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Next first family set to move into Governor's Mansion

by Laura Kosta | January 8, 2017 at 8:00 a.m. | Updated January 8, 2017 at 9:29 a.m.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and his wife Georganne pose with mansion tourists during the 2015 Governor's Mansion holiday tours.

At 1:30 p.m. Monday, new Missouri Gov. and First Lady Eric and Sheena Greitens will receive visitors at the Governor's Mansion - the first family's new home.

The governor living in the Jefferson City mansion is as much a tradition as the president living in the White House. Since the current brick mansion was completed in 1871, every governor has lived there for at least part of his term, making it one of the longest continually lived-in governors' residences in the United States.

"I think our residents are always incredibly proud to house and to have the first family living here and being part of our community," said Rebecca Gordon, executive director of Friends of the Missouri Governor's Mansion.

In fact, living in the mansion is such a deeply held tradition that when Gov. James Blair (1957-61) and his wife, Emilie, initially decided to forgo the mansion for their modest Jefferson City home, it caused an uproar.

As former First Lady Jean Carnahan recounts in her book "If Walls Could Talk," a history of Missouri's first families, the Blairs cited extensive problems such as rats, peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and worn-out furniture as reasons to stay out of the mansion. A bedroom window was propped open with a rusty tire iron, and the long staircases were too strenuous for Gov. Blair, who had a heart condition.

The Blairs' refusal to move in spurred the Legislature to allot $40,000 for renovations to the mansion. After 21 months and $129,000 in repairs and updates, including the installation of an elevator, the Blairs finally moved in to the mansion, residing there for the rest of his term and fulfilling the expected tradition.

By residing in the mansion, the first family becomes part of the larger Jefferson City community, not just the political life of the city.

"That's unique to Jefferson City - we all have our governors' stories," Gordon said. "We went to school with their kids or knew them from years and years ago, those types of things. This is a great opportunity to welcome a new family to Jefferson City."

While it's certainly not unusual to have young children in the Governor's Mansion, it has been several years since the first family has included little ones. Gov. Matt Blunt and his wife, Melanie, had a son shortly after taking office. But the children of Gov. Jay Nixon and his wife, Georganne, were older and out of the house. The Greitens' two young children will bring a different dynamic to the mansion, said Jeanette Dulle, a docent with the Friends of the Missouri Governor's Mansion.

"It will be fun to watch this family grow up in this house," Dulle said.

Since the first floor of the mansion is open for public tours, the first family faces the challenge of living in a home that is not totally private. Especially for first families with young children, like the Greitens, that could be quite an adjustment.

"I would think it could be a very difficult transition from having your own home and your own way of doing things," Dulle said. "That transition for (the Greitens family) has got to be a big one, coming from their home in St. Louis."

Fortunately, first families are given the freedom to make the residential space of the mansion their own and to host events at the residence according to their own discretion and interests.

"Every first lady is interested in different things, but they've always historically been very engaged in community programs," Gordon said.

In the early years of the mansion, Gov. Silas Woodson (1873-75) and his wife, Virginia, enjoyed throwing extravagant parties at the residence. His successor, Gov. Charles Hardin (1875-77) and his wife, Mary, were devout Baptists who frowned on such parties and refused to serve alcohol on inauguration day, choosing instead to host scaled-back, restrained gatherings during their tenure.

Over the next century-plus, first families used the mansion to host distinguished guests such as Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Barbara Bush, Tipper Gore and John Cardinal Glennon. Several first ladies pushed through major renovations to the mansion, fighting to keep it in good repair as both a home and a landmark.

Through the years, first families have hosted traditions that span several administrations, such as the holiday candlelight tours, while also bringing their own ideas and personal touches to the social life of the mansion, Gordon explained.

Gov. Joseph Folk (1905-09) invited families of inmates to the mansion for Christmas. Gov. Joseph Teasdale's (1977-81) wife, Mary, hosted children with disabilities and sheltered workshop employees for holiday celebrations. And Jean Carnahan, wife of Gov. Mel Carnahan (1993-2000), delighted in hosting special events for children, such as a monthly children's hour, the Halloween celebration and an Easter egg hunt.

Caroline Bond, wife of Gov. Kit Bond (1973-77, 1981-85), instituted regular public tours of the mansion's first floor, which continue today. These tours opened up the opportunity for smaller, low-key interactions between the first family and the public within the mansion.

"First lady Georganne Nixon is so incredibly gracious. I know reading is something that is important to her; so she has come down and read to kids while our docents are there," Gordon said.

While it remains to be seen exactly how the Greitens family will use the mansion, by moving into the historic home they are continuing a Missouri tradition spanning nearly a century and a half.

"It's so beautiful that the mansion is something for all Missourians to see and be proud of," Dulle said.



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