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Magnificent makeover

FRANKFORT — Margaret Robinson Robertson lived in the Old Governor's Mansion in the early 1840s, when son-in-law Robert Letcher was the governor. Legend has it that her ghost appears whenever evil befalls the house.

The way the place looks now, don't expect to see her any time soon.

The 211-year-old mansion has just undergone a privately financed $1.5 million face lift so it can take on a new role as the state's guest house and official entertainment space for the governor.

The magnificent renovation was a statewide, all-volunteer effort involving more than 300 people, including designers, decorators, contractors and donors who each adopted small parts of the mansion.

The renovation will be unveiled later this month with a series of big-ticket events, proceeds from which will benefit the Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation and Kentucky Equine Humane Center. The home will then be open for $10 public tours Sept. 19 to Oct. 3.

"We wanted the house to be a welcoming spot for people who come to Kentucky," said David Buchta, state curator and director of the Division of Historic Properties. His office oversaw the renovation with the mansions foundation and Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission.

"It's a great shrine to Kentucky's history," said Steve Collins, chairman of the commission and son of former Gov. Martha Layne Collins.

The home was first occupied in 1798, two years before the White House. For many years, it was the nation's oldest executive residence.

The mansion housed 33 Kentucky governors until 1914, when the current governor's mansion was built beside the "new" Capitol. From 1956 to 2002, the old mansion housed 10 lieutenant governors.

Eight U.S. presidents have visited the mansion, from James Monroe to Bill Clinton, as well as such notables as Henry Clay, Aaron Burr and William Jennings Bryan.

"There's no other house in Kentucky that has been used like this one — that has the stories and history and reputation," said Collins, a Shelbyville lawyer and funeral director.

The General Assembly put up money to build the governor's mansion in 1795 after the state's first governor, Isaac Shelby, convinced lawmakers that a rented log cabin just wouldn't do. It was completed in 1798.

Although the mansion's federal-style exterior was rather plain, it was called the Palace when Shelby's successor, James Garrard, became its first occupant. It was the first home in Frankfort with carpet. A crowd gathered when the city's first piano was delivered to its parlor.

Two men who helped build the house later lived there: Thomas Metcalfe, a stonemason who helped lay the foundation, was governor from 1828 to 1832; and Letcher, who helped lay the Flemish-bond brick, was governor from 1840 to 1844.

The house hasn't been occupied since 2002, when then-Lt. Gov. Steve Henry moved out to make way for a renovation. Last year, the idea emerged to turn the home into a state guest house, like Blair House in Washington.

(Francis Preston Blair, by the way, was a Frankfort journalist who moved to the nation's capital in 1830. Seven years later, he took up residence in the Pennsylvania Avenue house that now bears his name.)

First lady Jane Beshear, former first lady Phyllis George and Meg Jewett, owner of the L.V. Harkness & Co. gift shop in Lexington, led the renovation effort. They and others recruited volunteers and donors from all over.

Longwood Antique Woods of Lexington donated flooring for the downstairs powder room. The wood came from the Lexington barn of 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

Louisville artist Sandy Kimura donated nine weeks of her time to paint a mural around the main hall in the style of early 19th-century Zuber wallpaper. It incorporates Kentucky scenes, such as Daniel Boone looking across the Cumberland Gap and the gentlemen on the state seal shaking hands, for which Buchta and Collins posed in period wigs.

"I'm going to get it out and wear it to some of the events," Collins joked.

The house now contains a treasure trove of Kentucky furniture and art. There's a rare 1815 cherry Sheraton sideboard in the dining room, thought to be the work of a Maysville cabinetmaker. Other items include chairs from Henry Clay's law office, and modern Appalachian furniture and crafts that furnish a third-floor bedroom.

Other furniture and art has been donated or is on loan from the state, the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum, the Filson Club, the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, the Rebecca and Jay Rayburn Collection and several individuals.

Recognizable to many Kentuckians will be four original paintings by Paul Sawyier, whose Kentucky landscapes from a century ago remain popular as prints.

"Every room has something significant," Buchta said. "Without the generosity of a lot of people, this project wouldn't have been nearly as successful."

As a former resident of the mansion, Collins said he is especially appreciative of all of the people who have made it a showplace.

Collins was a student at Georgetown College when his mother was elected lieutenant governor in 1979. He lived in a third-floor bedroom and remembers the mansion as a busy place that was used for many public functions.

Collins said he encountered many people in the mansion, but not the ghost of Margaret Robinson Robertson.

"We never saw her," he said. "But we felt very safe when we lived here."