Stewards of the Mansion:
A Tour of the Governor's Mansion State Historic Park
Narrated by First Lady Maria Shriver
Hello, I’m Maria Shriver, First Lady of California, and I’m proud to introduce you to this historic Governor’s Mansion.
This famous house was the home of 13 governors, from George Pardee, in 1903 to Ronald Reagan, who in 1967 was the last governor to reside here.
For me, the old Governor’s Mansion offers a glimpse into the personal lives of California’s governors, first ladies and their families.
Fourteen foot high ceilings,
Italian marble fireplaces,
French mirrors grace this home, so many of our great state leaders and visionaries came to visit this mansion.
It was in the comfort of this place that many inspirational ideas were born.
My own father, Sargeant Shriver, and my uncle President John F. Kennedy once paid a visit here. Both my dad and uncle shared meals with former Governor Pat Brown’s family in this very breakfast room.
I love to imagine them sitting here, drinking coffee and talking about the issues of the day.
I think about how the first family shaped the California that we know today.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, first ladies hosted ceremonial events, welcoming dignitaries from around the world, as well as entertaining influential policy makers.
Instead of welding direct influence in an office, first ladies often did so in the privacy of their own home.
This is the home where children played, guests were entertained and governors relaxed.
Mrs. Nina Warren was famous for her afternoon teas, and Mrs. Virginia Knight and Mrs. Bernice Brown loved to host formal dinners.
First Lady, Nina Warren nursed her polio-stricken daughter, Honeybear, back to good health in this very home.
Now let’s take an exciting journey through the history of the Governor’s Mansion, and I’ll share insight in to the lives of California’s many remarkable first families.
California’s historic Governor’s Mansion was completed in 1877, by a wealthy Sacramento hardware merchant, Albert Gallatin.
He wanted a high-profiled, fashionable place to live that could also be used to lavishly entertain many guests.
This made the house a logical choice when the state of California, only a couple decades later, was looking for a suitable residence for the first family.
Together with its close proximity to the state capitol, about 12 blocks, it was selected in 1903, and purchased for the tidy sum of $35,000.00. In today’s dollar, the purchase cost would be equivalent to about three million dollars.
An imposing structure, this Victorian architectural gem, towers nearly seven stories above surrounding landscape.
Interestingly, the mansion has similarities to the state capitol.
For instance, the white paint suggests purity.
The columns are suggestive of Greek and Roman temples.
The cupola is similar to the capitol’s dome, towering above the landscape.
The house is big and impressive, and visitors must climb the staircase to enter through great doors.
The structure’s grand appearance alone tells us this is an important place.
The exterior of the house did not change over the years.
An impressive stairway leads to the lavish entry, leading to the first floor’s formal entertaining areas.
Here 13 governors and their wives entertained high-profiled guests, among them, President Theodore Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and President John F. Kennedy.
The grand staircase leads to the second floor, where only the family and a very few guests were permitted, doors to the left lead to the home’s two parlors.
The interior of the house did change over the years, as you can see with these views of the informal parlor as it looked between 1923 and 1965.
Interestingly, most of the furniture and much of the décor displayed at the mansion today, dates back to the World War II era, when Mrs. Earl Warren gave it a thorough makeover following a decade of neglect.
The formal parlor was reserved for stately occasions, not for lounging.
Official business was conducted here in a stately setting.
Several governors also chose this room in which to display the governor’s Christmas tree, and thus share it with the citizens of Sacramento and all of California.
Just across the hallway is the music room, another space within the house where guests were often entertained.
Here, following a sumptuous dinner, the Steinway piano would beckon. On one memorable occasion in 1959, Governor Knight played “Stardust” on the eve of his final day in office.
The third formal entertaining area in the mansion was the dining room.
It was often used for state occasions, but also for family formal occasions, such as Christmas dinner and birthdays.
Like the one in 1959, when Governor Edmond G. Brown and his wife, Bernice, shared a birthday cake with two of their grandchildren.
Through a doorway and right next to the formal parlor, was the informal parlor. A space we might call the family room today.
It was here that the families of California governors relaxed, chatted about the day’s events, play board games, and in later years, watched television.
This is how it might have looked when Mrs. Nina Warren hosted the wives of newly elected legislators for her annual teas, between 1943 and 1953.
This was an occasion so special that the state gardener would cut fresh flowers from the specimens around the expansive grounds of the state capitol.
Mrs. Warren and her daughters made these into lavish arrangements, which were displayed around the house in each of its formal rooms.
While these events employed a great deal pomp and ceremony on the one hand, they served a practical purpose on the other.
A network of influence was created among the wives of California legislators and the state’s first lady.
Let us imagine now the other side of this house. The part, in which the governor’s family lived, worked, played and ate.
Coming up the back stairs located off the porte-cochere, the family could and often did enter directly into the kitchen.
This was a room shared by not only the family, but also used by the mansion’s domestic staff.
For large gatherings and formal occasions, extra staff would be brought in to assist with food preparation and serving.
For everyday life however, most governor’s families employed a single cook who cooked only the dinner.
During Governor Warren’s tenure, his wife Nina cooked breakfast and lunch everyday for her large family of six children. There would be times when the sandwiches were piled two feet high on a platter.
Mrs. Warren was especially known for her Angel Food cakes, which she would cook and then offer to charities so they could raise money.
Mrs. Virginia Knight was also known for her desserts. She often gave her recipes to guests.
Adjacent to the kitchen was a room known as the breakfast room.
