November and December issues of Southern Living, says the magazine may upload pictures to its website this year.

The event is being sponsored by the Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation Inc. For reservations, call 502-564-5500.

But Evans says act quickly, as there is only a limited number that can be in the house at one time. Cost for the reception is $100 and is tax deductible because all proceeds benefit the upkeep of the house.

Also opening during this time will be a gift shop in what was once the carriage house. Completely Kentucky will bring many offerings from Kentucky crafts people, both Carloftis and Farmer will have their books for sale, special ornaments will be available, and Carloftis will introduce his newest line of products for soil preparation and floral growth that have been developed by Alltech.

Evans, who serves as the director of the Governor’s Mansion for Gov. Steve and first lady Jane Beshear, also serves on the foundation’s board.

“I am delighted that James and Jon are doing this for us and through their contacts are bringing these two wonderful magazines in to show others across the United States our hidden treasure,” Evans said.

Farmer said he jumped at the chance when contacted by Southern Living to see if he would do the project.

“I was like Brer Rabbit in Uncle Remus’ story. ‘Please don’t throw me into that briar patch,’” he said, laughing.

“Of course I wanted this opportunity to not only do the project, but also to work with Jon Carloftis.”

According to Carloftis, who was on hand already working some of his magic Monday, the goal of the two designers is to show people how easy it is to bring the outside, inside.

 “We’re going to be using materials that are available to anyone,” Carloftis said.

 “We’re going to use greenery that can be found in yards – magnolia, pine, cedar, holly – and even materials that can be found in groceries like fruits of all sorts.”

In addition, Carloftis is working with Wilson’s Nursery using bagged and burlapped fresh trees and potted plants.

“Almost everything I am putting into my designs can be taken outside and planted immediately after the holiday,” he said.

“Even many of the potted plants I’m using for pops of color.”

Carloftis said that his belief is “less is more,” and simplicity in design can speak volumes. He expects Farmer, also an interior designer, will use a more extravagant style for the main parlor and entry of the house.

 “The parlor, which will hold the Christmas tree, should have an elevated style, a greater effect for the room it is in.”

The native Kentucky designer, who crisscrosses the U.S. to do outdoor design, says it’s important to use plants native to Kentucky.

 “I’m all about showcasing what we have and I want people to see the designs and say, ‘I can do that.’”

Farmer, 28, is owner of James Farmer Designs in Kathleen, Ga., and works as an editor-at-large for Southern Living. He is considered a rising star in both the inside and outside design world.

Farmer agrees with Carloftis’ use of plant materials inside. Actually, he says when it comes to natural, his style is not unlike that of Carloftis.

“I’ll be using everything from nature that I can find to decorate, both dried and fresh,” he said.

“Beautiful centerpieces and decorations for a tree do not have to come from a store,” Farmer said.

The two upstairs levels of the house will be decorated by Facilities Management mansion florist Beth Sebastian.

“James and I are going to have our hands full doing all the rooms downstairs including the kitchen. Beth does great natural work as well and she’ll handle the second and third floors.”

Once the oldest residence

Kentucky once held the distinction of having the only executive residence – built in 1797 – that was still occupied by an official resident, even predating the White House.

But 10 years ago, in what many believed a political grievance with then Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, the Senate introduced what they billed as a cost saving measure to no longer allow the second in command to live in the house.

An administrative regulation removed all costs associated with the lieutenant governor living in the house. Facilities security and executive state troopers were also cut.

Henry and his wife, Heather French Henry, were literally cast to the curb until the state placed them in a house it purchased from the State YMCA on Wapping Street, but with no amenities.

When administrations changed, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence was given monthly housing and gas expenses; in essence state taxpayers were still paying, but the historic house stood empty.

However, with the house empty, historic properties began a much-needed renovation to preserve its integrity and to tie its gardens to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.

Glenna Fletcher, first lady to Gov. Ernie Fletcher, became the flag bearer for the foundation that first lady Judi Patton created in the last months of Gov. Paul Patton’s administration.

Once renovations were complete, with Fletcher’s contacts, interior designers signed on to decorate the rooms at no cost to the state, making the house a place for tourists to visit and allowing the public access for events that were approved by historic properties.

KEMFI now oversees the property, and its board members include, along with Evans, Jane Beshear and Steve Collins, former first lady Judi Patton and Jennie Nunn Penn, daughter of the late governor Louie B. Nunn.

Henry has the distinction of being the last government official to live in the house. But the debacle over his living there was not the first fight for rights to live in what was first the governors’ residence.

Not for a commoner

When the house was being built, Gov. James Garrard and his family would be the first to occupy it when citizens called it the “palace.”

The mason for the project was Thomas “Stone Hammer” Metcalf, who laid the foundation for the mansion.

Ironically, roughly 30 years later in 1828, Metcalf was elected governor. Legend goes that the sitting governor was aghast that Metcalf would be living in the residence and issued the admonition that “no commoner should occupy the palace.”

The Kentucky Militia was called to allow Metcalf to enter the home.

The portrait of Metcalf now hangs in the state dining room of the old residence, along with other governors who in earlier days would also use the house as an office.

When the Executive Mansion was built on the campus of the new Capitol in 1912, both the living quarters and the offices of then governor McCreary were moved.

For many years, the older home stayed vacant and in disrepair. Chickens and livestock not only roamed the area, but also were allowed to roost and bed in the house.

Vagrants and hobos also settled into the house until Gov. Simeon Willis intervened and saved the building from demolition in 1948 by appropriating money to stabilize the structure.

A major renovation on the home was completed in 1956, and the Old Governor’s Mansion then became the official residence of Kentucky’s lieutenant governors. Western Kentucky native Harry Lee Waterfield and his family moved in.

His son, Investors Heritage owner Harry Lee Waterfield, remembers being a teenager living in the house when his father was lieutenant governor.

Waterfield tells stories of using the front door to bring his baseball buddies into the home, “cleats and dirty uniforms,” after games even at times when his mother, Laura, was hosting teas. He also vividly remembers sliding down the banister located in the front hall.

Steve Wilson, son of then Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins, also enjoyed the house from 1979-83. His daughter, Katherine, former Gov. Collins’ granddaughter, will provide the music for Thursday night’s reception.

Judi Patton says the old mansion, or “little house,” was her favorite residence.

 “The little house was more like a home a family could be comfortable in,” she said. “Living in the governor’s mansion, the people’s home,” Patton calls it, “is like the family living over the store,” she says.

“The first floor of the mansion is more museum quality and the public space for events and is not a comfortable place for family living.”

Patton says she regrets that no Kentucky official is allowed to live in the little house calling it “sad” that the commonwealth lost its distinction of having the oldest occupied residence in the U.S.

But Jane Beshear has said in interviews that with the economic situation as it is for the state, now is not the time to revisit the issue.

Two weeks for the public

From Dec. 2 through Dec. 11, the public can also view the work of Carloftis and Farmer. The cost is $20 and is tax deductible. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

Both Carloftis and Farmer will be at the residence on Saturday autographing their books and talking with visitors about their work.

State employees received notice in their paychecks this week that they can view the old mansion at a reduced rate. According to Evans, members of the military will not be charged.

Local volunteers will be on hand to provide tours.

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