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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Wheelchair Ramp Plan At The Virginia Executive Mansion, a former first lady characterizes the ramp as unnecessarily intrusive

 A plan has been proposed to build a handicap accessible ramp outside the building.
A plan to build a wheelchair ramp at the Virginia Executive Mansion is turning into a tussle between old and new Richmond, with Gov. Terry McAuliffe saying the alteration will create a more dignified entrance for disabled guests and a former first lady raising alarm that the ramp needlessly threatens the historic character of the 200-year-old mansion.
By GRAHAM MOOMAW Richmond Times-Dispatch |Nov. 11, 2015
The governor and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe announced the ramp project last month, calling it an improvement on the mansion’s existing method of wheelchair access: an elevator from the basement.
In response, Roxane Gilmore, the wife of former governor and current Republican Presidential Candidate Jim Gilmore, has circulated a letter among historic preservationists in which she characterizes the ramp as unnecessarily intrusive on the nation’s oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence. Several docents, the guides who lead mansion tours, were taken aback when the ramp plan was announced.
“A lot of us are Richmond natives,” said Betty Markham, a docent for 25 years who, like many of the guides, is a retired teacher affiliated with a women’s club. “And we just don’t want to see it defaced.”

The governor’s office has said the proposed ramp fits the mansion’s aesthetic and will be built in accordance with federal standards for historic properties.

“The governor and the first lady are committed to making the people’s Executive Mansion as accessible as possible to all Virginians, especially people with disabilities and wounded warriors,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said. “They believe that making it possible to enter on the first floor is a good step in demonstrating Virginia’s commitment to accessibility.”

When the ramp project was announced, it was praised by the heads of state agencies that assist people with disabilities and military veterans.

The mansion, designated a state and national historic landmark, already meets federal accessibility guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last month late on a Friday afternoon, the McAuliffes, who moved into the mansion in early 2014, announced the ramp as an accessibility “enhancement.”

In her letter, Gilmore, who helped oversee the last major mansion renovation in 1999, said accessibility was a key concern for her and her husband. The ramp, she said, “duplicates the access” of the elevator installed as the highlight of several accessibility upgrades in the 1999 renovation, including specially equipped bathrooms.

“This is a question of being a good steward to one of Virginia’s historic landmarks,” Gilmore, first lady from 1998 to 2002, said in an interview. “Speaking as a former resident, it is your home while you’re there, but it’s kind of temporary. It doesn’t really belong to you. It belongs to the people of the commonwealth.”

Gilmore said she didn’t want to appear critical of the mansion’s current occupants, but given her connections to the mansion — she wrote a book about the 1999 renovation and took TV handyman Bob Vila on a tour for his nationally televised show — she was moved to speak publicly because several people voiced concerns to her.

Schematic drawings show the roughly 23-foot ramp being built alongside the breezeway that connects to a first-floor entrance on the southern side of the mansion. A new pathway to the foot of the ramp would angle through a landscaped section of the yard, passing 8 feet behind one of the mansion’s magnolia trees.

In a correspondence with state officials, Kathleen S. Kilpatrick, executive director of the Capitol Square Preservation Committee, has asked the project overseers to protect the magnolia’s roots and keep trimming to a minimum, find a good spot elsewhere for two Crepe Myrtles that will have to be relocated, ensure that brick patterns match, make the railing stand out from the historic original rather than mimic it, and watch for archaeological finds.

In an interview, Kilpatrick said she felt officials were being responsive to her concerns.

“It’s an ongoing process to achieve a sort of gentle, appropriate, sensitive feature,” Kilpatrick said.

The plan calls for the planting of new shrubs and trees in front of the ramp to soften its appearance.

Close-to-final plans for the ramp have been deemed appropriate by the state Department of Historic Resources. The state Art and Architecture Review Board approved the plan last week, placing it on the consent agenda for noncontroversial business.

But the apparent adherence to technical standards hasn’t stopped the buzz among ramp skeptics.

“We just don’t understand the need for it. It’s just a real unattractive thing for the mansion,” said Markham, who lives in Richmond’s Windsor Farms neighborhood. “You don’t see this at Mount Vernon, the White House, Williamsburg. You don’t see this at other historical places.”

The Federal-style mansion, designed by Alexander Parris and completed in 1813, sits at the northeast corner of Capitol Square. It’s been augmented multiple times in its 202 years, including a major renovation in 1906 that added the north wing, the addition of a breakfast room and library in 1954 and several repairs and improvements to the governor’s private quarters on the second floor.

The renovation during the Gilmore administration, which cost $7.2 million, was focused largely on upgrades to the heating and air-conditioning systems, plumbing and wiring.

Nearly $1 million was spent to build a small addition on the building’s north side containing the new accessibility features, including the elevator.

Former Lt. Gov. John H. Hager, who served during the Gilmore administration, uses a wheelchair because he contracted polio as an adult. Reached by phone Wednesday, Hager called the ramp issue an “interesting little battle,” but declined to comment.

Work on the ramp is expected to start later this year and finish by early 2016. Officials have not yet released a cost estimate.

In her letter, Gilmore, who teaches classics at Randolph-Macon College, said that even if the ramp project is “technically correct” by historic guidelines, taxpayer money could be better used elsewhere due to the existing elevator.

“In reality, the only difference in entry with this new ramp will be that you go to the right, up a ramp in the rain, snow and other weather, instead of being driven down the drive to the left to a covered entrance and an indoor elevator to the first floor,” Gilmore wrote. “The ramp is not an entrance to the front door, and where you enter the house is really no closer to the front of the house than where one enters from the elevator.”

Coy, the governor’s spokesman, said the elevator takes visitors through “what is effectively a mud room in the kitchen.”

“The mansion is a historic place. It’s also a living, breathing family home,” Coy said. “This is just another way that this first family is making it more inviting for more Virginians.”

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