On many nights, as the sun sets over Denver, Reeves Brown finds himself alone amid the empty grandeur of the Boettcher Mansion, otherwise known as the official state residence of the governor of Colorado. Brown, who is in charge of local affairs for the state government, microwaves some soup for dinner, surrounded by a small museum's worth of tapestries and antique Italian furniture. Then he makes his way up to a modest third-floor bedroom, where he tries to fall asleep.
Meanwhile, the intended resident, Gov. John Hickenlooper, is snugly ensconced in his own private home a few miles away. Like an increasing number of elected officials, he has chosen not to live
Hickenlooper offered to let Cabinet members who live hundreds of miles away use it as a kind of dormitory, but only a few of his subordinates were interested in living there. Brown and one of his colleagues accepted the offer to stay in the main house, while the lieutenant governor, Joe Garcia, bunks next door in the carriage house, which he has outfitted with furniture from Craigslist and Goodwill.
Asked to describe the experience of living alone in the 26,000-square-foot house, Brown said, "Have you ever seen the movie 'The Shining'?"
Welcome to the nation's highest-class public housing conundrum: What to do with executive mansions now that more elected officials are politely refusing to inhabit them.
Years ago, leaders like George E. Pataki, governor of New York at the time, would "live" in their official residences, but would actually spend many nights in their real homes. Now fewer officials are even trying to maintain that pretense.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York has been one of the most vocal about abandoning the tradition. He never traded his own house for Gracie Mansion, and not
The current chief executives of New Jersey, New Hampshire, Ohio and Michigan made the same decision, for various reasons of their own.
Jerry Brown, who was criticized for not moving into state digs during his first stint as governor of California in the 1970s, turned out to be ahead of his time. When he returned to the post decades later, the mansion was gone — sold off to save money. (Brown now rents a 1,450-square-foot apartment in Sacramento.)
And in Idaho, a state that acquired a governor's mansion only as recently as 2005 (thanks to a generous french fry magnate), no one has ever moved in, despite the six figures the
Blame a desire to minimize the ever-greater scrutiny of public life, along with changing tastes and the current politics of austerity. Who wants to live in a Downton Abbey house on a Tea Party budget?
For a new governor to live in his or her own home is to maintain a modicum of privacy and control. Spending even a few nights a month in an official state residence means dodging tourists and security cameras while you're in your bathrobe; mixing your private household budget with the public one, with any accounting error a potential scandal; and sometimes having to deal with pest and plumbing problems of biblical proportions, then begging divided legislatures and state bureaucracies to come up with the funds to fix them.
"It's common for people to walk into a governor's mansion and say, 'Wow, this is so grand and glorious,'" said Jenny Sanford, the former first lady of South Carolina. "They don't realize the politics that go into what you're going to eat for breakfast or refinishing the floors."
The challenges are extreme enough that the National Governors Association publishes a manual for new arrivals on how to navigate life in a house that is, and is not, your own. But that bland document hardly does justice to the adventures many first families face.
When the Sanfords moved into South Carolina's white stucco federal-style house in 2003, it had just been renovated and expanded. But because the state had been required by law to accept the lowest bid submitted by contractors, Jenny Sanford said, the construction wasn't done well. The floors soon buckled, and there was a mold problem that grew so severe, all six members of the family had to move into the one-room pool house.
Privacy was a major challenge as well. One evening the elevator got stuck with the Sanfords' son Blake, then 4 years old, inside. The fire department arrived with sirens blaring. His brief imprisonment drew bigger headlines than her own work as first lady, Sanford recalled. (She later moved out and divorced her husband because of activities that took place far from the governor's mansion.)
Despite it all, Sanford recalled her time in the mansion mostly with fondness — and yet hers are the kinds of stories that keep many families with school-age children out of official residences.
The Hickenloopers of Colorado say they want their 9-year-old son to grow up in a regular house on a block with children his own age.
And although the Michigan governor's mansion is unusually up to date — a contemporary ranch-style house built in 1959 and refurbished by Jennifer Granholm during her administration — Gov. Rick Snyder prefers his own home near Ann Arbor, which is larger and more luxurious (with 10,000-plus square feet of space, a pool and a wine cellar) and is closer to his daughter's school.
Even the White House is not immune. Though the Obamas do not dare to complain about living in the nation's most historic home, aides and friends say they have privately wrestled with the same issues that all state-owned residences present, from limited privacy to living spaces that are all not quite as glamorous as the regal exteriors suggest. (When the first family moved in, they found out-of-date technology — the phones in the residence only rang in one room — and carpet stains from the Bush pets.)
Last year, the Obamas replaced the house's chief usher, who is in charge of running the residence, bringing in Angella Reid, a veteran of the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain — not to make the house more luxurious, a former aide was careful to note, but simply to bring its various functions a bit more up to date.
So what is a state with a fancy house and an absentee chief executive to do? Sell it?
Last year, Idaho legislators drafted a bill that would have allowed them to do just that and use the money to finance the state parks system, but the bill came nowhere near passing. As one opponent said at the time, the bill, which included a deadline for selling the house, made the state seem desperate.
Even many of those who prefer not to live in the houses don't want to see them auctioned off. As Helen Thorpe, the first lady of Colorado, put it, "I can't imagine doing away with them."
The symbolism would be too depressing — state history in hock — and the mansions do retain some practical value. Foreign business visitors were always wowed by the stateliness of his Harrisburg residence, said Edward Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, who happily lived there during his tenure. Thanks to dinners he hosted there, he closed a couple of business deals a year, he estimated, recouping the house's operating costs and then some.
Many states are now looking for cost-cutting, revenue-raising alternatives and fixes, from the dormitory experiment to renting out the houses and grounds for weddings and conferences.
Thanks to a plan thought up by Sanford, you can get married or give a cocktail party at the Lace House, a butter-yellow house covered with intricate black grillwork on the grounds of the governor's mansion. (The Saturday-night rental fee is $3,500, and there is no amplified music, red wine, wax candles or chocolate sauce allowed without special permission.)
And the Hickenloopers may not do their own entertaining at the governor's mansion, but you're welcome to fill its grand old rooms with your friends or clients. (The Saturday-night rental there is $1,600, and if you want to serve salmon salsa verde, it's $24 a person, with a harvest salad and roasted clementine tart for an additional $6.75.)
To save on labor costs, several states have been using prison inmates to help with maintenance and groundkeeping, though that sort of thing has occasionally gone awry, when convicts have been found having sex on the premises (in South Carolina) or drinking on the job (in Ohio).
It's difficult to imagine the executive mansions being abandoned entirely. The ties of tradition — along with the pressure to appear grateful for every privilege of public life — are too strong.
But some of them, especially the rambling older ones, may go the way of the great British houses of yore, becoming tourist attractions rather than places to live, tributes to our country's past and to our changing ideas about power, status and formality.
It's already happening in New York City. In Bloomberg's absence, Gracie Mansion has stepped up its tours, allowing visitors to poke around the private quarters where Ed Koch and Fiorello La Guardia once bunked. After all, as an aide pointed out, it's much easier to let strangers tramp around when nobody is home.