AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The smell of fresh paint still lingered inside the Texas Governor's Mansion on Wednesday as first lady Anita Perry described a portrait of state icon Sam Houston while announcing the completion of the restoration of the 156-year-old building.
"He's got his eyes watching everybody today," the first lady said of Houston's portrait while giving a tour of the mansion that was nearly destroyed in 2008 when someone threw a Molotov cocktail onto the porch. "He guards this home lovingly, and we're delighted that he's back where he should be," she said of the painting of Houston, who helped bring Texas into the United States and was later removed from the governor's office when he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy.
His painting hangs in a bright yellow room at the front of the house. The small parlor, like the rest of the mansion, has been fully restored, and Gov. Rick Perry and his family plan to move back in by the end of July. They have been staying in a leased home away from downtown Austin. The cost for the home was cut from $10,000 a month to $8,500 a month this year when the rent was renegotiated, according to the governor's office.
The restoration took more than four years to complete and cost $25 million, prompting criticism from some who said the money could have been better spent elsewhere. Texas lawmakers appropriated $21.5 million for the project, and the first lady raised $3.5 million from private donors.
Crews replaced the roof, made repairs to the mansion's exterior and renovated the kitchen, adding 1700 square feet to the mansion's west side. They installed rooftop solar panels and a geothermal heat pump to reduce energy costs.
The Perrys weren't living at the home at the time of the blaze, and no one was injured. The family moved out in October 2007 for a $10 million project to upgrade mechanical systems, including fire alarms, sprinkler systems, plumbing and wiring. The historic furniture and artifacts that normally decorate the mansion's rooms were not harmed because they had already been removed.
The fire charred the columns that stand outside the mansion. The estimated 2 million gallons of water used to extinguish the fire caused parts of the roof to collapse.
The governor described being back in the mansion as "eerie," saying it looked exactly the way it did when he left in 2007. He likened the fire to a near-death experience for the building, which he said was minutes away from total destruction. Construction crews continued work on the southeast mansion grounds as the governor spoke.
The first lady said she had already started unpacking boxes in the family's private space on the second floor.
"I have a lot of work to do," she said.
Some have criticized the Legislature's decision to spend millions of dollars to renovate the mansion while many Texas residents live in poverty and without health care. Gov. Perry referenced the Bible, saying that "the poor will always be with us" and that he thinks the state does a good job balancing job creation and economic prosperity with the needs of the poor.
Asked if he was nervous about another attack on the mansion, Perry replied with a terse "no." More than a dozen state troopers stood guard on the mansion grounds, one block from the state Capitol, carrying assault rifles.
The two-story Greek Revival house has been the official home of every Texas governor, including Houston and George W. Bush, since it was completed in 1856.
"Absolutely we did the right thing by putting this grand Texas treasure back into the shape it is in today," Perry said.