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First Executive Mansion

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  • Missouri Executive Mansion (1834-1871)        Date: 1996

    Missouri’s First Governor’s Mansion

    Missouri’s first residence built for the exclusive use of the governor served the state’s executive family from 1833 to 1871.  References to the structure in newspapers of the period noted that “this house will be a good as could be expected…for the amount appropriated.”  That amount was $5,000 for the house and outbuildings, one of which was a kitchen.

    Records describe the building was constructed of wood and stone with a two-story center section and one or one-half story wings on each side.  It was noted that the builders use white native-stone blocks about two-feet square and one-foot thick “laid up like the present brick buildings.  The four columns shown in the front were of circular cut and laid one upon another bottom to top.”

    It evidently was considered a modest structure, even in its time.  A year after its completion, the legislature provided an extra $1,300 for furnishings and $685 to grade the grounds and fence the yard.

    Missouri’s earliest executive officials elected in 1820 served in a building used as a temporary capitol in St. Charles, Missouri.  The first state governor, Alexander McNair rented lodging rooms in St. Charles, but the first lady, Marguerite, and the McNair children apparently continued to live in their home in nearby St. Louis.

    When Missouri was preparing for statehood in 1820, the first constitution stipulated that a special commission of five members would be empowered to select a site for the permanent seat of government.  The constitution stipulated that the site had to be located on the Missouri River and 40 miles from it confluence with the Osage River, thus assuring that the capital city would be in the center of the state to accommodate the limited means of transportation available at that time.  This action responded to the gift by the federal government of four sections of land given for use as the location of the seat of state government.  On New Year’s Eve, 1821, the legislature accepted the report of the commission recommending the site of Jefferson City.  The site selection commission also was assigned the task of platting the capital city area, supervising the sale of lots and selecting plans for construction of a capitol.

    A document preserved in the Jefferson City courthouse which has been disgnated as the legal plat of the city shows the original plan outlining rectangular lots bisected length-wise by east-west alleys.  One of these lots fronting the river was selected for the first capitol and a second, two blocks west was reserved for later construction of the permanent capitol.  That first capitol housed the General Assembly with one chamber on the first floor and the other on the second, top floor.  Also, a two-room apartment on the first floor was set aside for use of the governor.  Fortunately, the first governor to move into the building was not married since the space available was quite limited and no kitchen was available for his use.  Actually, the state planners intended the building to continue to be used by the first family and a larger building constructed to serve as a capitol, the bachelor John Miller, wrote to his successor, Governor Daniel Dunklin, and agree that Governor Dunklin was “right in the determination you have formed of not bringing on your family until you can provide a suitable residence for them.” He also offered to sell to Governor Dunklin “a good high post bed --- quite new --- a secretary and book case of good quality --- one set dining tables nearly as good as new --- 16 chairs – half dozen Demi Johns that will be useful to you – one dozen tumblers – about 20 glasses off good quality – half dozen pitchers, together with many other articles which you will no doubt stand in need of…”  There is no record whether the incoming governor took advantage of the offer but it underscored a problem to be shared with later first families – the need to provide many of their own furnishings since appropriations often were not sufficient to provide household necessities.

    Soon after Governor Dunklin assumed the executive office and moved into the two-room apartment in the capitol, he pressed the legislature for funds to purchase, lease or construct a “house with the necessary out-buildings, in the City of Jefferson, suitable for, and adapted t, the accommodation of the governor of this state.  “The Assembly responded with the appropriation of $5,000 with a contract to be awarded the lowest bidder by April 1, 1833.  A site was selected south of the first capitol but on the same block.  Records are not clear as to whether the new governor’s residence was to face Madison Street which bounded the block on the east or to face Main Street, later renamed Capital Avenue, which bounded on the south.

    A story in a Jefferson City newspaper on October 18, 1833, stated that construction was underway but “owing to the ravage of Cholera, help was very hard to obtain and work progressed slowly.”  Cholera was a serious plague of the time which had reaches epidemic proportions in St. Louis the previous year.  In November, 1833, the newspaper state the building was in a “great state of forwardness, a portion of the wood work yet remaining to be done.”

    A letter written by the niece of a later governor described the first floor of the building.  Three front rooms were mentioned, one used by the governor’s wife, a large middle room called the parlor which was entered from the porch, and a third front room used by the governor as an office.  The parlor was said to have been much larger than the two adjoining rooms evidently located in the wings of the building. The three rooms wee separated by folding doors which could be opened to make one long room.  The kitchen was located in a small structure in the back yard.  A separate kitchen was not unusual in those days, since it removed the heat of cooking form the main house.

