A recent tour of one of Arkansas' most public buildings started in one of its most private places.
Arkansas first lady Susan Hutchinson showed a reporter a new bathroom in a former janitor's closet in the Governor's Mansion.
As she followed a royal blue rug runner down a spiraling white staircase to the mansion's private family room in the basement, Hutchinson said grandchildren found creative ways to avoid the public eye during events when they needed to go to the upstairs restrooms.
"So I suggested that we transform the janitor's closet into a powder room," Hutchinson said, opening the ornate white door tucked under the stairs.
Inside, a custom-made white vanity with a marble top was built into the triangle of the corner. Two mirrors framed in gilded branches with leaves face each other from opposite walls.
The conversion of the janitor's closet into something useful to the governor's family is one part of a nearly $817,000 overhaul of the nearly 69-year-old Georgian Colonial-style mansion. The renovation began in the summer of 2016 and recently wrapped up.
An Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council $1.1 million grant financed the improvements. The state organization, founded in 1987 by the Arkansas Legislature, awards its funds for the acquisition, management and stewardship of state-owned lands or the preservation of state-owned historic sites, buildings, structures or objects.
The grants are funded through two increases in the real estate transfer tax, the original increase in 1987 and an additional increase in 1993.
Since 1989, the first year the council disbursed grants, the Governor's Mansion received more than $5.8 million for renovations and expansions.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it's important to preserve the mansion because it's a place that all Arkansans have in common, and it "evokes a sense of pride in our state."
"It's a showplace where many significant people have visited, including Harry Truman and Gregory Peck. Although the Mansion is one of the state's youngest [historic properties], its significance belies its youth," the governor said in a written statement. "Susan and I are temporary residents of the Mansion but we want to make sure it is well maintained as an historic site for generations to come."
When Susan Hutchinson made the presentation for the latest -- and her first -- grant, the first lady told the council of the many woes that needed immediate attention.
The electrical and plumbing systems throughout the 8.5-acre property -- that includes the mansion, a guest cottage, an office building and a carriage house -- were in bad repair and needed replacing to get them up to code, she said.
Heating and air units, attic ventilation and gutters, downspouts and roof tiles were showing signs of aging and damage from the elements, affecting energy efficiency and increasing the risk of interior damage.
The garden path was in such disrepair that it created Americans with Disabilities Act compliance concerns.
The first family shared a residential-size washer and dryer with the staff who laundered large loads of tablecloths and other linens used for events in the mansion's adjoining Great Hall. The staff now has a commercial-grade washer and dryer.
Carpet in the private family area was stained and soiled from decades of wear and tear. Portions of the interior floors in the mansion and attached buildings were cracking, and staff members were injured in falls on the slick, aging floors.
The attic and roof supports for the carriage house were in structural danger. The building is the work hub for the mansion and grounds, and garden maintenance. It houses the maintenance office and the staff break room, as well as tools and equipment. Its attic is used for mansion storage.
The detached governor's office cottage had been without water service for years, and a rat infestation left the wall, floor and ceiling insulation saturated in urine. The lingering stench could be eliminated only by major demolition and rebuilding.
"There was urgency expressed for some of the needed repairs that involved code violations or that impacted public safety, so the Council felt that it was important to address these so that the Mansion, which receives visitors every day, could best represent the State of Arkansas," Melissa Whitfield, communications director for the Department of Arkansas Heritage, said in an email.
While much of the grant-funded renovations to the Governor's Mansion were structural, numerous cosmetic improvements were made as well: a new hearth and surround in the library; chandeliers and sconces in the Grand Hall; fresh paint and fixtures throughout; and new displays in the sculpture garden.
As Susan Hutchinson walked through the property, "the association" was mentioned often as the benefactor of improvements that were not included in the grant. The nonprofit Governor's Mansion Association, founded in the late 1980s, raises private funds -- whether through ticketed events at the mansion, memberships or donations -- for the mansion's restoration and preservation.
The association often purchases items or pays for repairs that are not normally allowed under state rules or through grants.
As Susan Hutchinson entered the library, just off the formal living room, her hand glided reverently over the top of a Louis XVI marble mantel that was shipped by boat from France after it was purchased by the Governor's Mansion Association for $8,781.09.
The mantel is dedicated to the memory of Gary Davis, a founding member of the association. Upon his May 24, 2017, death, Davis' family requested that memorial donations be made to the association in lieu of flowers.
Nearly $36,000 of grant funds were used to demolish a section of the built-in bookshelf that lined the west wall, install a new hearth and surround to embrace the mantel and add a ventless gas fireplace.
"The hearth was donated by Pacific Shore Stones, and Baldwin & Shell [Construction Co.] donated the installation of the mantel, the hearth and all of that," Susan Hutchinson said.
In all, the final cost of the library improvements -- including new millwork, carpentry repairs, new electrical cables, patching and painting the plaster, and refinishing the hardwood floors -- was $47,549.39, according to the final grant report from the Department of Finance and Administration.
