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Heritage Society weighs in on changes proposed for Governor’s Mansion

Thursday, January 7, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Heritage Society of Austin, much to its president Mandy Dealey’s chagrin, has ended up being one of the first supporters – and earliest detractors – of the Governor’s Mansion restoration and, now, potential expansion downtown.


Plans emerged for a 3,000-square-foot addition on the Governor’s Mansion property at a Texas Historical Commission meeting in El Paso last October. While the Heritage Society of Austin was silent on the expansion, initially, the board did take a vote eventually to oppose the plans, and Dealey was on hand for Tuesday’s State Preservation Board meeting, where she got little response to her concerns.


“We are talking about the destiny of one of our state’s most sacred structures – one of only two National Historic Landmarks in Austin,” Dealey told the board. “Yet we and others have been presented only one acceptable plan, one based on the flawed premise just discussed. This, despite public promises that restoration would be undertaken only with consultation and collaboration with historic preservationists.”


The 153-year-old Governor’s Mansion was gutted by fire back in June 2008. In the intervening months, First Lady Anita Perry launched a fund-raising campaign, to be followed by an announcement that federal stimulus monies would underwrite most of the $26 million renovation to be followed by news of the proposed addition, which Anita Perry has argued is necessary to create modern usable living space.


Dealey, who is also a member of the city’s Planning Commission, told the board that the Governor’s Mansion belongs to all the people of Texas, and the public had a right to have a role in decisions about its preservation. According to a bill by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) passed last session when funding the mansion’s restoration project, it would be the Texas Historical Commission that would make a final decision on the plans.


However, members of the State Preservation Board – which includes Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Straus and Williams – drop-kicked the Mansion decision. Perry, in comments to reporters, said he was not consulted about the restoration plans, would not speculate on whether he thought the Mansion to be too small or not family friendly and repeatedly told the media the decision of the expansion plans were best left with the Texas Historical Commission.


Dealey said the Heritage Society objected on four grounds: that the space in the Mansion was insufficient for a family; that the expansion would be approved without a public process; that the plan would compromise the architectural integrity of the house and remove a heritage oak; and, that the ability to bypass a public review would result in a steep cultural price.


“If the state can’t restore its own treasures correctly, it will lose credibility or authority to dictate the standards of historic preservation to others,” Dealey said. “The Governor’s Mansion and the people of Texas deserve better.”


And while Perry and John Sneed of the State Preservation Board insisted the decision on plans at the Mansion properly resided with the Texas Historic Commission, questions still remain. Some question that, given the language in Williams’ bill, what kind of permit is necessary for construction; whether any part of the review would allow for public input; and even if the plans could be approved, administratively, by the executive director of the Texas Historical Commission.

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