Volunteers restore gardens at historic Governor's Mansion

Published: Saturday, Sep. 8, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 4CALIFORNIA LIFE

Like so many other local residents, Jackie O'Connor of Folsom visited the Governor's Mansion earlier this summer, in essence to say goodbye.

"I thought it was closing," she said of the state historic park in downtown Sacramento. "But as it turned out, I found out I could help."

Built in 1877, the stately mansion was spared from the closure list, thanks to community donations and its foundation's successful fundraising campaign.

And volunteers such as O'Connor are now busy making Sacramento's most famous house and gardens feel and look more like the property did during its glory days.

Called the Mansion Gardeners, the group spent the summer restoring flower beds, trimming trees and cataloging plants. Using vintage photos as a guide, they've pieced together what the mansion garden used to include and have worked hard to fill in those blanks.

"We're helping to bring back the garden's grandeur and beauty," said coordinator Bonnie Hansen. "The Governor's Mansion is a magical place, and this garden has brought so many different people with different interests together."

During the state's fiscal crisis and ultra-tight budget constraints, that volunteer effort has paid off.

"It's really wonderful how the community has come together to support the mansion," said Pati Brown, director of marketing and planning for the Capital District State Museums and Parks. "We don't have the resources to do these projects, but they're really getting a lot done."

Sunday is Admission Day, commemorating when California officially became a state in 1850. As many as 40,000 visitors tour the mansion and its gardens each year.

Longtime docent Joe Wolfenden has explained the house's history to many of them.

"Among house museums in the country, we're up there (in total attendance)," he said. "Not many have more."

Wolfenden loves the gardens' restoration.

"They look the best they've looked in the last 25 years, since I started here," he said.

The gardens are a mix of Victorian favorites, more modern hybrids and rarities (such as a 20-foot white bird of paradise). Hydrangeas, cannas, bottlebrush, angel's trumpets, irises, mums, roses, azaleas, magnolias, camellias and many other flowering plants add color year-round.

"We're filling in a lot of spots," Hansen said. "For example, the mansion has always had a geranium circle out front. When we started, we were down to two geraniums."

Now, there are dozens of geraniums, adding bright, cheery blooms to the mansion's front lawn.

Originally built for hardware magnate Albert Gallatin, the Italianate mansion was purchased in 1903 by the state (for $32,500) to serve as an executive residence.

Located at H and 16th streets in Sacramento, the mansion was home to 13 governors and their families. The last was Ronald Reagan in 1967; he and Nancy lived there only three months before moving to a home in east Sacramento.

Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown, Reagan's predecessor and father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, enjoyed his eight years at the mansion much more. The grand house and its gardens were the site of family gatherings and barbecues as well as state dinners and official business.

A gift to Pat Brown, a kidney-shaped pool was added to the mansion's gardens in the 1950s. That pool is now fully restored, thanks to recent donations and volunteer work.

"It used to be surrounded by a grapestake fence," said volunteer Bo York. "When we took it down, it just opened up the whole area. Now, it's so inviting."

John Casey, a grandson of Pat Brown, helped the project with family photos that showed the garden in its 1950s heyday when many of the rose bushes and other plantings were new.

"That's why we decided to restore the gardens to how they would have looked during the 1950s," Hansen explained.

Connor Nelson, a local Eagle Scout, recently completed a redwood picnic table and benches to replace those used by the Brown family during their mansion years. The picnic set now offers mansion visitors a spot to relax outside the carriage house.

The poolside patio along with other parts of the mansion property are available to rent for weddings and special occasions as the state historic park becomes more self-sufficient.

The nearby Packard Building, former home of the Church of Scientology, was purchased by the state in 2010 to serve as an annex to the mansion and help with its efforts to become a special events venue. Work has begun on that building with hopes of completion by next summer.

"We've hosted some events (at the mansion) already," Pati Brown said. "The gardens are perfect for someone looking for a site for an intimate wedding."

In early spring, the garden is framed by majestic camellias that have grown to tree size, 20 feet tall. Old garden roses offer big bursts of bloom.

"They must date back to when the mansion was built," Hansen said. "We've taken some (cuttings) to preserve their genetic material, just in case something happens to them."

The cuttings also could provide replacement shrubs for ones lost to time.

Through researching vintage photos, the volunteers were able to replace a Japanese flowering cherry tree and two elms. The latter were donated by the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District's shade tree program.

A SMUD retiree, Ron Colman now offers his tree expertise to the Mansion Gardeners. He lovingly trimmed a massive 40-foot saucer magnolia, believed to be the largest in the area, as well as century-old incense cedar and redwood trees.

"When working around a historic structure, you've got to be extremely careful," Hansen said. "We don't do anything without a lot of thought and consideration."

Other volunteers joined the Mansion Gardeners in search of opportunity.

Brian Balding had worked as a landscaper in Texas before moving back to Sacramento to be near family. Without a job, he started volunteering at the mansion.

"My mother and I took the tour," he said. "It's a good time to (volunteer). Hopefully, it will lead to a job some day."

Greg Stevenson, who was laid off from his state job, volunteers every week. A computer tech, he's learning how to make things grow while also networking.

"It's fun," he said. "I'm trying to learn gardening skills. I also do computer work (for the volunteer group). Everybody's very nice to work with."

Hansen is constantly recruiting more helpers with different skills.

Photographer Britt Moise is working on a month-by-month online guide to the mansion gardens in bloom. (See it on the mansion's Facebook page.)

"We want to create a virtual tour of the gardens," Moise said. "There are so many things here that are just fabulous.

"There's also a certain amount of prestige to be able to volunteer at the Governor's Mansion," Moise noted. "You're giving back to your community and to a special place."

The volunteers get some perks, too. Among them was meeting the governor and other dignitaries.

"It's been a wonderful experience," said O'Connor, a retired teacher. "We're working as part of a team. I've learned a lot.

"This is my adopted garden," she added. "It's like home."

Governor's Mansion State Historic Park

Where: 1526 H St., Sacramento

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; guided tours on the hour

Admission: $5 general; $3 for ages 6-17; free for children 5 and under

Details: www.parks.ca.gov/governorsmansion, (916) 323-3047

Also: See the mansion's new garden photo gallery via its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/governorsmansionstatehistoricpark.

Supporters: In partnership with the State Parks Department, the California Historic Governor's Mansion Foundation supports the mansion's restoration, exhibits and interpretative programs. Learn more at www.historicgovernorsmansion.org.

Mansion Gardeners: The new volunteer program is open to anyone with an interest in the mansion's gardens, regardless of prior experience or gardening skills. Volunteers receive docent training and learn basic gardening techniques. For more details, contact coordinator Bonnie Hansen at (916) 416-1088 or brhansen@parks.ca.gov.

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