This attractive building occupies a lot cut off from the northeast corner of the Capitol Square. It is considered by competent authorities to be a striking example of domestic architecture of the early years of the nineteenth century.
When Richmond became the capital of Virginia in 1779, no provision was made specifically by law for a house for the governor, but Jefferson, who was chief executive at that time, rented one. The State’s financial condition was so poor that, the rent not being paid promptly, the owner held Jefferson personally responsible for it. The State finally paid the amount no doubt (though the records have not been found) and built in the course of a few years a house for the governors on the site of the present building. This was only a makeshift, of which there is some description in Samuel Mordecai’s Richmond in By-Gone Days, Chapter VI.
The law providing for the erection of the present building was signed on February 13, 1811, by Governor James Monroe, who resigned on April 3, 1811, to become Secretary of State of the United States, and was succeeded by the acting governor, George William Smith. This eminent Virginian was regularly elected governor on December 6, 1811, and would probably have been the first governor to occupy the Mansion but for the fact that he lost his life, heroically endeavoring to save others, in the burning of the Richmond Theatre, on December 26, 1811. The building was not completed until 1813. Smith’s successor was governor James Barbour, who was the first occupant of the Mansion. The word “mansion” is not used in the law providing for the erection of the building, but it has been so designated from the time it was erected.
The Mansion has been from the time of its erection to the present a center of hospitality and social activity. It has always been the custom for specially distinguished visitors to the city to be entertained there at some meal or more elaborate function, and receptions are frequently given to the members of organizations meeting in conventions. A reception is given by the governor to the members of the General Assembly of Virginia at the beginning of each session, and a special reception given by each incoming governor. Hospitality and good cheer abound, though fruit punch has taken the place of liquors more exhilarating. A vast change has come about since the days when the governors of the State thought it incumbent on them not only to provide liquors at dinners and receptions, but to keep a huge bowl of toddy-the bowl may be seen today -always on the sideboard during meetings of the General Assembly.
Among the most distinguished visitors who have been entertained at the Mansion-not to speak of the Virginia soldiers and statesmen and men and women of learning who have fore-gathered there-may be mentioned the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII; Presidents Hayes, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft; Arthur Balfour, now Lord Balfour; Ferdinand Foch, and very recently the Honorable Winston Churchill. Nor should we omit our own Colonel Lindbergh, and-to make at least one exception in favor of a Virginian-Rear-Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd.
A few days after Christmas, in 1925, the children’s Christmas tree was accidentally set on fire, and the fire spread to the house itself, doing much damage, especially to the furnishings. A dozen pictures were destroyed, most of them belonging to the Virginia State Library, and several of them of unusual interest, as were many pieces of furniture. Practically the whole of the interior of the Mansion had to be refinished and refurnished. The home is now, however, both within and without, just as attractive as ever.
The saddest event in the history of the Mansion was the reception of the body of Stonewall Jackson there on the after-noon of May 11, 1863. Jackson had died the day before, near Guinea Station, after receiving his mortal wound at Chancellorsville, and his body was being taken to Lexington for burial. His body remained in the large reception room in the Mansion until the day following when it was taken with pomp and ceremony to the Capitol, where it lay in state and was viewed by grief-stricken thousands.