Governor's Mansion (Olympia)

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 6/13/2009
  • Essay 9048

The governor's mansion of the state of Washington was built in 1908 on 12 acres donated by Edmund Sylvester (1821-1887) and accepted by the Territorial Legislature as the site for a state capitol in 1855. The mansion was designed in Georgian style by architects Russell & Babcock of Tacoma, built under the supervision of Seattle's Matthew Dow Construction, and decorated by Weissenborn & Company, also of Seattle. Washington firms performed all the work, operating on a short budget of $35,000 and a short time frame of five months. The 19-room mansion was accepted by the State Building Commission on December 18, 1908, was first occupied by Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) and his family in 1909, and has been home to every Washington governor since. Over the years little maintenance work was done, and during the 1950s and early 1960s the State considered proposals to tear down the mansion. During the 1965-1977 terms of Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), he and First Lady Nancy Bell Evans (b. 1933) prevailed in their efforts to secure funding for restoration of the mansion and to develop a private, non-profit organization to fund and care for the furnishings and decorations of the public rooms. Architect Ibsen A. Nelsen (1919- 2001) designed the restoration, adding seven new rooms. Interior designer Jean Jongeward (1917-2000) designed the interior, working closely with Nancy Evans and a statewide team of volunteers. The restored mansion was reopened in September 1975, as a permanent home for Washington's governors and their families. It is located next door to the Washington State Legislative Building on the now-expanded Capitol Campus, many of its rooms are open to the public, and tours are conducted by the Governor's Mansion Foundation. The Capitol Campus and its buildings were added to both the National Register of Historic Places and the State of Washington Heritage Register in 1979. 

A Governor's Rented Quarters

As 1908 began in Olympia, Governor Albert Edward Mead (1861-1913) was entering his third year as Washington's fifth state governor. He and his wife, Mina Jane Hosmer Pifer Mead (ca. 1861-1941) were raising five children in a rented house in Olympia, complete with a garden, pets, a cow, and chickens. The state expected its governors to bring their families to Olympia and to reside there throughout the governor's term of office. (This was not true of all states. By 1900, only 19 states provided residences for their governors; Washington was one of nine additional states to do so during the period 1900-1920.)

The Washington Legislature did not provide much in the way of rental assistance for its governors. Governor's Mead's salary came to $333.33 per month, and this had to cover all his bills, including rent. With the state's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, due to open in June 1909 in Seattle, the governor and the Legislature agreed that Washington needed an official governor's residence, both to house its first families and to provide an appropriate setting to carry out the hospitality expected of the state's chief executive.

But the Legislature was parsimonious. Senate Bill 76, introduced by Thurston County State Senator Alfred S. Ruth (1865-1915), chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds and the Special Committee on the Capitol Building and Grounds, became the act providing for the purchase of the site, construction, and furnishing of a governor's residence. Governor Mead signed it on February 28, 1907. The Legislature allocated $35,000 for the project and assigned a State Building Commission to oversee it. The act also designated the "old capitol site" as the location, assuming resolution of then-pending litigation, and required that the building be completed by June 1, 1909. The allocation was guaranteed by income from "capitol lands," federal lands gifted to the state to provide income to finance state capitol buildings, awarded by President Harrison when he signed the legislation that created the State of Washington on November 11, 1889.  

A Mansion Fit for Governors

It took every allocated penny to build the house and decorate it. The Georgian design featured an entrance in the middle of the north-facing façade, two small rooms on each side of an entry vestibule, two large rooms on each side of a large entry hall, and a grand staircase ascending to the second floor, with the kitchen, service facilities, and stairs to the basement in the rear. The exterior was finished in red brick, trimmed in white Alaskan marble and sandstone copings. A full cement basement provided space for the usual heating, plumbing, and laundry facilities, and also had "a commodious vault for storing plate and other valuables belonging to the mansion," a wine cellar, and vegetable storage (The Pacific Builder and Engineer).

The first floor included a ballroom with musicians' gallery and a state dining room on the east, a living room with a fireplace and French doors leading to a covered porch on the west, and a breakfast room beyond. The governor's study opened to the left of the vestibule as one entered, and a reception room to the right. One could also continue through the vestibule to the great hall, with doors to the ballroom or the living room and stairs leading to the second floor, which had eight rooms, with three bathrooms and an abundance of closets. A lift was installed from the basement to the second floor. The design created a tendency for formal occasions to be housed to the east and family activities to the west (the governor's suite was on the west side of the second floor), but there was little separation between family and public spaces.  

