Restoring glory to the Illinois Executive Mansion

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- At 410 East Jackson Street, in the shadow of the Illinois state capitol, sits the Illinois Executive Mansion.

It’s a place that has been on the National Historic Registry for a long time -- and a place that is now, like state government itself, at a crossroad. It is a mess in many regards, and in need of a comprehensive fix.

The building was constructed in the 1850s when the country was on the brink of civil war. Designed by famed Chicago architect John Van Osdel was a Georgian style and Victorian façade, but that's as far as his design went. A local architect, Thomas Dennis, did the interior.

Beginning in the late 1970s, curator David Bourland has presided over every nook and cranny of the 50,000 square foot mansion inside -- and the 1-acre grounds and gardens, and a chicken coop among other features, outside.

With a staff of about a dozen, he oversees what is undoubtedly the busiest governor's mansion in the country. It is truly the place of the people – and most of it is open to the public.

Governor Joel Matteson was the first to call it home and many, many others followed.

The first Republican governor was William Henry Bissel, who was crippled in a duel and never left the mansion. He would be often visited by a then Springfield attorney, Abraham Lincoln.

There is a private living quarters for the governor and his family, but once the staff goes home for the evening, they have to fend for themselves.

But as the state moves forward in the form of a new governor, there is a push by some former governors to return the mansion to its glory days.

Former Governor Jim Thompson held office longer than any other Illinois chief executive: 14 years. With his wife Jane and daughter Sam, he spent many a day at the mansion, and says its restoration is of the utmost importance; not only should it be a matter of civic pride, but it is a place where government things get done.

He says he remembers many a deal reached over dinner and drinks.

Thompson puts the blame on the shoddy state of affairs on former governor Blagojevich and, partially, the exiting Pat Quinn.

He says he lobbied Quinn hard to make the repairs, to replace the leaky roof, a broken elevator, the dangerous balconies, with the $4 million the legislature had already allocated -- to no avail.

Quinn did authorize $40,000 in emergency repairs, but another harsh winter, and it could start leaking again.

But Thompson is hopeful that won't happen. So too are former governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan.

They are all encouraged by governor-elect Bruce Rauner, who has stated he will use that already allocated money to make the repairs. Then he and his wife Diana will spend some of their own money to refurnish the much of the interior.

Just when the repairs will begin is still uncertain, but curator Dave Bourland says it will be money well spent.

The Illinois Executive Mansion is and always has been -- since it first opened its doors in the 1850s -- in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln: a place for, by and of the people.

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