A Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper walks outside the fire-damaged Texas Governor's Mansion Monday, June 16, 2008, in Austin, Texas. Earlier, the State Fire Marshal announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the fire that badly damaged the mansion. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Restoration experts working on the Texas Governor's Mansion have turned to a couple of Austin homes built by the same 1850s contractor to find something close to the original pine floors that burned in a fire at the historic home three years ago.
Dealey Herndon, project manager for the State Preservation Board, said no one's sure what the original floors looked like before they were sanded and refinished. The mansion officially opened in 1856.
"There are no photos," Herndon told the Austin American Statesman. "We know the subfloor (a second floor beneath the top layer) is original. The house may not have had anything other than the subfloor originally. We just don't know."
What's certain is the floors were made of Bastrop pine. And, according to a letter then-Gov. Elisha Pease wrote to his wife, were covered by oilcloth.
Herndon says flooring examined at two other homes from the same period built by Abner Cook had random-width boards. So that's what's going in at the governor's house, the oldest executive mansion still in use west of the Mississippi. The boards then will be covered with historic carpets.
The $26 million project is expected to be completed next summer, four years after the home was the target of a still unknown arsonist.
The outside work is expected to be done within a week. Already, scaffolding has been coming down from the six towering white columns on the front porch. Decorations atop the columns sustained heavy damage from flames.
Herndon said the work has uncovered some hidden gems, including a basement pocket that held an empty champagne bottle from the early 1900s and tiny closets that had been hidden by bookcases in upstairs bedrooms. She believes the closets may have been the work of Sam Houston, who was governor just before the Civil War.
"They were very shallow, just big enough for some hooks to hang clothes on," she said. "As a mother, if I had eight kids and four bedrooms like the Houstons did, I'd want someplace for them to hang their clothes."
The approximate age of the closets was confirmed by the original baseboards and trim wood found inside walls.
Besides the restoration work, the project includes modern upgrades like geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels to heat water. Also, 1,500 square feet have been added in bedroom, kitchen and living space.
Renovation of the mansion began in 2007, and Gov. Rick Perry and his wife weren't living there when the fire was set a year later.