Made In Washington

The general contractor was Matthew Dow Construction Company of Seattle. The bricks came from the Abrahamson yards in Seattle, and the lime from San Juan County. The marble trim was furnished by the Tacoma yards of the Western Marble Company, the sandstone by Hercules quarries in Tenino, the cement by the Skagit County plant of Washington Portland Cement Co., and the cedar shingles by the Olympia Door Company. Weissenborn & Company of Seattle designed and coordinated the interior decorating and Cascade Gas & Electric Fixture Co. of Seattle designed and manufactured the colonial style lighting fixtures. Heating, a hot-water system of about 40 radiators, was installed by Tacoma Plumbing & Heating Co. An article in The Pacific Builder and Engineer stated:

"It is the general impression that the state of Washington has received full value for any money spent in connection with the mansion, and that first-class materials and work are there to show for it. The various bids were low and it is definitely known that a good portion of the remuneration has been in the shape of a reputation gained through the advertising naturally connected with a public building of this character" (The Pacific Builder and Engineer).

Laying the Cornerstone  

The cornerstone for the building was installed with great ceremony on August 1, 1908. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that "The event was treated as a half holiday in Olympia … " (August 3, 1908, p. 3). The ceremony was conducted by the Masonic Grand Lodge of the state of Washington, with Most Worshipful Grand Master Royal A. Gove (1856-1951) presiding. Governor Mead, in his cornerstone-ceremony address, put the Washington Governor's Mansion project in context:  

"The elegant modern building which is being reared upon this foundation to house the future governors of the state in a style befitting the dignity of the position occupied by the chief official of our wonderful young commonwealth typifies the transition from the primeval conditions that were here 55 years ago when the first Territorial Governor made his precarious way across the continent to the advantages of the great material advancement that has taken place" (Notes, Box 1 (1966-1972), Accession No. 99-A-155, Washington State Archives, Olympia).

Governor Mead lost the primary in 1908, so he and his wife never lived in the mansion.  

Finished but Not Furnished

Construction was completed by the end of 1908, but the mansion remained unfurnished. The new governor was due to be inaugurated on January 27, 1909, and housewarming festivities were planned. The women of Olympia were asked to help, and they loaned furniture and glassware and hosted the festivities. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the event on January 29, 1909:

"From 8:30 until midnight the house was thronged with a happy crowd. Handsome and expensive gowns were the rule rather than the exception. The residence came in for general praise from the visitors, the reception hall and state dining room receiving particularly favorable comment ... . During the evening an orchestra discoursed music and a number of vocal selections were rendered by home talent and some of the visitors ... .

Tonight's reception was to the legislature and state officers. Tomorrow a reception will be given to the people of Olympia … (p. 3).

The governor-elect, Samuel G. Cosgrove  (1841-1909), was taken ill shortly after the election and had been trying to recuperate in California. He appeared in Olympia on January 27 for inauguration day, was inaugurated, but then took a leave of absence. He died on March 28, 1909, leaving Lieutenant Governor Marion E. Hay to succeed him. 

Lizzie Hay's Fine House

The first occupants of the governor's mansion were Governor Marion E. Hay, Lizzie Livingston Muir Hay (1865-1943), and their five children. In 1909, the State Legislature appropriated a total of $21,000 to be spent on the mansion during the biennium: $2,000 per year for maintenance, $15,000 for furnishings, and $2,000 for improving the grounds.

In May 1909, Frederick & Nelson of Seattle received the contract for furnishings, and Lizzie Hay selected the pieces. By December 1909, most of the furnishings were in place and the bill was paid. Some of these pieces remain in the mansion to this day, including a large grandfather clock.

Russell & Babcock, Architects

Russell & Babcock were experienced and well-regarded Washington architects when they were selected by the State Building Commission on April 9, 1908, to design the governor's mansion. Ambrose J. Russell, a British subject born in India, had attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and had worked briefly in Kansas City, Missouri, before moving to Tacoma during the 1890s and becoming a United States citizen. He entered into a number of short-lived partnerships in Tacoma before forming an association with Everett Phipps Babcock in about 1905. Babcock first appeared in Tacoma as an assistant superintending architect for the city during the construction of the downtown Carnegie Public Library.

Russell & Babcock designed a significant number of commercial, religious, and residential projects in Tacoma, including five of Tacoma's designated landmark buildings built from about 1902-1918. Among their Tacoma buildings are the Armory, Frederick H. Murray house, Pantages Theatre/Jones Building, Perkins Building, and Rutland and Woodstock Apartments.

