This Old Mansion

The Colorado governor's mansion is the closest thing to a palace the Centennial State has, and a silk-stocking state commission aims to keep it that way.

Members of the Executive Residence Advisory Commission meet periodically to pass judgment on draperies and fuss over frayed carpets. For example, the commissioners recently deliberated on the fate of a rug in the library, where the thousands of people who tromp through the mansion had worn the carpet bare. They finally decided that replacing it with a custom-made wool rug from the Philippines with hand-stitched depictions of Colorado wildflowers would be appropriate.

The nine-member advisory commission goes about its work in the best tradition of household servants--quiet but efficient. "The commission doesn't make the headlines," says Denver attorney John Welborn. "In all the years I've been on it, it's never been involved in anything controversial."

Since the mansion at Eighth Avenue and Logan Street was built in 1908, it has been home to scions of the Evans, Cheesman and Boettcher families, many of whom fancied themselves as Colorado's own pioneer royalty. And although the residence has become more democratic since it became the home of Colorado's governor in 1960--it now hosts precinct caucuses and reunions of retired school teachers--it still is a powerful draw for Colorado's elite.

Members of the advisory commission might be more likely to be spotted at a trunk show at Neiman Marcus than serving on a ponderous state panel. But they take their appointments to the commission seriously. "We're all proud of the mansion," says commissioner Arlene Hirschfeld. "We want to keep it in shape and up to par."

Hirschfeld and her husband, Barry, the printer, are regulars on the Denver social scene, and their appearance at parties is often noted in the daily newspapers' society columns. Other prominent commissioners include socialites Patricia Silversmith and Esther Priddy, attorney Welborn, and lobbyist and political spouse Maria Garcia-Berry.

Hirschfeld says she and several other members have an interest in interior design, and the commission strives to make sure any alterations to the Colonial Revival mansion stay in keeping with its history. "It's a greeting place for people coming from out of state," she adds. "We don't want it to be shabby."

The mansion reflects the extravagant tastes of the Boettchers. Given to the state in 1960 by the Boettcher Foundation, the mansion still contains the museum-quality furnishings assembled by Claude Boettcher and his wife, Edna. The couple made several trips to Europe after World War I and were able to snatch up priceless antiquities from desperate Europeans who were selling off the contents of villas and palaces all over the continent. As a result, the 23-room mansion is stocked with jade lamps, cloisonne vases, eighteenth-century tapestries and Waterford crystal chandeliers. Claude Boettcher's oak-paneled library features a tulipwood Louis XIV desk with ornate metal moldings that sits underneath a portrait of Louis XV. ("Our Louis XIV desk is bigger than the one at Versailles," brags a guide.) The Boettchers acquired so many items that many of them are kept in storage and only rarely exhibited.

When the mansion was first offered to the state, there was a great deal of controversy over whether it was appropriate for the governor to live in such opulent surroundings. Claude Boettcher's father had made a fortune in the hardware business during Colorado's gold and silver rushes, and the family diversified its holdings to include everything from cement to securities. Filling their house with antiques and art became a favorite way for the Boettchers to spend their fortune, even as the Great Depression forced hundreds of homeless people into the streets of Denver.

Edna Boettcher was known for hosting extravagant aristocratic soirees at the mansion; she even ordered multi-hued sets of china to match her evening gowns. In 1926 a white-marble-lined Palm Room with dramatic views of Pikes Peak was added to the south side of the first floor. This room is flooded with sunlight from huge plate-glass windows, and it was said that Mrs. Boettcher wanted thehouse to be well-lit so she could show off her emerald ring, known as the "Maharaja of Singapore," which Denver newspapers estimated to be between twenty and forty carats.

The Palm Room is still a favorite gathering place when Governor Roy Romer and his wife, Bea, host get-togethers. Parties held at the mansion have benefited the Debutante Ball, the Central City Opera and the Denver International Film Festival. Overnight guests have included Hillary Clinton, and both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have dined there. To cater to the governor's family and guests, the state employs a full-time cook, security guard and maid. The executive residence has an annual budget of $137,000 for operations and maintenance.

To impress prestigious guests, as well as the flock of tourists who come to gawk at the mansion every week, the commission tries to keep both the interior and the exterior of the mansion just as the Boettchers left it, even looking at old photographs to see how the place was landscaped. "We provide a historical advisory role," says Welborn. "The commission worries about the wear and tear and counts the spoons every year. The place takes a beating."

Welborn was first appointed to the commission by former governor Dick Lamm. Although terms are only three years long, commissioners often wind up serving almost indefinitely. Their posts are unpaid, and the group meets infrequently, sometimes as little as once a year. "It's the most powerless organization in state government," Welborn says. "It has no authority, but Governor Romer is interested in what we have to say."

Well-known lobbyist Garcia-Berry, who is married to Colorado House Speaker Chuck Berry, was appointed to the board by Romer. She says the mansion is sometimes the stepchild of state government, especially in lean budget years. "When you're cutting back, usually the mansion budget gets deferred or cut back," she notes. "The building needs repairs and needs a curator."

Garcia-Berry would like to do some private fundraising to support the mansion but says she feels it could create a problem, since people wanting favors from state government would be the most likely contribtors. She advocates turning the mansion over to the Colorado Historical Society, which maintains several historic buildings around the state.

"Like all beautiful old buildings, it requires a lot of work," says Garcia-Berry.

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