Governor's Mansion Association President LeAnne Bird said additions, like the Louis XVI mantel, add to the elegance of the mansion and increase its value as a tourist attraction not just for people around the state, but for visitors that flock to the mansion from around the nation and world.
"To me, if you take the whole thing in totality -- not just the house, but the guest cottages, sculpture garden, everything -- the entire Governor's Mansion's grounds reflects care, quality and most important, it reflects good taste," Bird said. "If you're not from Arkansas, it makes you wish you were."
Susan Hutchinson walked with purpose across the tiled floor through the formal state dining room, then halted at a closed door leading to the kitchen. She held the door closed as she described the area before improvements funded by more than $71,000 in grant monies.
"They had a different kind of poured flooring and you would slip and fall with or without water or oil on it," she said. "And everything was beige. There was third-grade quality granite on the counters that didn't match the beige."
The first lady swung open the door to reveal a bright white kitchen with a shiny epoxy floor, new countertops, new cabinets with hardware she selected, an additional dishwasher, and a new residential range and oven.
The range replaced a commercial stove with a flame that "came out a foot high." That stove was moved to the staff's commercial kitchen.
"It just was not family friendly. So I was like, 'can we compromise here?' I wanted to be able to cook breakfast," Susan Hutchinson said. "I can't imagine a mom trying to show their kids how to boil eggs or anything, and you've got this big, massive stove."
A nook with a built-in desk was constructed along the west wall. The first lady said she envisioned children of future administrations doing homework at the desk while the family cooked meals or visited with guests.
"The kitchen, you know, that's just the heart and the soul of the home," she said. "Everybody wants to be in the kitchen."
Susan Hutchinson turned on her heel, paused at the back door and smiled broadly.
"And now we're off to the carriage house," she said.
After she greeted maintenance workers by their first names and inquired as to their well-being, Susan Hutchinson stood next to an east-side door as the men rolled up the overhead door.
She smiled and pointed to the narrow and steep wooden stairs along the side wall.
"If you have something that needs to go upstairs, how are you going to go up those steps?" she said. "And they didn't have strips on there either when I moved in. I'm real big on safety. Beautiful or not, it's got to be safe."
A new, wider staircase was installed in the middle of the workshop and nearly $54,000 in grant money was used to enclose the attic area where unused antiques and supplies are stored, install a new heating and air conditioning unit, and repair the roof.
"Things won't deteriorate now," Susan Hutchinson said. "It's a lot more safe."
When asked her favorite part of the whole renovation, the first lady smiled slowly and nodded toward the east garden.
"The Rain of Faith," she said in whispered reverence.
The stainless-steel sculpture by Arkansas artist Ryan Schmidt was donated to the mansion during the previous administration of Gov. Mike Beebe. It was once a source of conflict between previous members of the Governor's Mansion Commission and the first lady when she suggested in 2016 that the sculpture be extended over a reflecting pool, as the artist intended.
The Governor's Mansion Commission members at the time balked at the expense.
In the end, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council granted more than $192,000 to install the reflecting pool, and lay the foundation and sculpture base and support.
"It's just so lasting, and it brings together science and faith. It's very inspirational," Susan Hutchinson said. "The children just ooh and aah when they see it. Just the slightest breeze and it spins."
When the Hutchinsons moved to their taxpayer-owned home in January 2015, the mansion was showing its age. The first lady made some waves when she immediately told the commission that improvements were needed.
The commission disagreed and tensions flared until a bill was passed in a May 2016 special session that changed commission's functions, in part by removing some duties, and specified that members served at the will of the governor.
Susan Hutchinson works closely with the revamped commission and reports on the mansion's needs and improvements at each meeting. The mansion, she said, belongs to the people of Arkansas, and she and her husband are dedicated to preserving it.
"We're doing our best as resident managers to take care of their house for as long as we live here," she said.
State Building Division Director Anne Laidlaw, who acted as the project manager and maintained the grant budget, said the first lady was involved every step of the way through the nearly two-year renovation, even working late at night and on weekends.
"It almost became 24/7," Laidlaw said. "I would get messages any day of the week, any hour."
Likewise, Susan Hutchinson sang Laidlaw's praises and credited her with the careful project management that allowed more than $283,000 in grant funds to be turned back to the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council at the project's completion.
"I wanted to make sure we did it right, and Anne was the perfect person to be in charge," she said. "She wanted to make sure the state got its money's worth."
The work done now will last for generations, governor's spokesman J.R. Davis said.
"What I think is so amazing in what the first lady has been able to do is she is preserving history," Davis said. "This is history. It's the people's house. You've got to be able to preserve that."
Arkansas' Governor's Mansion rivals any of the others around the nation, Susan Hutchinson said.
"It is all to the glory of Arkansas and her people. I love showing it off," she said. "It's a gateway of hospitality for the whole state so I want it looking the best that it can, as safe as it can and as pristine and culturally beautiful as it can."
SundayMonday on 10/28/2018