Ambrose J. Russell, independently, designed four more buildings built from 1905-1927, including the 1905 William Ross Rust house, a Georgian mansion similar in style to the governor's mansion. Russell partnered with others on two additional Tacoma landmark structures, and the firm of Fay, Russell, and Babcock was responsible for the Masons Building at the A-Y-P Exposition in 1909.  (Ulysses Grant Fay Grant practiced in Seattle from 1909 to 1917.)  

To Raze or Restore? 

The governor's mansion was the first built of the cluster of buildings we know today as the Washington State Capitol. Over the years repairs to the mansion were a low priority. Time took its toll, and the earthquake of 1949 damaged the structure. By the 1950s, legislators began considering tearing the old place down. Some wished to locate a new office building on the site.

But during the 1950s, a major rehabilitation of the White House in Washington, D.C., was undertaken, and in 1961, new First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929-1994) continued this work, selecting furnishings from the time of the original building (1800) to complete the restoration.

When Daniel J. Evans, his wife Nancy Bell Evans, and their two children moved into the governor's mansion in 1965, its condition was deteriorating. The controversy over whether to tear it down had delayed long-needed repairs. Nevertheless, members of the public regularly stopped by, wishing to visit. In July 1966, architect Ibsen A. Nelsen of Nelsen, Sabin & Varey presented a report to the Capitol Committee on the condition of the mansion, and was directed to proceed with detailed plans for renovations.

The Capitol Committee included Governor Evans, Lieutenant Governor John A. Cherberg (1910-1992), and Land Commissioner Bert L. Cole (1910-1993). In September 1966, the State signed an architectural agreement with Nelsen, Sabin and Varey, and in July 1967, bids were circulated for the work.

However, the bids came in much higher than expected and the committee decided to revisit the option of building a new governor's residence. In December 1967, the Capitol Committee agreed to make immediate repairs to the governor's mansion up to a cost of $30,000, but not to proceed with the renovation.  

Nancy Evans and CRISP

Nancy Evans began researching how to decorate and furnish the mansion, and she worked to develop a private organization that would foster the public's access to the building and appreciation of it. In April 1969, a small group of Washingtonians formed a non-profit corporation called Citizens Responsive to the Need for Improving State Properties (CRISP). Further progress came on May 30, 1972, when Nancy Evans convened a gathering at the mansion to address the need to refurnish and redecorate the residence.

CRISP evolved into the Foundation for the Preservation of the Governor's Mansion, with Laurene Gandy of Seattle serving as chair. At its first annual meeting, CRISP adopted Jean Jongeward's plan as the guideline for rehabilitating the interior of the mansion. Approximately five years in development, Jongeward's design was responsive to the overall restoration plans of Nelsen, Sabin and Varey. As Jacqueline Kennedy had redecorated the White House to celebrate the early years of the nation, so Jongeward called for furnishings and decorations that reflected the early years of Washington state.  

In April 1973, the Legislature passed House Bill 704, "State Buildings and Facilities Construction," which authorized general obligation bonds of $27 million. The State Capitol Commission retained policy-making authority, while administrative responsibility was given to the General Services Administration.

Through this legislation, funding became available. Renovation could at last begin on the Washington's governor's mansion, a building that would also serve as a historical resource for the public.  


Reconstruction began in May 1974, but the initial $600,000 allocated by the Legislature quickly proved insufficient when builders discovered serious deficits in the structure that expanded the scope of the project. But work progressed and the rehabilitation, true to Ibsen Nelsen's design, was completed in 1975. A new addition to the rear of the building made a more comfortable division between family and public spaces. Most of the original first-floor rooms were restored.

Meanwhile, the foundation's work was underway. During "Mansion Month" in October 1974, it raised money from around the state to help furnish and decorate the mansion. The outfitting of the public rooms, based on Jongeward's plan, was sufficiently advanced that the women of Olympia did not feel obliged to loan furnishings for the mansion's re-opening in September 1975.     

Jean Jongeward: Queen of Design

Jean Jongeward came to Seattle from Minnesota as an Army wife during World War II and stayed. She first worked at Frederick & Nelson's in Seattle, helping people coordinate furniture, carpets, and fabrics. Later she owned her own business in Pioneer Square. Her reputation grew and she eventually became known locally and nationally as "Seattle's queen of design" (Beers).   

