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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 03:40 pm

Life in the Big House

Few Illinois governors seem at home at the Executive Mansion

The Stratton family poses outside of the governor's mansion.
PHOTO COURTESY SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION, LINCOLN LIBRARY

Now we know. The reason that Rod Blagojevich disdained the governor’s mansion in Springfield was to save his kids from, well, the mansion. “Growing up in a big governor’s mansion, surrounded by staff is not normal,” Blagojevich writes in The Governor. “We didn’t want our children growing up spoiled with a sense of privilege and entitlement.”

Loth as I am to trust Mr. B’s judgment on anything other than hairspray, no one is more informed than he is about the ill effects of a sense of privilege and entitlement. Still, the suspicion lingers that the kids were an excuse.

Blagojevich was the first Illinois governor to treat the mansion as a pied--terre, but many of his predecessors were never able to call that house a home. One of its drawbacks for Chicagoans is that it is so inconveniently beyond the last el stop, but most dislike the house itself. Most occupants have found it, variously, too cold or too old, too public or too official.

The mansion is of course the state’s White House, with all that entails. The William Strattons reportedly entertained some 25,000 people a year at official luncheons, teas and dinners during their years in residence, a number that does not count the lawmakers and press and county chairmen who used to drop by to cadge drinks. Shirley Stratton played hostess and majordomo to them all. It is arguable that Illinois governors are underpaid as public servants, but there is no disputing that in the old days their wives were.

Some First Families take to the role of host and hostess, some do not. One who did was the man who was its first tenant — Gov. Joel Matteson. He came into office rich, and he and his wife loved to entertain. Having declared the original governor’s house at Eighth and Capitol to be inadequate to that purpose, Matteson pressed the legislature to build the present one.

The Richard Oglesbys also arrived in Springfield having been used to mansion life, wife Emma Oglesby being the daughter of Logan County cattle king John Gillett. The state paid for a half-dozen servants but Oglesby felt obliged to add two more, paid for out of his own pocket, to keep up standards.  

A house designed for entertaining fit the Mattesons and Oglesbys, but most First Families have found it less fitted for living. Public duties come at the price of one’s private life. There are more state cops on the premises than at the best roadside diners, and the media lurk behind every bush. Roberta and Dan Walker, who would divorce in 1977 after he left office, had noisy arguments in the private quarters that — the tradition of discretion about the gentry’s doings being less than British among the mansion staff  — were talked about outside it.

For a bachelor, the house is simply too big. Bachelor Henry Horner — whose female guests were obliged to bunk in downtown hotels rather than stay at the mansion and risk gossip — converted one room of it into a library of Lincolniana. Adlai Stevenson II, who led a bachelor’s life during much of his time here, used some rooms as an office in preference to his official space in the Statehouse. Pat Quinn probably likes it better than either of them, but then he uses it as a hotel, and he is used to Motel 6’s.

If the house makes a poor bachelor’s pad, it makes a worse nursery. In 1914 Edward and Elizabeth Dunne brought nine kids to the house that then would have been crowded with a family with two. The Dan Walkers, who had a couple of preteens, set up a pool (above-ground, bought at Ward’s) and a rope swing and planted a vegetable garden on the grounds. They were chided for that by editorialists who believed that the dignity of Illinois state government was compromised if the Executive Mansion looked as if the executive actually lived in it.

Some of the bad feeling associated with the house owes less to the building than to the lives lived within it. More than a few governors lost children while living there, and several of the more recent occupants — Stevenson, Kerner, Walker — endured unhappy marriages. It would be a mistake, however, to assume on such evidence that the house is cursed. Healthy, happy families have led healthy and happy lives in the Executive Mansion, in spite of all. “The mansion was a gay place when the Dunnes were in there,” recalled Francis Chapman, who knew them. The boys would gather after school to play pool there, and the girls go to dress up for dances with music provided by the University of Illinois Band; it has seen graduation bashes and wedding receptions (“The grand staircase seemed to be made for throwing bridal bouquets,” Walker would write) and greeted new babies. Mr. Blagojevich notwithstanding, normal is not a matter of which house a kid grows up in, but how.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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