RICHMOND, Va. -- Construction began late last week on the permanent wheelchair ramp to Virginia's governor's mansion with zero fanfare after weeks of mild controversy over the new addition to the nation's most historic executive mansion. There was little information publicly released about it - how much it would cost, who would pay for it, what kind of historic scrutiny the plan went through.
There wasn't even a draftsman's rendition of what it would look like widely released, even though it will be one of the more visible changes to the exterior of the mansion in its 202-year history. And even though the plan has been underway since May, I'm told, Governor Terry McAuliffe didn't announce it until October 23, saying, in part:.
Our family is honored to live in a home that holds such a prominent place in the history of Virginia and this nation, and we appreciate sharing this home with our visitors. While the Executive Mansion already meets federal accessibility guidelines, this enhancement will ensure that everyone who visits this historic home will receive a gracious and respectful welcome regardless of their physical limitations.
And six weeks later, construction is underway? For a building this historically significant . . . really? I don't even see a bid notice until late October.
"Where is the accountability?" asked Betty Markham, a docent who has loved giving tours of the mansion for two decades. "I want to know why? Where is the money coming from? Why is everything such a secret?"
She said any changes at the mansion during previous administrations were discussed openly, in great detail, months ahead of time. Markham, 81, said in this case, she and other tour guides were informed by email that "there would be no tours, we would be closing down, we were having it installed."
When former first lady Roxane Gilmore, who literally wrote the book about the mansion, heard about the new ramp, she wrote letters to the editor about it, telling reporters that the plan needlessly changes the building's exterior when there was a gracious, weatherproof, roll-in basement entrance via elevator that has been in place since she and her husband, Jim Gilmore, oversaw an extensive renovation in 1999.
Hearing about the controversy, I asked the governor's spokesman, Brian Coy, if I could see and film the old wheelchair entrance to share with our viewers.
Coy said he couldn't allow that because it would show some of the governor's family's personal space, and that's one of the reasons why they wanted to change the wheelchair entrance. Then he told me construction was already underway.
What? No way!
So I jetted on down to the mansion so I could film masons and others working on the mostly masonry ramp. Once there I was told that I couldn't come onto the property to film the work going on, which was completely shrouded by a long, green, construction fence.
For a few moments the fence was opened and I could see freshly laid concrete blocks and watch a worker cutting with a masonry chop-saw. And there, on the INSIDE of the briefly-opened fence, was one of those work-underway banners announcing the "Accessibility Enhancement Project for the Executive Mansion," complete with an explanation and two renderings of what it would look like.
Why is that not on the OUTSIDE of the fence, where we, the owners of the mansion, can see it? I'm told a reporter for the Washington Post filed Freedom of Information Act requests about this entire process. Why should we have to do that for one of our most public buildings? Shouldn't that be open for all to see?
Here's the little I was able to find out talking with those familiar with the project.
This, indeed, has long been in the works. The state Department of Historic Resources has been involved, along with the Arts and Architectural Review Board, which voted for the project in early November, even though the plans were incomplete, according to the minutes of the Nov. 6 meeting. The Capitol Square Preservation Council has also been involved.
Archaeologists examined the ramp site before excavation to make sure no history would be disturbed, I'm told. It appears, at a brief glance, that the seemingly expedited review process covered all the bases.
Total cost, $250,000 - a pittance compared with the previous renovation.
So, why not just show it off?
Friends, this mansion has long been loved and honored by the governors who lived there. During the 200th anniversary ceremony, I watched former governors with very different political beliefs in total harmony, warmly telling stories about this stately building they each called home.
As Roxane Gilmore told a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, governors don't own the place, they're just long-term visitors. "It doesn't belong to you," she said. "It belongs to the Commonwealth."
Betty Markham also loves the place with all her heart. When we spoke Wednesday evening, her eyes misted as she worried that she could lose her beloved job as a docent for speaking out. But, she said, this just isn't the way things are done at the Governor's Mansion.
The governor's spokesman issued a statement Thursday.
Since moving to Richmond, the Governor and the First Lady have worked hard to make everyone feel welcome in the “people’s” Executive Mansion, especially disabled Virginians and wounded warriors. The accessibility ramp currently under construction on a structure adjacent to the Executive Mansion will allow every Virginian to enter through the formal reception area no matter what mobility challenges they may face. It will also allow for safer evacuations of people in wheelchairs in the event of a fire or power outage.
The ramp was approved following the standard public process for projects of this scope, which demands transparency, competition, and rigorous historical and architectural review. The ramp was approved unanimously by the Virginia Art and Architectural Review Board, where it was subject to public comment. It was also announced in a press release and covered by the media.
It is unfortunate WTVR’s request for access was made at the last minute while final preparations were underway for a Hanukkah reception in the home, and that last night’s column ran without any further request for information from the Governor’s office or the Department of General Services.
The McAuliffe family fully understands what an honor and privilege it is to live in this historic home, and caring for and preserving it is an absolute priority.
Mark Holmberg's reports and commentaries appear on CBS 6 News at 11 and WTVR.com.