Jongeward worked with Nancy Evans and Ibsen Nelsen for a number of years to design the plan for the interior of the governor's mansion. She volunteered time and effort to the foundation, helping to guide commissions and acceptance of donations. She designed many of the wall and floor coverings now in use. According to design writer Lindsey Rowe, Jongeward's color and materials palate was inspired by stone, pewter, steel, driftwood, and oyster shells.  

Ibsen Nelsen 

Seattle architect Ibsen Nelsen was active in the Seattle movement to preserve and renovate older buildings during the 1960s and 1970s. From 1975 to 1982, he was deeply involved in the rehabilitation of the Inn at the Market and the Stewart House in the Pike Place Market. He is also known for the design of the Museum of Flight (1975-1987) and Merrill Court Townhouses (1981-86) in Seattle's Harvard-Belmont historic district.

The AIA honored him with its Seattle Medal in 1989, noting that Nelsen "practiced and professed a reverence for the qualities of the Northwest's natural and social landscape. His architecture, his thoughtful expressions of his knowledge and beliefs, and his lifelong civic activism profoundly affected both the architects and the architecture of the Northwest" (AIA Seattle website) . 

Our Historic Governor's Mansion 

By 1991, 44 of the 50 states had provided governor's mansions. Eighteen states had organized foundations or similar nonprofit groups to support furnishing and decorating these residences (Washington was among the earliest). Since the 1950s, only nine states have built or rebuilt new governors' residences.

In the centennial year (2008-2009) of the Washington governor's mansion, a host of special activities are being held by the foundation, including free tours conducted by a dedicated group of remarkably knowledgeable volunteer docents. The governor's mansion displays furnishings and art objects collected by the foundation, the State's collection of silver objects, and art borrowed from around the state. Lizzie Hay's large grandfather clock adorns the main landing. Today, an endowment is being established to preserve the furnishings for the use and enjoyment of future generations.


Norman J. Johnston, Washington’s Audacious State Capitol and Its Builders (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 13; Cathy Keating, Our Governors’ Mansions (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997); Mary Lou Hanify, The Light in the Mansion: A Collection of Stories about First Ladies of the State of Washington and Their Families (Seattle: Hanify,1971); Shaping Seattle Architecture:  A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 349; CoeTug Morgan, Washington’s Masonic Politicians: A Brief Review of Members of the Masonic Fraternity Who Have Held Major Offices in the State of Washington (Seattle:  Daylight Masons, The Lodge of the Arts, ca. 2006); Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia ed. by Donald Luxton  (Vancouver, B.C.: Talon Books, 2003), 412; “Washington’s Executive Mansion -- The First Building of its Kind on the Pacific Coast -- Built By the People, for the People, and of the People’s Products -- The Story of Its Construction,” The Pacific Builder and Engineer, Vol. 7, No. 13 (March 27, 1909); Washington State’s Executive Mansion ed. by Georgia Gellert (Olympia: Governor’s Mansion Foundation,1990); State Building Commission Minutes Concerning Governor’s Mansion Construction 1908-13, Governor's Mansion folder,  Box 48, Accession No. 90-9-1276,  Washington State Archives, Olympia;  Capitol Committee Subject Files, Minutes, 1957-1972, Box 85, Washington State Archives, Olympia; Notes and typescripts, Governor’s Mansion Foundation General Files, Box 1 (1966-1972), Box 2 (1973), Box 10 (1981), Accession No. 99-A-155, Washington State Archives, Olympia; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Governors of Washington Territory and Washington State,” (by HistoryLink staff), (accessed May 9, 2009); Tacoma Register of Historic Places, City of Tacoma, 2008, website accessed May 9, 2009  (
resource/2008/PUBLICATION%20LANDMARKS%20REGISTER%203-08.pdf); “Rust, William Ross, House -- Tacoma, WA,” 1905, U.S. National Register of Historic Places,, accessed May 9, 2009 (; Carol Beers,  "Jean Jongeward: Epitome of Northwest Design," The Seattle Times, October 13, 2000 (;  Lindsey Rowe, “Jean Jongeward:  A Northwest design icon …," Seattle Homes and Lifestyles website accessed May 2, 2009 (; “AIA Seattle Medalist 1989:  Ibsen Nelsen FAIA,” Seattle AIA website accessed May 10, 2009 (; Clinton Snowden et al., History of Washington: The Rise and Progress of an American State (New York: The Century History Company, 1911), Vol. 6, pp.189-191;  Early History of Thurston County, Washington; Together with Biographies and Reminiscences of those Identified with Pioneer Days, ed. by Georgiana Mitchell Blankenship (Olympia: 1914).

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