Built just 48 years ago, the brick Greek Revival mansion at 391 West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead’s Tuxedo Park neighborhood hardly qualifies as historic when compared with the showplace homes of Savannah and Charleston.
But not long after Governor Nathan and his wife, Sandra, moved into the fully furnished, three-story residence in 2011, Mrs. Deal began to seek out the building’s backstory. Where did the antique furniture come from? What was the significance of the artwork? Who picked out the drapes?
Fortunately for Mrs. Deal, members of the seven families who had previously occupied the house were still around—plus, a dinner invitation from the first lady of Georgia isn’t one easily refused.
“I wanted to pick the brains of the former governors about the mansion, but they just talked about politics all evening,” she says.
But Mrs. Deal didn’t stop her research, which ultimately resulted in the September release of Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion, a coffee table tome coauthored by Kennesaw State University history professors Jennifer Dickey and Catherine Lewis. The 226-page book is lavished with photographs and brimming with anecdotes culled from the residencies of the state’s first families since 1968, as well as historical details about the building and its museum-quality contents.
The mansion has no shortage of what an antiques appraiser would call important pieces: a tabletop cellarette, or liquor cabinet, from France; a painting by early American master Benjamin West; a signed first edition of Gone with the Wind; and entire rooms filled with Federal furniture from the late 18th century, a style largely out of favor among collectors when the items were purchased in 1967.
Beyond serving as a glossy memento for visitors, Memories of the Mansion is useful in showing ordinary Georgians what they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. Tours of the mansion are confined to the ground floor: a state dining room, a small library, an expansive drawing room that is often used to host receptions. There’s also an otherwise unexceptional downstairs ballroom that serves as a public event space. But visitors can be forgiven for yearning to climb the dramatic circular staircase in the mansion’s central hallway to see what lies beyond the velvet ropes.
As in many stately homes, some of the more interesting nooks in the Governor’s Mansion are service areas: the commercial-grade kitchen with a collection of antique tureens, the dumbwaiter linking the kitchen to the basement larders, the walk-in cooler in which the mansion’s many flower arrangements are placed each night.
The house’s second floor contains the seven bedrooms and bathrooms that make up the first family’s living quarters and guest rooms, in addition to an office space. All are well appointed—some are equipped with canopy beds, ornate clocks, and fireplaces—but have the impersonal feel of upscale hotel suites. That is, unless you know the stories of the families who’ve lived there.
As a longtime political spouse, Mrs. Deal had visited the mansion on several occasions before she moved in. But she wasn’t necessarily prepared for her new—and unexpected—role as part-time director for what amounts to a 24,000-square-foot museum.
“The thing that scared me most when I arrived is I was told I would have to give tours, but I didn’t know anything about the house or the furniture,” she says.
With the help of KSU’s Dickey and Lewis, she set about compiling what became a blend of scholarly research, oral history, interesting trivia, and home decor voyeurism.
For instance, did you know that there’s no key to the front door—not necessary in a house that’s always occupied and where around-the-clock security is provided by a battery of state troopers. Or that the drawing room furniture is upholstered with the same fabric selected by Jackie Kennedy for use in the White House?
It’s certain, says Lewis, that the furnishings are now worth many times more than the house itself—and likely were worth more than the mansion’s original $1 million construction cost at the time they were first gathered and installed.
One of the rich ironies of the history of the mansion is that it was commissioned while Carl Sanders was in office, but the urbane lawyer, dubbed “Cufflinks Carl” by one-time political adversary Jimmy Carter, never got to live there. Instead, the first residents of the Georgia Governor’s Mansion when it entered official service on January 1, 1968, were rough-hewn fried-chicken mogul and segregationist Lester Maddox and his family. Known to refer to Buckhead as the “finger bowl” part of town, Maddox built a ramp so that Mac, his pet goose, could climb into the marble fountain on the front lawn.
The Maddoxes were followed in 1971 by the Carter family. When the Plains peanut farmer was elected president five years later, “it was kind of a step down to move into the White House,” recalled Rosalynn Carter during a panel discussion at the Atlanta History Center in September. The sold-out event reunited Mrs. Deal with five of the six surviving former first ladies—and three ex-governors—who had helped her put together a five-decade social history of the house they had shared.
With Memories of the Mansion selling well at book tour stops across the state and a second printing already ordered by the University of Georgia Press, Mrs. Deal’s labor of love appears to be a solid success. All proceeds are going to conserve the Governor’s Mansion and its furnishings. But just as important, she says, is the preservation of the memories of the families who temporarily called it home: “I realized that if we didn’t save these stories now, they’ll be gone forever.”
This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue under the headline “Open House.”