Any governor's mansion should be a showplace, a source and symbol of state pride and a home not only to the sitting governor and his or her family but to all state residents.
In Hartford, the interiors of the governor's mansion on Prospect Street had grown a bit dated. The glorious Georgian Revival house, built by a physician in 1909, was last refurbished, here and there, during the Weicker and Rowland administrations. The library was hunter green with brass accents; the sunroom was a summery splash of pink, green and yellow with wicker furniture; the guest cottage had become the province of chipmunks and contained a cot where men who plowed the mansion driveway during snowstorms could catch a few winks.
In an economy like this one, most states have more pressing things to do with revenue than redecorate the gubernatorial manse. Enter award-winning Norwalk-based Cottages & Gardens Publications, producers of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens magazine, with a bold idea. Connecticut-based or affiliated designers, retailers, manufacturers and craftspeople could be invited to donate their goods and services to refurbish eight of the mansion's public rooms. The result? A much needed update done at little or no cost to the Connecticut taxpayer.
Governor Dannel P. Malloy and his wife Cathy embraced the idea from the start. Among the couple's goals is to make the mansion more accessible to the public, and they insisted they wouldn't mind the plaster dust and paint fumes. "Some people say they don't mind living in a construction zone, but they don't mean it," says Carol O'Shea, executive director of the governor's mansion. "The Malloys mean it."
The redesign effort was dubbed "The People's Project," an acknowledgement that the Connecticut governor's mansion belongs to the people of the state.
To preserve the historic character of the mansion, Connecticut Cottages & Gardens partnered with the Governor's Residence Conservancy, Inc., a private, non-profit corporation responsible for the preservation, restoration and renovation of the residence. The Conservancy was given final approval on all plans.
Cottages & Gardens editorial director D.J. Carey selected the designers for the job. She rifled through her Rolodex, choosing designers with Connecticut connections who she felt would work well together. Beth Dempsey, co-owner of Images & Details, the New Canaan-based public relations firm, says, "It had to be about the house, not about them." The designers whose work is featured in the People's Project are Jamie Drake, Sandra Morgan, Carey Karlan, Susan Bednar Long, Philip Gorrivan, Catherine Cleare, Paula Perlini, Polly Denham and Glenda Moralee, Tricia Izzo and Carolyn Kron, and LouAnn Torres, Joe Passero and Nick Geragi of Klaff's.
The immediate challenge confronting all of the designers was to create rooms that function as both public and private spaces, says Carey. On any given day, the mansion's public rooms might host intimate gatherings or an event that draws hundreds. "So how do you make that work?" Carey asks.
Designers were given six months to complete their work from start to finish — a knuckle-biting schedule that might have been borrowed from HGTV's beat-the-clock formats, but was required to limit the amount of time during which the mansion was off-limits to the public.
To start the creative process, the designers "shopped the house," Carey says. They repurposed furniture pieces and accessories that were in the mansion – some in use in other rooms and others stored in the basement. The designers cooperated with one another. "The emails were flying back and forth," says Carey. "'Do you want those chairs, or can I have them?'" Many furniture pieces were reupholstered. Others were painted or rebuilt. "It's amazing what you can do with a coat of paint and some fabric," says O'Shea, who worked as the in-house liaison for Carey and her colleagues. Some of the painting and upholstery work was done by participants in a state pre-release prison program that trains convicts in trades.
The refurbished rooms include the main foyer, living room, dining room, library, sunroom, and men's and ladies' powder rooms — plus the mansion's long-neglected guest cottage and the pool house. Bednar Long drew inspiration from fashion designer Bill Blass for the elegant, tailored living room. The space is painted in brown and white with hints of grey. In a dramatic touch, a chocolate brown stripe outlines the home's original molding, making it "pop." Perlini's library is a standout defined by terracotta-colored stucco Veneziano plaster walls that were hand-stenciled in a damask pattern by Redding artist Julie Hardridge. "The very pregnant artist and her husband spent Labor Day Weekend doing it," says O'Shea.
Klaff's designers Torres, Passero and Geragi reconfigured the ladies' loo, long a scene of interminable lines at previous mansion functions. By moving the sink out of the toilet enclosure and eliminating a coat closet, he created a gracious, glamorous space enhanced by a sparkling floor tile, a pale blue granite sink surround, striped wallpaper, and crystal-beaded lighting fixtures. A three-panel mirror along one wall expands the sense of space in the room. Klaff's team also redid the men's room, which is now a timeless classic in pin-stripe wallpaper, grey flannel wainscoting, and a small-pattern tile floor. A leather ottoman detailed with nail heads adds another masculine accent. Gorrivan's sunroom is now a year-round ?? and a favorite of the Malloy family. Gone is the wicker furniture, which has been replaced by season-spanning grey upholstered pieces. A window seat along one wall creates the set-up for a dining table where O'Shea says the governor's family sometimes enjoys lunch. The room's pale lavender ceiling has a silver luster that plays with the light streaming in from the garden.
Throughout the refurbishing process, the Malloys were exceptionally gracious. "They have really embraced the chaos," says O'Shea. The Guv and his wife welcomed crews sometimes seven days a week. Malloy himself was seen helping a carpenter unload wood for cabinetry. ("He sets a very high bar," O'Shea says of the governor, who has been spotted cleaning the pool and harvesting tomatoes from the vegetable garden for use in the kitchen where he likes to cook for his family.) First Lady Cathy Malloy collected seashells for a glass-box coffee table in the cottage. Another of the Malloys' contributions was to put at designers' disposal their private collection of art works from paintings and ceramics to furniture pieces. Items belonging to the Malloys are now an integral part of the design especially in the sunroom.
A long list of retailers, manufacturers and other donors contributed to the redecoration effort ¬– from national and international brands including Cowtan & Tout, Kravet, Benjamin Moore, and Christopher Peacock Paint to items sourced from or provided by local retailers including Lux Bond & Green, which has branches throughout the state, Home Boutique of Greenwich, and Bender Plumbing of Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven. Ernest Albert's 1945 painting "Connecticut Snow," which is prominently displayed in the living room, is on loan from Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum.
The final contribution to the mansion makeover was a powerful force: Pride. State painter Robert Valante, who customarily paints office buildings, deserves a bow for the decorative brown stripe in the living room. "You should have seen how hard he worked on it," says O'Shea. "He did it freehand, no tape."
Carey says the designers and craftspeople "feel like they had a responsibility in this house." As she heard one visitor remark, "'This is our White House.'"
The refurbished Governor's mansion, located at 990 Prospect Ave.., Hartford, will likely be seen by more people than ever in the coming months. The November and December holidays bring a series of open house dates; and year-round, nonprofit organizations are invited to rent the house for functions (a modest fee covers rental of the space; groups provide their own catering). For arrangements, phone Carol O'Shea at 860-524-7355.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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