Behind the Scenes: Texas Governor’s Mansion Restoration

One of my favorite stories to read in each issue of our magazine is the Before & After spotlight. I love seeing the dramatic transformations and creative uses of spectacular old buildings. And while the beginning and end are pictorially displayed, what you don’t always get to see is who was instrumental in getting the building from point A to point B.

In our Fall issue, Gwen Purdom gives you the scoop on the restoration of the 1856 Greek Revival Governor’s Mansion in Texas after it was burned in a 2008 fire. To give you more behind-the-scenes coverage, I chatted with Meg Nowack, the curator of the first National Trust Historic Site in Texas, Villa Finale, who assisted in the curatorial transition of objects back into the mansion.

When Nowack was asked by Jane Karotkin, the administrator of the Friends of the Governor’s Mansion and member of the Villa Finale Advisory Council, to help unpack, clean, and return objects in the house to their proper position, she accepted immediately.

“Jane was familiar with my work from a major project in 2009 when we packed everything in [Villa Finale] in boxes and then unpacked it and placed it back exactly where Walter Mathis had it,” Nowack says. “I think she chose me to help because she knew my history and trusted my experience.”

Nowack was brought in for four days at the very end of the restoration to “be the eyes and ears when Jane was not around,” watching the movers unpack the boxes to make sure nothing was mishandled, cleaning objects, and placing them back in their proper place. Nowack, assisted by Villa Finale’s Visitor Services and Museum Shop Assistant Karina Serna, worked off of photographs, books and “Jane’s steel-trap memory” to determine proper placement of the objects. She worked specifically in Sam Houston’s bedroom and was responsible mainly for what she called the “fussy little objects,” such as vases, glassware, lamps, and a few silver items, as well as larger furnishings such as settees, side tables and chairs.

Villa Finale and the Governor’s Mansion were connected by the owner of Villa Finale, the late Walter Mathis, who had been involved in the mansion’s 1980-1982 restoration. Mathis had been part of the restoration project committee and had helped choose antique furnishings, drapery, floor coverings, and art for the house. Nowack says you can still see his influence in the mansion today.

“It was really gratifying to be unpacking objects and seeing Walter in everything, particularly the lamps. He picked out a lot of Victorian-period crystal lamps that needed to be put back together,” says Nowack.

Though Nowack admitted that working in a house owned by many different entities brought challenges, she says the experience on the whole was “incredibly rewarding.”

“I was around exquisite furniture that I’ve been privileged enough to even get near, and working with so many people all trying to accomplish one goal was amazing,” she says. “I was also pleasantly surprised that even though the house had undergone a complete restoration, it still had the spirit of an old house.”

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