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Inside the Mansion

Working behind the scenes at the governor’s house takes grace, composure — and discretion.


And inevitably that’s what Townes proceeds to do. And things get done.

“Well,” Townes says in a rare reflective moment, wiping his brow. “You’ve always got to be flexible. Some people can adjust easily, some can’t. I always have been able to adjust.”

For 18 years Townes has been a butler — the butler, really — at the governor’s house, which at 190 years of age happens to be the oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion in the country.

Townes is called upon to serve, assist and support the governor and the governor’s family just about every day from dawn, or before, until night, or after. He buys vegetables and serves them. He sets the tables in the morning and buses them after meals. He adjusts chairs. He polishes. He carries endless trays of canapés or drinks or whatever is needed.

“I’m a butler. A valet. A purser. I do everything,” Townes says, “and all of it’s interesting.”

Townes is part of a small staff of professionals at the Executive Mansion who ensure that the house runs smoothly. The half-dozen full-time employees do just about everything for Virginia’s first families. But the most important thing they do is keep their counsel.

This is vital because of the intimacy of working and living in the Executive Mansion. If the governor and his wife argue, the staff knows. If someone in the first family is fond of late-night visits to the official state refrigerator, the staff knows. When bachelor Gov. L. Douglas Wilder had his overnight conferences with wealthy socialite Patricia Kluge, the staff knew.

But none told.

“In every state, there is a group of state employees who make life enormously easier for the state first family,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “They are totally unknown, never comment publicly, but know many, many secrets.”

“Oh, yes,” agrees former Gov. Wilder, who should know. “They have the utmost discretion, and they have to. I very much admire them for that.”

The mansion is a combination of home, banquet hall and museum. Upstairs are the private quarters for the governor and his family. The ground floor is the public area where dinner parties and functions take place.

Below, however, is where the work is done, in the kitchen and the closets and pantries. This is working space. Being here is like being below decks in a warship or like being behind the scenes at a musical. It may get hot or tense here, but upstairs, where everyone can see, everything must carry on as if things are going just perfectly.

Meanwhile, the staff must be ready to change everything every four years, when a new first family arrives. Where Gov. George Allen likes steak and potatoes, for example, Warner prefers fish and salads.

“Every four years a new family comes in,” says Donna Case, mansion director under Gov. James S. Gilmore. “You’re living in a fishbowl there. … You are working under some difficult situations. You become part of the family, but you are staff. So it presents some difficulties.”

“It is never dull,” says Amy Bridge, the mansion’s current director, with a knowing chuckle. “There is always something going on.”

At 9 a.m. on a Thursday in June, the staff is preparing for a luncheon given by the governor. More exactly, the staff is getting ready to prepare for the luncheon; breakfast has only recently concluded. The long, cherry, dining-room table is littered with the detritus of a breakfast exuberantly eaten by the governor and his family: banana peels, orange rinds, juice glasses, empty single-serving boxes of Cheerios. Each place setting has a minuscule glass-and-silver set of salt and pepper shakers.

Townes arrived at 7 a.m. to serve breakfast. Now he helps clear the table as Bridge bustles into the small butler’s pantry tucked into the dining-room wall. She is preparing an arrangement of irises and other flowers. Bridge pokes an iris into green foam, and puts the arrangement on the dining room table.

Townes is part of a family lineage. His mother was a cook at the mansion, his stepfather a butler. His brother was the butler for Gov. Charles Robb, then left the mansion to stay with the Robbs. Townes met his current wife at the mansion — she was a maid, he was a butler, a situation that even he admits is a cliché.

Townes, “knows that mansion inside and out,” Case says. “If the power went out, before you called General Services, you’d call Tutti, because Tutti would know what to do.”

Bridge, on the other hand, joined the mansion recently, under Mark Warner, after periods with the staffs of the Valentine Museum and the Virginia Opera. She is responsible for the day-to-day running of the mansion and its $400,000-a-year budget. Recently, she says, she’s worked to cut expenses, by, for example, buying and arranging flowers herself rather than relying on a florist to do it.

Bridge now eyes the iris skeptically. “Too tall, Tutti?” she asks.

