By W. Wright Mitchell
If you have ever given directions to a location on West Paces Ferry Road, chances are it went something like this: “Well, you pass the Governor’s Mansion, then . . .”
The Governor’s Mansion is a Buckhead landmark, but few know that it also houses one of the nation’s finest collections of Federalist Period antiques. Or that the library contains numerous first-edition books by Georgia authors, including a signed copy of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.”
Since the Georgia capital moved to Atlanta from Milledgeville in 1868, Georgia’s governors have resided in three “official” residences. The first residence was located downtown at the corner of present-day Peachtree and Cain streets. Over time, however, the building deteriorated and was eventually demolished in 1923.
In 1925, the state purchased the home of Edwin P. Ansley on The Prado in Ansley Park to be used as a governor’s residence. The Prado Mansion was described as a “cold, gray, austere, medieval structure.” Therefore, in 1961 the state established an 11-member committee to examine the need for a new mansion.
In 1962, the General Assembly extended the life of the committee and created the State Office Building Authority, which had authority to build the new mansion. The Authority was granted bonding authority of $1 million.
The State Building Authority opened the project up for construction bids in 1964 and it quickly became clear that the plans could not be carried out for $1 million.
The bid was eventually approved and the state purchased Woodhaven, an English Tudor-style home, located on 18 acres on West Paces Ferry Road. Woodhaven was built in 1912 as the private residence of former Atlanta Mayor Robert F. Maddox. Although Woodhaven was torn down to make way for the new structure, much of its beautiful terraced gardens were retained. Noted landscape architect Edward Daugherty created the master landscaping plan for the new mansion.
Construction of the new mansion, also known as the Executive Center, was completed in December 1967 by the P.D. Christian Company. It is a stunning brick Greek revival structure consisting of 25,000 square feet and 30 rooms spread out over three levels. Thirty white Doric columns reach from the veranda to the roof. The first floor of the mansion is used for entertaining and the second floor contains the governor’s living quarters. The bottom floor includes a huge hall that can accommodate 350 people. A library on the first floor houses an impressive collection of first-edition books on Georgia history.
A 75-member Fine Arts Committee, created by Governor Carl Sanders in 1966, oversaw the interior decoration and landscaping. The committee, headed by Henry Green, amassed one of the finest collections of Federalist Period antiques in the U.S.
Among the committee’s more important acquisitions was a rare mahogany dining table in the state dining room, which was built in Philadelphia around 1810 and extends to more than 14 feet.
The mansion’s collection of antiques includes a tea set made by silversmith Garrett Eoff in 1815 and several pieces of silver used aboard the U.S.S. Georgia.
The art collection includes works of American painters Benjamin West, Ralph E.W. Earl, Thomas Doughty, John Neagle, Severin Roesen, Samuel King and Alvin Fisher.
The Fine Arts Committee was disbanded by the mansion’s first resident, Gov. Lester Maddox, who, according to newspaper accounts, was upset over several incidents, one of which a female committee member accidentally caught the governor clad only in his undergarments. Gov. Maddox also disliked the suggestion of committee members that a duck given to him by students should not reside in the mansion’s fountain.
Seven governors have resided in the current mansion since 1967, including the current governor, Sonny Perdue.
All of the lavish entertaining and countless visitors have taken a toll on the mansion’s furnishings. As such, many of the pieces are in need of refurbishment or replacement. Since no public funds are allotted to maintain the interior furnishings, First Lady Mary Perdue created a non-profit foundation in 2004 called Friends of the Mansion, Inc., to raise private funds for the task. Gov. Perdue also appointed a statutorily created nine-member bipartisan Executive Center Fine Arts Committee to oversee restoration.
The Governor’s Mansion is located at 391 West Paces Ferry Rd. and public tours are conducted throughout the year on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays between 10:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Reservations are needed for groups of 10 or more.
More information about the Mansion and its furnishings can be found at www.friendsofthemansion.com.
W. Wright Mitchell is president of the Buckhead Heritage Society and a member of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Executive Center Fine Arts Committee. He is also a labor and employment lawyer at the firm of Constangy, Brooks & Smith.