Kentucky Mansion Celebration Kentucky Mansion Celebration
A Revitalization of the Old Governor's Mansion, Benefiting the Kentucky Equine Humane Center & KEMFI
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The Old Governor's Mansion • 420 High Street • Frankfort, KY

One of the oldest executive residences in the United States, two years older than the White House in Washington, D.C., Kentucky’s Old Governor’s Mansion has a rich and diverse history, and stands as a reminder of the growth and history of our state. From its construction as Kentucky’s first Governor’s residence and office of the Governor, through its nearly fifty years as the official residence of  ten Lieutenant Governors, these walls have seen more historic events and borne witness to more important persons than possibly any home in the Commonwealth.

Kentucky General Assembly enacted legislation on December 21, 1795 requiring the state’s governor to live in Frankfort. The legislation led to the construction of the Old Governor’s Mansion from 1796-1798 which was the state’s first Governor’s residence at the corner of Clinton and High streets, a two acre plot of land to be enclosed behind a neat fence for use as a gubernatorial vegetable garden. The house was to be a modest design in keeping with the conception of a plain democratic governorship even though it was called the “Palace.” The mansion is Federal in style and although records are unclear as to whether the Governor’s office was to be in the house, it is clear that indeed it was located in the residence — in the first room on the right as one entered the front door and was called the library office.

Thus from the outset the Governor’s mansion or “Palace” had three functions. It was the Governor’s office, his domicile, and the social setting for his events. The lines between family life and political life were next to invisible for Kentucky’s first thirty-three Governors and their families, serving from 1798-1914. 

During all these years the mansion withstood the wear and tear of large families, the comings and goings of constituents seeking favors and the incessant flow of curious visitors who just wanted to see what was going on at the mansion.

If These Walls Could Talk

Eight United States Presidents and such dignitaries as Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Richard Maynard Johnson, and General Lafayette of France have visited or stayed in the mansion. However, when General Lafayette visited Frankfort on his tour of the southern states in 1825, Governor Desha received and met with General Lafayette at the Weisiger Tavern, not the Governor’s Mansion as expected. President’s James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Bill Clinton were all received and more than likely slept in the mansion.

Governor Scott, who served as Kentucky’s governor from 1808 to 1812, was an early and ardent political supporter of William Henry Harrison, with Scott appointing Harrison as brevet major general of the Kentucky military. Harrison would eventually go on to become the 9th president of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt was welcomed at the residence when he traveled to Kentucky in the mid-to-late 1880’s in order to do research for his multi-volume book “The Winning of the West.” Roosevelt needed access to a collection of papers regarding Kentucky history, and access to such a collection was available at Louisville’s newly founded Filson Historical Society.

Woodrow Wilson was a visitor at the Kentucky executive residence in November 1910 while attending the Conference of Governors. The 1910 New York Times event was the third annual conference and the first ever to be held outside of Washington D.C. Wilson, New Jersey’s governor elect was the keynote speaker of the conferences opening session. The opening day’s sessions were held at the sparkling new Kentucky State Capitol building, which had been dedicated just five months prior. Governor Augustus Willson and the First Lady held a reception at the Governor’s Mansion that same evening in order to welcome the guests properly. The following day, the governor’s were taken by train to Louisville where the remaining sessions were held.

President Zachary Taylor arrived at Frankfort’s train station on February 15, 1849 in order to meet with Governor John J. Crittenden. It can be presumed that this meeting took place at the executive residence due to the fact that the governor’s office was located in the residence. President Taylor desperately wanted Governor Crittenden to be a member of his cabinet, so much so that he was willing to let him choose his own position. However, Governor Crittenden felt that he should remain in Kentucky and serve as governor; therefore, he turned down Taylor’s offer. Despite Crittenden’s refusal of his offer, President Taylor valued the Governor’s opinion and came to Frankfort in February of 1849 in order to discuss other possible members of his cabinet. President Taylor’s stay lasted a day and a half and he left Frankfort at noon on February 16, 1849.