    Two nieces who lived in the first mansion with the bachelor Governor Robert Stewart described their bedroom on the second floor of the building.  “Our room opened on the upper gallery.  It was large and the walls wee hand-painted with the shield of the State in each corner and with the United States flag in colors in the center of the ceiling.  The mahogany bedstead had an immense canopy lined with scarlet silk.  The head-board was adorned with a golden eagle holding he lace mosquito bar in his talons and looking royal in the hanging-lamp light.”

    Another visiting relative of Missouri’s first family provides this description of the mansion grounds:

    There is a lot enclosed belonging to the Governor’s house that Uncle lets his horses run in, it is one side of a hill and slants down most to the river – it is now very green and pretty, it has some fruit trees in it, and we are going to get a nice seat put there for us, and then I expect to spend a good deal of my time looking at the boats.

    The first executive family to live in this mansion, Governor and Mrs. Dunklin, apparently had five children at the time he was elected governor.  The first news about the Dunklin family recorded in a capital city newspaper concerned the death of another child, a son, in August, 1834 at the age of five months and two weeks.  This infant evidently had been born very shortly after governor moved his family into the then completed residence provided by the state; he was the first child born to an executive family in Jefferson City.

    Another death in the first executive mansion had greater impact on official affairs of Missouri.  On February 9, 1844, shortly after breakfast, Governor Thomas Reynolds sent for a rifle to b brought to his office in the mansion.  He placed the muzzle against his forehead, pulled the trigger and died immediately.  He wrote in a note that “abuse of my enemies…has rendered my life burden to me.”

    This first executive mansion built by the state apparently was considered less than satisfactory shortly after its construction.  Within three years, the governor suggested it be sold so a new one “more suitable as an executive residence” could be built or purchased.  Despite its limitations, the building continued as the residence of the governor and his family for about 40 years.  Just as pressure was becoming intense for a new mansion, the Civil War occurred and all such needs became secondary to the conflict.

    Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson lived in the mansion in 1861 prior to the Civil War.  Because of the unrest at the time, the governor’s wife Eliza Sappington Jackson came to Jefferson City only for inaugural festivities.  For the most part, Mrs. Jackson remained at home with their eight children.  On June 3, 1861, Governor Jackson wrote to his wife that “things may so change in a few days that I will send for you.”  Ten days later Governor Jackson and many other state officials fled the capital city ahead of union forces.  During the war, Governor Jackson died in Arkansas and the first lady died at the family’s temporary home in Texas.

    The final executives selected as replacements for Governor Jackson made only limited use of the mansion.  Records do not indicate that any members of the first families, other than the two provisional governors themselves, lived in the building during the war years.  The first postwar governor, Thomas C. Fletcher, took office in January, 1865 and the mansion again housed and executive family which included two teen-age children, Ella and Edwin Lewis.  Three events of state and national impact occurred during the Fletchers’ time in the executive mansion.  Only days after the inaugural, on January 11, 1865, the governor signed an emancipation proclamation. In April, the war ended and Governor Fletcher issued a proclamation declaring April 15, 1865 as a day of thanksgiving to mark the cessation of hostilities.  However, the day was rededicated when work arrived about the assassination of President Lincoln the previous night.

    The last governor to live in the first mansion with his family was Joseph Washington McClurg.  A daughter served as hostess since Mary Johnson McClurg and two of her children died prior to the governor’s election.  When Governor McClurg left office in January, 1871, he appealed to the legislature to provide funds for a new executive mansion.  “The present mansion is antiquated, dilapidated and uncomfortable; unsuited to the age and inadequate to the reasonable requirements of the public.”

    A bill was introduced providing $50,000 for a new residence for the state’s first family.  The site selected for contruction was on the exact location of the original capitol building which had burned in 1837.  Final event in the old residence was the funeral in September, 1871, for the mother of Mary Gunn Brown, the first lady to take office as the new mansion was being built.  Destruction of the original mansion started soon after the funeral.

    A Jefferson City weekly newspaper printed these parting remarks in its issue of Wednesday, November 1, 1871:

    Old Landmarks Passing Away…On Friday last the work of tearing away the old Executive Mansion was begun…it has served well the purpose for which it was intended; has been at times the home of the wise and learned; many scenes of festivity, many occasions of sadness and many deep political intrigues has taken place beneath its roof while in its chambers have been heard the soft words of love and the fierce denunciations of hate.  But the many and varied changes—the great progress and growth of our state and our city—all rendered necessary the erection of a new, larger and more beautiful edifice—one more in keeping with the present age—for the abode of the Governor of our great and growing State.  “Tis done.  The old mansion has nobly fulfilled its mission and passed away, and (in) its stead the new one with its elegant architectural design and mansard roof appears.

    Text includes excerpts from First Ladies of Missouri: Their Homes and Families by Jerena East Giffen.

    Other writings by the author include The House on Hobo Hill and Two for Jay Hill.  The first edition of First Ladies was published in 1970. The book was updated and republished in 1996.

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