Although its name suggests otherwise, this was the family’s everyday dining room, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Built originally to serve as a medical office for Governor Pardee’s private practice, the room was converted in the late 1920’s, to become the family dining room for the mansion.
Although the breakfast room was part of the mansion’s less formal area, it by no means escaped involvement in important meetings and events.
Governors would sometimes enjoy their coffee here while discussing business with representatives from various agencies.
On one particularly momentous occasion, Governor Edmond G. Brown hosted then Senator John F. Kennedy and they are pictured here having breakfast.
Kennedy was preparing to run for President of the United States and wanted Brown’s support.
The first floor of the Governor’s Mansion has been the setting for many gracious gatherings and formal occasions.
However, for the families who lived here, the second floor of the house was the place of refuge, and home to many more personal memories.
There were two stairways leading from the main floor. The grand staircase was suitable for making a dramatic entrance, as Virginia Knight illustrates in this 1950’s view.
The second floor living space encompassed six main rooms, with four baths and a dressing room.
Furnishings throughout the second floor living areas were relatively simple, lending a middle class air to the lifestyle of the governor’s family.
Of the bedrooms, one most associated with use by governors was also the furthest from high traffic routes, and thus the most quiet. The governor’s job kept most occupants of this room from enjoying much sleep throughout their terms.
Despite the pressures of public service, California governors found ways to relax.
Goodwin and Virginia Knight were known for their dancing. For instance, they were occasionally seen practicing through the bedroom windows of the governor’s bedroom.
Because of their husband’s late hours and often hectic schedule, California first ladies had their own bedroom, at least while they lived at the Governor’s Mansion.
Bernice Brown, wife of Governor Edmond G. Brown, is seen here in her room, following a 1965 redecorating and general spruce up of the mansion.
Of the 13 California governors who lived in or used the mansion, only three had a large number of children who were not yet old enough to have moved out on their own.
Perhaps the most dramatic story of the families at the mansion, involves the Warrens and their youngest daughter nicknamed Honeybear.
On November 7, 1949, Election Day, Warren was running for an unprecedented third term as governor. He and Mrs. Warren were voting in Oakland when they received a telephone call informing them, Honeybear is sick. The doctors say it’s polio.
After seven weeks in the hospital, she was allowed to return to the mansion. During her lengthy recuperation, Honeybear moved into the so-called green bedroom, and Mrs. Warren moved into the adjacent sun porch to be near her.
The entire family participated in carrying her up and down the stairs and doing exercises together.
Her room was known as the playroom. And after ten months of rigorous therapy, she was fully recovered, and could walk without even a limp.
As the pace and intensity of state government picked up during World War II, then Governor Earl Warren decided he would live and work year round in Sacramento. In doing so he broke a long-standing tradition of previous governors, who do not always reside full time in the capitol.
This stepped up pace also extended to California’s first ladies. Thus, it is no surprise that Nina Warren was the first to need and report the services of a personal secretary.
Mrs. Betty Henderson, who worked at the time in the governor’s office at the capitol, was designated to work with Mrs. Warren, following the onset of Honeybear’s polio illness.
Mrs. Henderson continued on as personal secretary to Virginia Knight. During her tenure with the Warrens and Knights, Mrs. Henderson occupied what had formally had been a bedroom, at the top of the back stairs. This room was her office.
What were the duties of the governor’s wife that required a secretary? Well, when Edmond G. Brown became governor, Mrs. Knight left her list for Bernice Brown, which included the following: responding to invitations, thank you letters for gifts and photos, recipe requests, baby congratulations, condolence letters, get well letters, shower thank you letters, Christmas card lists, honorary memberships, autographs, photographs, governor’s calendars, copies of governor’s letters, menus, green copies of all correspondence to the Office of General Services, and telephone logs.
Phew! Mrs. Knight’s correspondence filled a four-drawer filing cabinet. There would be many more of these to fill with each subsequent first lady.
As we prepare to conclude this tour of California’s historic Governor’s Mansion, we return to the home’s first floor.
Here we find one of the lasting legacies left behind by a first lady who lived here, Virginia Knight.
Mrs. Knight was an avid amateur historian and scrap booker. She collected at least one photograph of each of the first ladies who lived in the mansion. As her parting gift to the mansion in order to honor all the resident first ladies, Mrs. Knight framed their photographs and mounted them in the front hall.
The graciousness of the first ladies can be best summarized by a letter from Nina Warren to her former secretary, Betty Henderson. The letter was written 21 years after the family had left the mansion.
(Letter being Narrated by Nina Warren to Betty Henderson)
It’s been my good fortune to receive many very pleasant surprises, but none that pleased me more than the beautiful white album filled with colored pictures taken at my teas in the mansion. Oh, they are precious and priceless!
I can’t find words to express my thanks and appreciation for your generosity and thoughtfulness. Your gift brought back many, many happy memories. Oh, some of the happiest days of my life. I am grateful.
If you hadn’t taken these pictures at my teas, there wouldn’t have been a single remembrance of these occasions.
Again, many thanks Betty dear for your thoughtfulness, the lovely album, and remembering me in your busy days. Do take care of yourself.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour of this magnificent piece of California history, better yet, I hope we’ve ignited your interest and that you will want to learn more about California’s rich history.
As your first lady, I encourage you to seek out and explore all the corners of our great state. You will find many priceless treasures just by visiting landmarks within our California State Park’s system. I hope to see you one day at one of these amazing places.