The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Virginia’s ‘First House’ celebrates its own birthday
Everyone loves a birthday party. And Virginia’s “First House,” the governor’s residence in Richmond, is celebrating a big one this month—its 200th.
Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell brought some of the occasion’s joy and fanfare to Fredericksburg in an address at the University of Mary Washington this week.
McDonnell shared personal stories of her family and those of the prior 53 governors while providing a sneak peek at “First House,” a new PBS documentary about Virginia’s Executive Mansion and its many occupants.
“This is the very day, two centuries ago, that Gov. James Barbour moved into the mansion. This is the home’s real birthday,” McDonnell told some 75 people at UMW’s Jepson Alumni Executive Center Wednesday.
Her audience included Friends of the James Monroe Museum, the museum’s board of regents, members of the UMW board of visitors, President Rick Hurley, UMW cabinet members and students majoring in history and historic preservation. Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw, Councilwoman Kerry Devine and Cessie Howell, wife of House Speaker Bill Howell, also attended. Cessie Howell introduced McDonnell, her friend, to the group.
The first lady noted that Virginia’s Executive Mansion is the oldest continuously used governor’s home in the nation, built expressly for that purpose in 1813.
On Saturday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., she and Gov. Bob McDonnell will welcome the public to the residence’s 200th birthday party, which will feature live music by singer George Dennehy and the National Guard’s 29th Division Rock Band, birthday cake, games and a moon bounce for kids. At 7 p.m., the first family will show the PBS film on the lawn. (Register online at http://www.executivemansion.virginia.gov)
McDonnell stressed the Federal-style home’s ties to the Fredericksburg area. Gov. James Monroe, who lived in Fredericksburg as a newlywed establishing his law practice, signed the legislation allocating money for the home to be built.
An oil portrait by artist Rembrandt Peale of James Monroe, on special loan from the museum here, hangs in the mansion’s state dining room for its bicentennial, she said.
Gov. Barbour, who led Virginia’s defenses in the War of 1812, hailed from Orange County. The ruin of his home is on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyards in the Madison–Barbour Rural Historic District.
McDonnell screened the 106-minute documentary produced by Blue Ridge PBS. The program, débuting Friday in Southwest Virginia, is tentatively set to air next week on all five PBS stations in the state.
Interviews with current and former first family members, mansion staff and historians lend warmth, humor and insight to the film.
Family members recount stories large and small, including the blaze of 1926, when Billy Trinkle, age 4, accidentally set the Christmas tree—and the house—on fire. There are also stories about tennis great Arthur Ashe lying in state inside its walls, as did Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson; and the inventive ways that residents found to furnish and refurbish the dwelling, and to entertain guests.
The movie is a companion to the new book “First House: Two Centuries With Virginia’s First Families,” by Richmond author Mary Miley Theobald. Her handsome volume explores the mansion’s history, architecture and the experiences of its families. David Baldacci, the best-selling Virginia novelist, wrote the introduction.
“She spent hundreds of hours doing research, and turned it into something beautiful for all to enjoy,” McDonnell said of Theobald’s work. “Readers really get to know all the families who have lived there.”
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