Townes sits in a chair in front of the iris and looks over it. Bridge sits in the chair opposite Townes and checks whether they can make eye contact over the iris. “No, it should be OK,” Townes says. “Yeah, should be fine.”

“OK,” Bridge says.

Townes, wearing white latex gloves, then sets each place with silver and glassware. At each stop, Townes adjusts the forks and knives, frowns, then adjusts them again. When the silverware is acceptable, Townes places each chair with surgical precision. When a setting finally meets his satisfaction, Townes moves to the next. When he is finished, the settings are in formation, gleaming like a military chorus in parade dress.

“I would never use silver in my house,” Townes says. “Polish as much as I polish, you don’t want silver.”

In working so intimately with governors and first ladies for 18 years, Townes has grown close to many of their families, particularly the children. “In terms of children,” Townes says, “I’ve probably got — let’s see — 10 or 11 or 13 kids besides mine.” (He has three daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 12 to 20, from a first marriage.)

Such closeness can be expected, Sabato says. “But what have these employees done with the influence that comes from being close to power?” Sabato asks. “I’m not sure, frankly, but from what I have observed over decades, probably very little. It would be unprofessional to capitalize on the positions of trust they hold.”

Sabato adds: “On occasion I have stayed overnight in the mansion, and I have found the employees there to be exceptionally professional and discreet. They instinctively know what to do and how to do it in any situation. It’s ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ with a peculiarly American twist.”

Downstairs, the cooks are girding themselves for lunch. Sous-chef Thomas Sears joined the kitchen Jan. 1, 2000. “It’s something I wanted to do since I was 10,” Sears says of cooking, so of course he went to school and got a degree in social work. He did social work for a few years — one of his first assignments was running a food program for people with AIDS — but when he moved to Richmond he got jobs in restaurants. After stints cooking at the Frog and the Redneck and Lemaire, Sears heard about an opening in the Executive Mansion’s kitchen, applied and was hired.

Mark Herndon, the man who hired Sears, joined the mansion staff seven years ago, during George F. Allen’s tenure. For years, Herndon, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, wrestled with the mansion’s antiquated kitchen, preparing regular meals and state dinners alike on a pair of four-burner electric stoves like the ones you’d find in any 1970s-era suburban house. The dishwashing station consisted of two home-style sinks. The frying station was a small-caliber Fry Daddy, the sort you can buy at Wal-Mart. The grill was a Weber placed in the backyard.

“I’d be out there grilling steaks in pouring rain,” Herndon says now. “Tutti would be holding an umbrella and I’d be grilling steaks. … I had just come from the Williamsburg Inn, and I’d be scratching my head saying, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Fortunately for Herndon and his umbrella, his complaints were part of a chorus. The mansion was in desperate need of a renovation. In 1998, it got one. The General Assembly agreed to pay $5 million for a top-to-bottom update. Gov. Gilmore said he wanted it completed under budget and within six months.

Home-renovation-show host Bob Vila toured the site before the mansion’s makeover, touting a series on the topic he had agreed to host. A reporter for the Times-Dispatch asked him if he thought that budget and timetable were reasonable.

“The big unknown in any renovation is what you find when you peel back these layers we’re talking about,” Vila replied. “The unforeseen can always screw things up.”

Vila was right, of course. The work took a year and cost $7 million in taxpayer funds. But architectural historians praised the renovation, which was overseen by state first lady Roxane Gilmore.

In color, layout and feel, the public areas were returned to styles that would have been familiar to James Barbour, the governor who first lived there in 1813. Meanwhile, the working areas downstairs gained modern facilities, gleaming professional dishwashers, ranges, ovens and fryers — and a sizeable indoor grill. Chef Herndon, who advised the renovation committee on the kitchen remodeling, beams when he looks around his shining silver kitchen. “That’s my little mark in history, I guess,” he says.

Today’s luncheon is to help the governor woo JetBlue, a discount airline based in New York. Richmond, which is about to receive an influx of executives from Philip Morris, is in need of inexpensive air transport, so landing the airline would be a coup for Warner. Some of the region’s most influential business people are expected in the mansion’s dining room.