Many politicians visited the Old Governor’s Mansion. General Zachary Taylor visited the mansion under Gov. John J. Crittenden’s administration (1848-1850). Taylor and the governor stayed in the library office late into the night discussing problems Gen. Taylor would face as President of the United States. 

As the years wore on, each succeeding governor recommended monies for refurnishing the house. It was becoming more and more difficult as the commonwealth grew and became more sophisticated to live, work and entertain. The perennial threat that the General Assembly would remove the capital from Frankfort left the Assembly loathing to find funds to refurnish public structures.
However, in 1868, under Gov. John Stevenson, the General Assembly did approve major reconstruction and refurnishing of the Governor’s mansion. By the 1875 election, a much discussed new building, the Executive Building, built by the capital, was completed enough to permit the Governor to move his office to the new building. 

Governor James B. McCreary won the 1875 election and perhaps the last official act to be performed in the library office was his receiving the Executive Journal and the Great Seal of the Commonwealth. He was indeed the last Governor to officially work out of the Old Governor’s Mansion. That did not mean that important and exciting matters stopped happening in the Old Governor’s Mansion. During Simon B. Buckner’s administration (1887-1891) Theodore Roosevelt came to the mansion for research on his multi-volume Winning of the West. The first fire to attack the Old Governor’s Mansion took place in February 1899 under the administration of Governor William O. Bradley (1895-99). A defective flue in the Governor’s bedroom was the culprit. Although most of the furniture was saved, considerable damage was done to the house and it might have been appropriate to demolish the house and build a more appropriate Governor’s Mansion. However, Bradley was Kentucky’s first Republican Governor and the Democratic legislator did not see fit to do this. Once again the Old Governor’s Mansion was patched up, but the old gas lighting was replaced with electrical wiring. 

Governor John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham became the first Governor to have a child born in the Old Governor’s Mansion in August of 1901. Although official business was being conducted in the Executive Building there was still much political activity, if not official business taking place in the mansion. It was under the Beckham administration that the state finally received a settlement from the Federal Government for costs and damages arising out of the Civil War amounting to 1,323,999.35. The General Assembly enacted a law in February 1904 appropriating one million dollars to finance the construction of a new Capital building. This law finally settled the question of where Kentucky’s permanent Capital would reside and it was Frankfort. In November of 1910, twenty three state governors found their way to Frankfort, as the Capital city hosted the first governors’ conference outside of Washington DC at the Old Governor’s Mansion. Among the governors hosted to lunch and dinner at the Old Mansion was Governor elect Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. Governor James B. McCreary, serving his second term, signed an appropriation bill in February 1912 of $75,000.00 to a new Governor’s mansion on the Capital grounds into which he moved in 1914. Meanwhile, back across the Kentucky River the “Palace” stood empty until Samuel Lykins custodian of public buildings was allowed to rent it and the garden for $25 per month. 

The house was again damaged by fire in February 1914, and again repaired. From 1927 to 1931, the Worker’s Compensation Office took over the first floor, with the Commissioner of the Worker’s Compensation Board, William T. Short, living upstairs with his family. The Highway Patrol (forerunners of today’s State Police) used the house from 1937 to 1941, after which vandals took what they could from the house. In disuse the Old Governor’s Mansion continued to crumble until finally on March 23, 1946 Simeon Willis signed an order providing for restoration and use as a State Museum of Old Governor’s Mansion, under the control of the Kentucky Historical Society. Governor Albert Chandler had another plan in mind, however. In 1949 he spent $90,000 to furnish the house and persuaded Lieutenant Governor Harry Lee Waterfield to move to Frankfort. Waterfield was the first Lieutenant Governor to inherit the Old Governor’s Mansion, moving in April, 1956.

The Old Governor’s Mansion was added to The National Register of Historic Places in 1971. In 1998 the Old Governor’s Mansion celebrated its 200th birthday and is reportedly the second oldest official residence in the United States. It has suffered through misuse, overuse, abandonment, fires, and neglect. It has seen family joy and grief-birth, marriages, death, our state’s birth, and maturation has taken place in its rooms, our history is written on its steps. The Old Governor’s Mansion legacy continues today as one of the finest examples of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s cultural heritage.


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