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Historic Governor's Mansion Celebrates Centennial

By Associated Press

Montgomery AL – If it hadn't been for one governor's love of long walks, Alabama's first families would have to set up house somewhere else.

It was "Big Jim" Folsom who lumbered past the present-day governor's mansion while out on his many miles-long hikes. And with each stroll, he became more and more enchanted with the neoclassical home at 1108 S. Perry St., which marks its centennial this week. A free reception was held at the mansion Thursday.

Built by the Ligon family, the 6,000-square-foot residence has been the governor's official residence since Folsom's successor, Gordon Persons, took the oath of office Jan. 15, 1951.

Folsom lived with his wife and nine children at 702 S. Perry St., the first official Executive Mansion. The French-styled brownstone, purchased by the state in 1911 for $46,000, was nice and roomy but rundown.

The complaints about the first family's living conditions started with Folsom's predecessor, Chauncey Sparks, who served from 1943 to 1947, according to Rickie Brunner of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

"Gov. Chauncey Sparks' mother-in-law was hit in the head by a falling piece of ceiling plaster around 1944," Brunner said.

Folsom became so fed up with the dilapidated house that he began searching for another official residence in 1949, two years into his term.

As a boy, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. lived in both houses. He remembers the shoddiness of the brownstone well and his father's adoration for the Ligon property.

"Big Jim frequently walked down the street ... and had coffee with Mrs. Aileen Ligon," Folsom said, "and soon fell in love with her home."

Ligon's husband, Robert Ligon, built the home, which state historian Norwood Kerr points to as an example of architecture popular in the South at the time. Four towering wood columns with ornate Corinthian capitals at the top dominate the entrance portico.

"Upon its completion, it was labeled as one of Montgomery's finest homes and many important social events were held there," Kerr said.

The Ligons lived in the mansion until their deaths. Robert, a general in the Alabama National Guard and clerk of the state Supreme Court for 40 years, died in 1939. Aileen died in 1950.

In January 1950, eight months before Aileen's death, Folsom established a state committee to look into acquiring a new executive mansion, Brunner said. By October of that year, the state had bought the Ligon mansion for $100,000. Today, Montgomery real estate expert Sandra Nickel puts the home's value at $1.2 million.

The old governor's mansion came down in 1963 to make way for Interstate 85.

A public reception to celebrate Persons' swearing-in was the new mansion's first official event.

The governor's daughter, Elizabeth Persons Killingsworth, remembers Inauguration Day 1951 as if it were yesterday. The cold was bitter and the line to get inside the new residence snaked around the block.

"Pappa elected not to have a grand inaugural ball for the elite but to have a reception after he was sworn in just for the public," Killingsworth said in a telephone interview from her North Carolina home.

First lady Alice Persons received $135,000 from the Legislature to renovate the home and spent two months supervising the work herself, her daughter said.

Less than a month after the inauguration, Persons opened up the mansion for his niece's wedding reception.

"It's a grand home and it has such a sophisticated look with a towering staircase presided over by an ornate crystal chandelier," said Juliette Persons Doster of Anniston. "It's just ever so elegant."

In 1954, "Big Jim" Folsom returned to the governor's office. The family of nine moved back into the official residence -- the new one, this time.

For Folsom's son, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., the small den holds a special significance.

"At night, my brother, Jack, and I would ... listen to Big Jim talk politics with senators and congressmen well into the night beside his well-stocked bar," Folsom said.

One night, the governor met with New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem. The social meeting between the white governor and the black congressman shook up the pro-segregationist politicians, who immediately called the newspapers.

"None of us thought anything about it because my father only treated him with the same respect he would afford any other member of Congress," Folsom said.

Folsom recalled that his father, an early civil rights advocate, made light of the blowup.

Folsom recounted what "Big Jim" told the media about allowing an African-American to be a guest in the mansion: "They say I had a scotch and soda with Adam Clayton Powell at the mansion and that's a lie. Anyone who knows me knows I don't drink scotch."

Whenever Peggy Wallace Kennedy returns to the mansion -- both her father, George, and her mother, Lurleen, served as governor -- she struggles with her emotions. The mansion played host to her wedding and the christening of her son, Leigh.

"This mansion is a beautiful place, but it holds such bittersweet memories for me now that Daddy and Mother are both gone," Kennedy said.

Moving into the mansion in 1963 was a shock for the Wallaces, who had been living in a modest home in the Barbour County community of Clayton.

"We were all in awe because the mansion was large enough to hold Clayton's Christmas parade," she said.

Kennedy's favorite room was her second-floor bedroom, which looked out onto the backyard.

"I loved having my own room," Kennedy said, "and thought I had died and gone to heaven."

First lady Patsy Riley, too, adores the mansion. When husband Bob took office in 2003, Riley set about opening up the residence to the public again. Govs. Don Siegelman and Forrest "Fob" James had closed the mansion for tours.

"This home is really the people's mansion," Riley said. "It belongs to everyone."


Information from: Montgomery Advertiser,

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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