For the better part of two hours, Arkansas’ first lady Susan Hutchinson has been riffing on the features and history of the Governor’s Mansion.
Speaking by phone, Hutchinson has led an extemporaneous, verbal tour — upstairs, downstairs — out back and out front, noting the details that give the 70-year-old mansion its character.
But one question stops Hutchinson short.
“What will be your favorite memory of life in the Governor’s Mansion?”
Suddenly the mansion is no longer a historical treasure or venue for official events. Suddenly it is nothing more than a family’s home.
“What would be the favorite? Oh my,” Hutchinson says after some thought. “It’s been fun to savor it with our kids. Our kids are grown, but they have kids that aren’t grown, and for them to come. And I think for family to come.”
For every chandelier, fountain or Louis XVI fixture there are memories of life lived within the mansion walls.
There is the old-fashioned pinball machine that Hutchinson’s daughter and son-in-law contributed to the converted family den in the basement. There was the night Hutchinson hosted her grandson’s basketball team while a scheduled event was underway in the stately Grand Hall. Perhaps unavoidably, the sets of guests overlapped, and the adults were charmed.
“Everybody thought it was really, really nice and sweet that we were using it for a home, for real,” Hutchinson says. “I’m very grateful when people understand that it’s a multi-purpose space and are very gracious about it. You feel like it really is a home and I don’t have to turn my family away because we’ve committed the Grand Hall to outside guests.”
Still, it’s hard not to get immersed in the history, architecture and beauty, and in that regard Hutchinson has the company of the first ladies who have gone before. By default or intent, the Arkansas first lady has, among her other responsibilities and commitments, been the Governor’s Mansion spokesperson, head caretaker, tour guide and advocate.
“It’s a wonderful, unofficial position with a lot of responsibility, but no job description,” she says.
Opening the Doors
The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion was completed in 1950 during the Sid McMath administration and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Before 1950 the state had no such dwelling for its chief executive.
An initially unsuccessful effort by the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs finally got the ball rolling in the state legislature. In 1947, Act 257 created the Governor’s Mansion Commission to provide state oversight on mansion operations and expenditures.
The three-story mansion, built on the former site of the Blind School, is in the Georgian Colonial style, evocative of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It sits on 8.5 acres of manicured lawn with surrounding gardens at 1800 Center St.
The mansion is linked to two cottages by colonnaded walkways and on the grounds are fountains, large herb and vegetable gardens and a palette of trees and flowers indigenous to the state.
The State Dining Room, foyer, the formal living room and the library — also known as the East Conference Room — are considered public rooms. Upstairs is the private residence.
The Governor’s Mansion Association was created in the late 1980s and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that raises private contributions from the general public for the mansion’s restoration and preservation and is composed of citizens from around the state. Within the association exists the member/donor organizations Friends of the Mansion and the Governor’s Mansion Circle.
Mansion work is also supported by grants from entities like the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, founded in 1987. It was such a grant that helped fund a two-year overhaul that the Hutchinsons began in 2016.
Private furnishings are a mix of what the current first family might bring and items left behind by previous tenants. Former governors and first ladies are also responsible for some of the mansion’s more noteworthy features and conversation pieces, like the Persian rugs left as a state gift by Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller.
Notable guests of the past have included Bob Hope, Gregory Peck and Harry Truman. The Hutchinsons have welcomed singer Roseanne Cash, evangelist Franklin Graham, one-time presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg and foreign ambassadors. But the First Lady most enjoys hosting the state’s top scholars each year and the annual First Lady’s Tea for women and girls of all ages.
“It’s fun to see people enjoy it and their eyes light up,” she says. “I tell the little girls I live in Cinderella’s castle and to count the chandeliers.”
Crystal and Glass
In 2015, Jane Jackson was facing the end of her battle with respiratory illness and wanted a home for her 200-piece set of Waterford Crystal. The Little Rock resident reached out through the Mansion Association to see about donating her collection.
The intricately detailed set features pieces in a variety of sizes and shapes. One cake stand, of a limited series of 10, was valued at $7,000 “while the whole set has been valued between $250,000 to $270,000.
It was a lengthy process of packing and unpacking the crystal, itemizing and appraising each piece and having the set catalogued by the Department of Finance and Administration for insurance purposes.
A painstaking search for a creative cabinet maker turned up Conway’s Al Williams, who fashioned a cabinet requiring commercial grade glass and mirrors because the crystal set was so heavy.
As with all such mansion acquisitions, the crystal became property of the state.
“So it stays here,” Hutchinson says, “I just enjoy it.”
Hutchinson regrets she didn’t have the cabinet when Jackson was invited to the mansion prior to her death. But she had pieces on display so Jackson could see them, and Hutchinson notes the cabinet, with a plaque commemorating Jackson, is in a prominent place.
“Everyone sees it because of where it’s located. So they’re seeing Jane,” Hutchinson says.
The crystal takes its place among numerous gifts and artifacts. There is the Louis XVI mantle on the library fireplace; the 62-piece, sterling silver serving set that once traveled the seas on the battleship USS Arkansas; and the oldest antique, a working grandfather clock made in Waterford, Ireland, in 1770.
The decorations, fixtures and artwork make the mansion a showcase both for tourists and official guests from around the world, but despite the ornate chandeliers and silk wallpaper, Hutchinson still sees the Governor’s Mansion as a place in which people actively live.
During the remodel of the former basement laundry room, she wondered where Mrs. McMath might have hung her laundry in the 1950s.
“Basements were really storage, and we didn’t have dryers,” Hutchinson said. “I also wondered, did Mrs. McMath hang her clothes up on the clothesline for neighbors to see, or did she hang them up to dry in a damp basement?”
Hutchinson had a janitor’s closet in the basement fashioned into a bathroom so the grandkids wouldn’t have to traipse upstairs to use the facility during official events. In the kitchen, new appliances, a white paint job and a study nook with a desk made the space more family friendly.
“You let your best of friends in the kitchen,” Hutchinson says.
She can name a favorite piece in every room, but Hutchinson takes intrinsic pleasure in the atrium built during the Huckabee administration. The glassed-in structure features a platform patio and serves as a transition area between the back of the original house and the Grand Hall.
Hutchinson grew up in Atlanta but considers herself a “country girl” who married a smart country boy from Arkansas. Quiet time in the atrium, she says, provides a link to her cherished nature and a callback to the couple’s roots.
“It feels like being outside and I love being outside,” Hutchinson says. “It’s just so country hearing the rain patter on the glass ceiling of the atrium. I love it.”