New book takes peek at life inside Georgia Governor’s Mansion

Like many people moving into a new home, Sandra Deal had some questions about hers.

When was the swimming pool built? What’s with those ornate columns surrounding the tennis court? Who dreamed up the wrapping paper closet?

“I just got curious,” Deal, Georgia’s current first lady, said during a recent interview conducted in the family living room of the Governor’s Mansion.

Talk about your very unpolitician-ish bit of understatement. Deal, whose husband, Nathan, won re-election to a second term last November, took that curiosity and ran with it, resulting in “Memories of the Mansion.” The deeply researched, personal photos- and recollections-stuffed new book tells the inside story of the Greek Revival mansion on West Paces Ferry Road that’s been home to every Georgia governor since 1968.

Deal and her co-authors, Kennesaw State University history professors Jennifer Dickey and Catherine Lewis, interviewed members of all eight “first families” who’ve lived there — from Gov. Zell Miller, who pulled photos off the walls of his famous “rock house” in Young Harris to show them, to Lester Maddox’s and George Busbee’s children. Plus every living former first lady.

“Everyone was so excited, especially the first ladies,” Dickey said about the interviews, which, uh, unwrapped the history of that closet, along with many other insidery gems. During Joe Frank Harris’ two terms (1983-1991), his wife, Elizabeth, created it to help organize the process of gift-giving to the mansion’s myriad guests and visitors.

“They all said the same thing,” Dickey continued. “‘No one ever asked me what it was like living there.’”

On Monday night, five former first ladies (including Rosalynn Carter) are scheduled join the book’s authors at the Atlanta History Center for what’s being billed as “a lively evening of storytelling.”

Count on it. After all, it’s in “Memories” that we learn that Gov. Roy Barnes’ (1999-2003) wife, Marie, once squeezed herself into the kitchen dumbwaiter and rode it down to the ballroom, where she startled a sous chef. And that a bunch of President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet secretaries unexpectedly turned up on Miller’s (1991-1999) doorstep hours before the 1996 Summer Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, wanting to take showers. (First lady Shirley Miller called over to the state troopers barracks on the mansion’s grounds and said, “I need to borrow every dry towel you have.”) And that the mansion’s first occupant, Maddox (1967-1971), had a special ramp constructed so his pet goose, Mac, could easily get in and out of the classically inspired fountain outside the front door.

That fountain was a passion project of Betty Foy Sanders, who emerges as something of a heroic figure in the book. Just 36 when her husband, Carl, became governor in 1963, they moved with their two young children into the so-called “Granite Mansion” in Ansley Park. Purchased in 1925 by the state as a ready-made governor’s residence, the circa-1910 house had a growing list of problems: The roof leaked. There was no official china or silverware. The kitchen was so small and parking so limited that caterers often had to work out in the yard and guests had to leave their cars elsewhere during official events.

The idea of building a new residence had come up in the past, but always been knocked down due to political or financial considerations. But now the old place was becoming costly to repair and maintain. “Legislators quibbled about the mansion for more than a year,” the authors write, but by early 1964, a new one was a go.

At that time, Georgia’s governors were limited to serving one four-year term. Despite the fact that she would never get to live there, Betty Sanders threw herself into helping plan the new mansion’s interior and grounds. The onetime University of Georgia Fine Arts major even created a touring show of her paintings to help raise the money to build the fountain.

Sanders, who will be at the Atlanta History Center event, wrote the book’s foreword. Each first family gets its own chapter in what’s a fascinating blend of one-of-a-kind personal stories and the continuing saga of how each family has helped care for and improve the residence. Fittingly, all proceeds from sales of the book will go to Friends of the Mansion Inc., a nonprofit organization that raises money to maintain the mansion’s furnishings and artwork. The group was created about a decade ago by then-first lady Mary Perdue.

After all, it is the people’s house. Everyone else is just a temporary resident, as “Memories of the Mansion” underscores with an anecdote about Harris attending the inauguration of his successor, Miller. Afterward, he and his wife hitched a ride back to their Cartersville home from the head of their (now former) security detail.

Recalled the ex-governor: “He let us out at the door where he had picked us up over eight years earlier when we left for the Governor’s Mansion.”