Open House: The Arkansas Governor's Mansion and Its Place in History. By John P. Gill. (Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2010. Pp. iv, 230. Foreword, illustrations, appendix, notes. $50.00.)
John Gill has crafted an important work of Arkansas history. His book could adorn any coffee table in any home or business, but it offers much more than that. Visually alluring with a host of colorful photographs, Open House tells the Governor's Mansion's story with an array of personal anecdotes and reminiscences of those who were there. It is these stories from the occupants of the past sixty years, but also stories from and about the architects, interior decorators, mansion administrators, and staff, that make the book come alive.
Gill credits First Lady Ginger Beebe with inspiring the book through her insatiable curiosity about all things Arkansan. He begins with the story of how a Harrison native, Agnes Bass Shinn, had a vision for a governor's mansion in the mid-nineteen forties and how Ed Cromwell was selected as the architect to design the building. Cromwell did so in the style of a Georgian mansion with a Greek Revival portico. William Heerwagon worked with First Lady Anne McMath as the interior decorator. The cost of the building and furnishings in 1950 was about $200,000.
Open House includes something for everyone. There are personal stories about the antics of the mansion's children, beginning with the McMath boys, that cascade through the book. Mansion pets also receive great attention, as do musical instruments, such as Bill Clinton's saxophone and Mike Huckabee's bass guitar. And there are the faux pas committed by various family members, which are usually associated with traipsing unknowingly from the mansion's private quarters into the public domain.
But Gill goes beyond the merely personal. There are the moments of historical significance in which key events occurred at the mansion like the meetings surrounding Orval Faubus's decision to block the integration of Central High School and the deployment of federal troops, Bill Clinton's transition operation in 1992 as he prepared for the White House, and Mike Huckabee's deliberations on how to handle public-school financing in the wake of the Arkansas Supreme Court's Lake View decision (2002). Gill further recounts how numerous luminaries passed through the mansion's portals, including Harry Truman, Rosa Parks, Bob Hope, June Allyson, Billy Graham, Barbara Bush, and the Little Rock Nine, just to name a few. The old cliché surfaces: "If only the walls could talk. …