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Governor’s Mansion work is troubling to some historians

May 5, 2019

ATLANTA (AP) — There’s a new family at the Governor’s Mansion and they’re trying to make it feel like home.

But as Brian Kemp’s staff makes some changes to the 18-acre estate on West Paces Ferry, it has made some preservationists uneasy.

Under the aegis of the new governor, workers have dismantled a squadron of 12-foot columns that once surrounded the tennis court. They’ve also removed a quartet of statues that stood around a fountain in the terraced garden on the west side of the estate.

That fountain is ailing, and the Georgia Building Authority is considering various ways of fixing it, including replacing it completely.

Jennifer Dickey, associate professor of history and coordinator of public history at Kennesaw State University, said these developments are troubling.

Dickey is co-author — with former first lady Sandra Deal — of “Memories of the Mansion,” a history of the 24,000-square-foot Greek Revival structure. She said the building is notable, but the gardens surrounding the mansion are even older. She writes, “To dismantle this as if it has no historic significance is shameful.”

The terraced garden where the fountain sits was part of the landscaping created by Robert and Lollie Maddox, whose half-timbered, rambling house called Woodhaven once stood on that same ridge above West Paces Ferry.

When they built Woodhaven in 1913, Lollie Maddox sought out statuary from Europe, and also designed the rose-bedecked arbor supported by those cement columns surrounding the tennis court. They threw big parties.

Around 1962, the state — seeking a new home for the governor — acquired the land from the Maddox family and demolished Woodhaven, which had been damaged in a fire. By 1967, the state completed construction on the new 30-room mansion at a cost of more than $1 million.

Noted landscape architect Edward L. Daugherty designed the grounds, and he concentrated on saving the significant features of the Maddox gardens.

“It seemed to me it was an appropriate use of the land,” Daugherty said recently. “It was an established garden that could serve the ceremonial needs of the mansion and the family’s needs.”

Unfortunately, some elements of the grounds have suffered from neglect, including an old structure on the property called the “barn,” the boxwood hedges surrounding the fountain, the trellis suspended from those columns (which is long gone), and the columns themselves.

Members of the building authority determined that the wooden core in the columns was rotting, and the columns were unsafe, according to the authority’s Rob Conger, assistant director of facilities maintenance.

He pointed out that the Kemps’ teenaged daughters will be using the tennis court, and that their safety is of the highest concern.

When crews began removing the columns, “they just crumbled,” said mansion executive director Katherine Satterfield. “It was not even an option to preserve them.”

Satterfield brought a visitor down the steps of the terraced garden, a series of semicircular grassy tiers, that descend to the nonworking fountain. The fountain itself leans slightly and has sunk 2 feet into the ground. Satterfield said it was filled with algae at one point, the result of a balky pump.

It is ringed with a boxwood hedge, which she said is overgrown and diseased in places. Four statues, each about 5 feet tall, each representing a season of the year, once stood around the fountain. They’ve been removed to a storage facility while landscapers determine how they will treat the problems that they face.

In the meantime, first lady Marty Kemp has planted a vegetable garden, cleared out dead and diseased trees on the west side of the property, and hopes to bring back a tradition of exhibiting flowers and plants native to Georgia.

All these changes are overseen by the building authority, with advice from the Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Natural Resources. Within the authority is the Executive Center Fine Arts Committee, a group of volunteers charged with counseling the governor.

But according to Candice Broce, director of communications at the governor’s office, the committee from the previous administration was disbanded when Kemp took office, and a new committee has yet to be appointed.

Instead of a group that changes from administration to administration, Dickey would like to see a permanent committee, trained in dealing with art and antiques, offer oversight. The collection in the mansion, including a John Seymour cabinet and a silver service from the USS Georgia, “is probably worth $19 million,” she said, adding that it could be worth more than the mansion itself.

Other aspects of the grounds, such as the dilapidated “barn,” are historic because of past associations. “I do think it would be a shame to let it go,” said Dickey of the barn. “It’s the last structure from the Maddox era. Shame on the state for not maintaining it better.”

But features come and go, said Daugherty. “Uses change, and people’s needs change.”

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com