TBT: A home for Governors, a place for history

President Theodore Roosevelt and Governor Richard Yates, Jr. sit on a bench at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Last weekend, the Illinois Governor's Mansion in Springfield re-opened after a multi-year renovation effort. The first tours were conducted on Saturday. The tours feature exhibits highlighting the children who have lived in the mansion and they also include furniture from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the pre-Civil War era. The mansion, which was built in the mid-1850s, has been visited by everyone from Presidents of the United States to a First Daughter’s pet alligator.

Springfield became the state’s capital city in 1839, and before the current mansion was constructed Governors lived in a house at 8th and Capitol streets, an intersection now occupied by the Springfield public library, a fire station and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. In 1853, Governor Joel Matteson took office and made the need for a new residence apparent, as the existing house was insufficient for his family which included seven children.

Two years later, the General Assembly appropriated $18,000 to build a mansion of suitable size for the Governor’s large family and for the social commitments which he and future Governors would have. Architect John M. Van Osdel was selected for the work, already being known for having designed the Chicago City Hall and Cook County Courthouse.

The mansion was built on Jackson Street, between 4th and 5th Streets, just a few blocks southwest of the building then serving as the state capitol. The current capitol is just two blocks west of the mansion. The mansion was completed in 1855, and Governor Matteson and his family moved in not long after.

But the mansion’s first years were inauspicious, to say the least. Governor Matteson complained about the house and ended up buying property across the street after he left office to build a much grander home for himself. His successor, Governor William Bissell, became the first Illinois Governor to die in office when he drew his last breath in the mansion in March 1860. Bissell’s successor, Governor John Wood, then declined to move into the mansion at all, allowing the grieving Bissell family to remain in the mansion until what would have been the conclusion of his term in 1861.

Wood was succeeded by Governor Richard Yates, who would lead Illinois through the Civil War. His son, Richard Jr., was an infant during his father’s governorship, but he came back for a term of his own between 1901 and 1905: the first and so far only child of an Illinois Governor to hold the office himself.
Illinois Governor's Mansion July 2018

The first Illinoisan to reach the White House, Abraham Lincoln, was friends with Governor Bissell and visited the mansion frequently before being elected President. The second Illinois President, Ulysses S. Grant, became the first sitting Chief Executive to spend the night at the mansion, doing so in 1874 when he came to Springfield to dedicate Lincoln’s Tomb. Two years before Grant’s stay, the famed abolitionist and civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass had stopped at the mansion.

Over the next decades, the mansion hosted many social events, including Governor Henry Horner’s Depression-era conference to discuss relief for farmers and many USO events hosted by his successor, Governor Dwight Green, during World War II for soldiers visiting Springfield on leave.

Perhaps the most talked about incident to occur at the mansion came during Governor Joseph Fifer’s 1889 inaugural reception. During the party, his 12-year-old daughter Florence startled guests by sliding down the mansion’s bannister and into the gathering. Perhaps foreshadowing the shenanigans of the Roosevelt children who would move into the White House a decade later, young Florence was known to ride into the front parlor on her pony, and kept a pet alligator in the mansion’s fountain. Over 30 years later, Florence Fifer Bohrer would become the first woman elected to the Illinois State Senate.

The mansion was also visited by many more distinguished visitors. Presidents Rutherford Hayes, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower all stopped at the mansion while in town. So did Jordan’s King Hussein while visiting the United States in 1959.

Renovations and restorations are nothing new to the Governor's Mansion. Governor Fifer signed an appropriation bill in 1889 which set aside more than $13,000 for repairs to the mansion. Springfield architect George Helmle led this first re-model, as well as a second in 1897 which added the front portico. Twenty years later, during the more austere times brought about by America’s entry into World War I, Governor Frank Lowden paid for a portion of another set of renovations out of his own pocket. In 1929, the legislature again set aside funds for renovation. First Lady Mabel Green attempted to launch a needed renovation of the mansion in 1941 due to termite damage and structural damage in the library, but found her efforts handicapped by the shortage of labor and materials due to the war.

Governor William G. Stratton and his wife Shirley enjoy a walk on the grounds
of the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum.
As the mansion passed its centennial, it was in such rough shape that the Illinois House was moved to pass legislation in 1961 directing the construction of a new mansion. That summer, newspapers called the mansion a “firetrap’ and a “hazard, as well as a horror.” Momentum in that direction was blunted, however, by a coalition of preservationists and former Governors and first ladies who were able to stop the bill before it was called for a vote in the Senate. A few years later Governor Richard Ogilvie established an Illinois Executive Mansion Commission to come up with a definitive report on what to do with the building.

Their efforts led to a $3 million renovation overseen by the Illinois State Historical Library to bring the house back up to better livability standards, but also to restore some of its historical grandeur. That Ogilvie renovation was completed in 1971, and the mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. But over the next 40 years, wear-and-tear again took its toll on the residence. By 2015 the mansion; by now the third-oldest in the nation and the oldest in the Midwest; had again fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was barely inhabitable.

The Illinois Governor’s Mansion Association set out a goal to raise $15 million for the almost total renovation of the mansion. After two years of extensive construction, the mansion has at last re-opened. Thanks to the work completed in this bicentennial year, the Governor's Mansion will remain an important part of Illinois’ past, present and future.