During the Douglas administration, officials proposed selling the mansion in Montpelier known as Redstone for $1 million.
Now the plan is to convert the Victorian manse on Terrace Street, formerly the home of the Secretary of State’s office, into a conference center for $2.65 million.
The proposal also includes a private, four-bedroom guest apartment for the governor.
Vermont is one of five states that doesn’t have a governor’s mansion, and after 200 years of a thrifty tradition in which governors have been expected to find their own accommodations, that seemed unlikely to change, until recently.
The Redstone proposal from the firm Smith-Alvarez-Sienkiewycz Architects in Burlington, includes a 3,500-square-foot second-floor guest apartment for use by the governor. The drawings feature a master bedroom with a bath, study, three smaller bedrooms, kitchen, dining and living rooms, plus a private back entrance and extra provisions for security.
Michael Obuchowski, commissioner of the Department of Buildings and Grounds, said the idea for the guest apartment came from lawmakers last year who were dismayed that the old mansion might be sold. He emphasized that the plans identify the space as a guest facility that would be utilized by the governor for putting up visitors. Obuchowski says he envisions more space for the public on the second floor and suggested the apartment could include part of the third floor as well.
Others have interpreted the plans as a proposal for gubernatorial accommodations.
David Schutz, curator of the Statehouse, supports the idea of creating an apartment for the governor.
“I do think a case can be made that future governors have a legitimate need to be close to Montpelier,” Schutz said. “In a lot of cases, the New England governor’s mansion is a structure that was donated. In our case we’ve owned Redstone since the 1940s. It’s almost the same thing. I don’t see this as terribly different.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin who hails from Putney, a good two-hour drive from the state capitol, is currently renting former Gov. Deane Davis’ house on Dyer Avenue, not far from the Statehouse. Over the last 30 years, Vermont’s governors have commuted from their homes to Montpelier.
Schutz said if the governor “weren’t a person of means” (Shumlin’s 2010 income was about $1 million) he may have found it difficult to find housing in Montpelier. “Do Vermonters want the governor who lives within commuting distance or to be a person of means?” Schutz said. “Are those the things that determine the housing situation for our governor?”
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, a member of the House Committee for Corrections and Institutions where the proposal was introduced last week, said she is concerned about the Redstone renovations.
“We have gotten along without a governor’s mansion for 200 years,” Browning said. “Why do we need one now? Even if it was funded with private money, why wouldn’t we rather raise money to house Irene victims? To use a favorite expression of the governor’s — I think he’s in La La Land.”
As for the conference center concept for the first floor, Obuchowski said he wanted to relieve congestion at the Statehouse caused by the occasional confluence of large school groups and activists on top of the regular crowd of lawmakers, lobbyists, advocates and members of the press.
“My primary goal was to take pressure off the Statehouse,” Obuchowski said. “We’ve had gatherings in the Cedar Creek Room where people are running into the Battle of Cedar Creek painting.”
The first floor would be converted into conference spaces for receptions, school groups and meetings. A catering kitchen is also part of the plan. The proposal includes a new elevator and maintenance-related repairs to the building. The port couchere, which had been torn down, would be reconstructed. The parking lot would be rebuilt.
The $2.53 million pricetag wouldn’t come out of the state’s coffers. Instead, the Friends of the Statehouse, a nonprofit group that has paid for the restorations to the home of the General Assembly, would raise the money.
At the moment, the grand Victorian is the temporary home of state workers from the Department of Mental Health who were displaced by Tropical Storm Irene so any renovations would have to wait until they’re settled in new offices. The state curator uses the basement vault for storage.