But wait — there’s more. The first lady is having a guest for lunch too, out in the back garden. With two lunches to serve in two separate locations in the mansion, Townes gets to work. The JetBlue party is expected with the governor at noon. The first lady’s guest has already arrived.

By 11:25, Townes is racing around the lower levels of the mansion, a portable serving table folded in one hand, a loaded tea tray balanced on the other, his shoulder pressing his cell phone to his ear.

Seven minutes later, Townes returns from the upper floors and puts on his jacket. He dashes upstairs, two steps at a bound, to the dining room and places filled cream pitchers on the table. He wipes drops left over from the dishwasher from the water glasses and places them at each setting.

In the kitchen, meanwhile, Sears and Herndon are preparing the lunches. For the governor, the first lady and their guests, the menu consists of iced tea, and homemade salmon cakes served on greens and garnished with crispy-fried tortillas cut into matchsticks. Dessert will be a strawberry-rhubarb crisp.

At 11:40, the Richmond business people arrive: Philip Morris USA Chief Executive Mike Szymanczyk; Prudential Wachovia Securities chief Daniel Ludeman; Gregory Wingfield, president of the Greater Richmond Partnership; and Warner’s secretary of commerce and trade, Michael Schewel. Schewel has donned a baseball cap emblazoned with the JetBlue logo for the occasion. They are led to the Gentlemen’s Parlor next to the foyer to await the others.

Ten minutes later, Amy Bridge and Tutti Townes gather at the mansion’s foyer to prepare for the governor and his party. They peer out the front door’s glass panes.

Exactly at noon, Townes throws open the door to Gov. Warner, and a couple of JetBlue executives stroll into the mansion, already talking loudly. They are joined by the others, and Warner offers an extemporaneous tour of the parlors on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, the first lady has sent word that the sun is too hot to have lunch in the garden. She’ll be upstairs instead. Townes retreats temporarily to the downstairs.

Then he breaks the news. “I got, uh, another guest coming at 12:30,” Townes tells Carlton Carter, a butler who temps at the mansion, as they prepare to serve lunch to the governor’s party.

“Oh, man,” Carter marvels.

It seems one of the governor’s daughters has asked a friend over for lunch. Quick calls are made upstairs and a menu approved: The governor’s daughter and her friend get tomato soup — homemade, frozen and reheated — and grilled-cheese sandwiches. (Here’s a tip: Sears will brown the buttered sandwiches in a skillet, then finish them in the oven. “Makes sure it gets melted through but not burned,” he observes.)

As Sears prepares the grilled-cheese sandwiches, Townes mops a brow beaded with sweat.

“Do you want to do the second floor now?” Herndon says.

Sears: “Have the sandwiches gone up?”

Herndon: “About ready to.”

Sears: “All right, because I’ve got the drinks.”

“Give me the second floor,” Townes says, “and then I’ll do the desserts” on the ground floor. He races back up, salmon cakes in hand; returns, delivers desserts to the governor’s party; then returns to gently grab a tray with two soup bowls and a pair of sandwiches.

Over the next 30 minutes, Townes continues to be a blur, dashing from floor to floor, skidding to a stop before he enters the dining room, calmly refilling water glasses, then racing back downstairs for dessert.

All this occurs at breakneck speed but without any sense of desperation. As Bridge says, “These guys downstairs know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve been doing it a long time, and it comes off flawlessly.”

Indeed. By 1:15, Townes, Sears and Herndon are gathering dishes to be cleaned, putting away tubs of food and generally clearing the decks for the next round: dinner for the family.

Later, Townes is asked if he’s proud of his work. He says yes, but acknowledges that some people don’t understand it.

“I’ve had friends ask me, ‘How can you say “Yes, sir” and “No sir”?’” he says thoughtfully. “I say, ‘What? I was brought up to say that.’

“There’s only a handful of people who could do this job without being frustrated every day,” Townes continues. “If you can’t be flexible enough to treat everyone the same way, you’ll never last in it. A lot of people will try to do it, but they can’t. A lot of people will be able to fool people for a little while. But eventually” — he laughs his little giggle — “the truth will come out.” S

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