By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Gov. Phil Bryant and his wife, Deborah, have started living in the renovated Governor’s Mansion, more than four months after he took office.
“We’ve got a bed, a couch, a chair, a television,” the governor said. “We’re sort of camping out.”
The home in downtown Jackson underwent $465,000 worth of work, mostly in the residential wing. The heating and air conditioning system was repaired; duct work was cleaned, re-insulated and sealed; four sewer vent pipes were replaced; and plaster and wall finishes that had been damaged by leaks were repaired.
Two gazebos outside also were rebuilt after workers found they had deteriorated significantly and structurally unsound.
The original estimate for all the repairs was $425,000. The tab increased because of the gazebos. Under the original plan, the gazebos were only supposed to get a fresh coat of paint, said Kym Wiggins, spokeswoman for the state Department of Finance and Administration.
The state Department of Archives and History says Mississippi has the second-oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the nation. The Greek Revival-style home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.
The state spent about $50,000 to build the mansion starting in 1839 and Gov. Tilghman Tucker and his family started living there in 1842.
The residential wing, at the back, was added in 1908 and 1909. That’s where the Bryants are living now, along with their 23-year-old son, Patrick; and the family’s chocolate Labrador retriever, Maddie.
The mansion was closed for public tours from January through early April. Now, Deborah Bryant goes out of her way to invite people to see what some governors have (sort of jokingly) called the nicest public housing in the state.
“I’ve always wondered what the whole house looks like, so if someone wants to see it, I’ll drag them in and show it to them,” Deborah Bryant said.
She recalled seeing a group of people snapping photos of each other outside the black iron fence that surrounds the mansion. She went out to the fence and invited them in. Turns out, it was a group of missionaries from Mississippi, Norway and South Africa, and they were accompanied by a homeless woman and her two young sons.
The group came in and toured the mansion, and Deborah Bryant said they prayed for her and her family.
“The people I bring in — that blesses me,” she said.
The Bryants are already making family memories in the home. Their 27-year-old daughter, Katie, was married in late April at Galloway United Methodist Church in downtown Jackson, and the wedding reception was held at the Governor’s Mansion.
The governor acknowledged that living in the home is a bit like living in a fish bowl, and not only because it’s surrounded by tall office buildings with lots of windows that overlook the mansion and the grounds. One night this past week, the Bryants hosted the Salvation Army Auxiliary, and Deborah Bryant gave the women a quick tour of the residential quarters.
“Last night — I know this is more than you wanted to hear — I go upstairs to change into my running shorts to go running. And the ladies are touring the living area upstairs. Thank goodness it was prior to me changing, because it would’ve been a real exciting tour for them and an embarrassing one for me,” the governor said, laughing.
The mansion has its secrets, and one of the most interesting parts is not on the public tour. In the residential portion of the house, a narrow stairway leads to an attic, and the attic has a smaller set of steps leading to a child-sized door that opens onto a small enclosed area on the roof.
The attic walls are decorated with signatures or outlined handprints from children or grandchildren of several former governors. It also has a mural of the mansion itself, painted in 1975 by a daughter of then-Gov. Bill Waller Sr.
“I’m going to have my grandchildren’s handprints up here one day,” Deborah Bryant said with a smile.
There are no Bryant grandchildren yet, but the first lady notes that more than 3½ years remain in this term.
The mansion survived the burning of most of Jackson by Union troops during the Civil War. Gen. William T. Sherman used the mansion briefly as a command post, according to a book by historian David Sansing and Carroll Waller, wife of former Gov. Bill Waller.
In 1971, inspectors declared the mansion unsafe, and Democratic Gov. John Bell Williams and his family moved out.
The mansion underwent extensive renovations again from 1972 to 1975, during most of Waller’s term as governor. It had been in such bad shape at the time that some people wanted to raze it and use the prime downtown Jackson location for commercial development, said Sansing, who’s now retired.
The mansion periodically undergoes some type of upkeep, from painting to mechanical work.
In late 2009, the state spent $49,675 for a private contracting crew to repaint the four front columns and to do other maintenance work on the porch.
In recent years, the state has set aside money from the sale of NASCAR specialty car tags to help pay for upkeep of the Governor’s Mansion. People pay an extra $35 for the NASCAR tags.
Wiggins said the state started planning in 2005 for the renovations that were just completed, and the work was funded by a combination of bond money and money from the NASCAR tags.
The older part of the mansion, which is open for public tours, also needs some repairs. Deborah Bryant pointed out spots where ceilings are peeling from a leaking roof and walls are developing puffy spots from condensation in the air conditioning system. She said she keeps a constant watch on the home, knowing that old homes can be fragile and the mansion is important to the state.
“I want people to come in and see this,” the first lady said. “This is their house. We’re just passing through.”