Opening the History of the 'Open House'
Page 25-Mansion living room, circa 1992 / Governor's Mansion Brochure.
Photographs courtesy of J.P. Gill
The test of any writer is ‘did I get it right?’ I think I got it right,” said John P. Gill, author of Open House: The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and its History, a new book that tells the fascinating story of 1800 Center St., in Little Rock’s historic Quapaw Quarter. Gill, an attorney and Little Rock native, takes the title from the historic “open house” when the executive residence, completed in 1950, was first opened to visitors, Gill reported, for five days large crowds prompted an additional three days of public viewing.
Gill’s previous work includes The Crossroads of Arkansas and Post Masters: Arkansas Post Office Art in the New Deal.
No matter what you think about Arkansas politics, reading Open House is time well spent. The book’s 14 chapters are organized thematically and detail 60 years of history, from 1950 to 2010. Photographs gathered from a variety of sources, in both color and black and white, complement the text.
Two women, in particular, play key roles in this story: Agnes Bass Shinn, president of the Women’s Federation of Women’s Clubs, whose vision and commitment it was to build the mansion; and Ginger Beebe, the current first lady, who personally found Shinn’s portrait in the mansion basement and asked that it be displayed prominently in the formal living room for future generations. Beebe, in an e-mail, wrote: “After all, because of her efforts, the people of Arkansas have this beautiful Governor’s Mansion.”
In the foreword, Gill credits Beebe’s “intellectual curiosity” and her enthusiasm for encouraging him to write Open House. The First Lady said she came up with the idea for the book “after Gov. [Sidney] McMath passed away in 2003.” Then, in 2007, when she and Gov. Beebe moved into the executive residence, she realized there were so many questions she “wanted to ask Governors McMath and [Frank] White about what it was like living in the mansion.”
Thirty-nine oral history interviews with governors and their families and 37 interviews with architects, designers, security personnel and other specialists provide the first-person recollections that sustain Gill’s endeavor.
“I tried to get as much truth in it as I could,” Gill said. Besides detailed descriptions of the Georgian interior, like the grandfather clock older than the United States, a gift from First Lady Margaret Frierson Cherry to the state’s 35th governor, Francis Adams Cherry, Open House describes in the words of the first families what it was like to live, essentially, on public display.
Gill has enjoyed close, personal relationships with several governors, and served as special counsel to Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. When talking about Open House, he seems less like a lawyer and more like a man on a scavenger hunt. He won’t tell, but he’s pretty certain where the Cold War bunker would have been; that’s still a mystery that lingers for him. His enthusiasm is infectious and resonates throughout. Gill, a master gardener, spent four hours interviewing AY Columnist P. Allen Smith about the mansion’s impressive seven gardens. “Allen was really generous in sharing his knowledge. That was educational for me.”
“You Ain’t Ready” is, perhaps, the most compelling chapter as it explores the role of the trusties, prisoners who work inside and on the grounds of the mansion. The trusties are in the custody of the state police and are directed by the mansion administrator. “Most of the trusties have committed very serious, violent crimes while on drugs or in the heat of passion and [are paying] a high price for the rest of their lives for doing horrible things,” yet Gill’s admiration for the trusties is evident. He took care to select images that don’t show faces. Some photographs have columns, shadows or strong, vertical lines.
Gill’s main contribution is “to help give Arkansas’ people a better feeling about themselves. To learn who they are and where they came from.” According to Gill, the Greek Revival mansion, built with bricks from the old Blind School and the old state penitentiary, now includes the Atrium and Grand Hall for a combined area of 30,000 square feet on nearly 8.5 acres. “That mansion is an awful long way from that tumbledown shack from the ‘Arkansas Traveller’ (1858) painting,” Gill said.
To purchase Open House, log onto butlercenter.org. To schedule a tour of the public rooms of the Governor’s Mansion, call (501) 324-9805; admission is free.